Food that binds
By Selina Tan
Conjuring up the image of a local hero, it would be somebody with size and brawn. Benny Se Teo sure fits the bill, except instead of practising violence, he dices meat; and far from threateningly eyeballing an enemy, he’d rather stare at a bright yellow lemon, pondering how many slices it will yield to make their signature iced lemon tea. He commits his time to knocking his workplace – and his “boys”, many with conviction histories – into shape.
If anyone knows what it feels like to be chained to their past, it’s Benny, the 55-year-old founder of Eighteen Chefs. With a tough, intense mien that belies his passion for helping the marginalised, it is not difficult to imagine that this individual has had a rough start in life. Before the kitchen knife became his best friend, he was all too familiar with the menacing glare of a switchblade and the brutality of drugs – which seemed so irresistible at first but later wreaked unspeakable havoc on his mind and body.
Benny spent more than a decade in and out of prison and rehabilitation centres, trapped in a vicious cycle of heroin addiction and despair. He desperately needed to find a new path, but was shown the door time after time. Finding it nearly impossible to integrate into society, it hit him in the gut why so many ex-offenders return to their old ways. Fortunately, the die-hard chef in him waiting to emerge decided that there was no going back.
Benny’s big break came along in 2006 when he secured a month-long internship opportunity with UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s London restaurant Fifteen, which takes on disadvantaged British youths for a yearlong apprenticeship. Deeply affected by the healing power of food, he decided that he would put his heart into learning how to run both a kitchen and a business as a means of giving back to the wider community.
The following year, he returned to Singapore, and along with two partners, opened Eighteen Chefs with an initial investment of US$200,000. Appropriately enough, the establishment was named after the gang his late father belonged to. His aim was simple: empowering delinquents to renounce crime and pick up a powerful life skill. Despite some financial hiccups in the initial phase, Eighteen Chefs has now evolved into a restaurant chain that generates a monthly revenue of over US$740,000.
In more ways than one, Eighteen Chefs pulsates to a genuine Singaporean beat. Staffed by youths-at-risk and ex-convicts, the eight outlets are free of manpower woes. At a time when many F&B joints are being impacted by the tightening of the influx of foreign workers, Benny affirms that he “never had difficulty finding staff because (he has) a large pool of untapped resources”. He refers to ex-offenders who are unable to find employment after being released as well as the currently incarcerated in search of a future direction.
In 2012, 35 percent of his staff comprised ex-convicts and youths-at-risk, and this proportion has grown to 50 percent as of early 2015. Since receiving grants from the Inclusive Growth Programme launched by the Labour Movement under NTUC, the self-taught chef wisely used the money to invest in food technology, such as a sous vide machine, that would help his staff cook effectively and efficiently. It is no surprise that Eighteen Chefs emerged as the first social enterprise franchise in Singapore and has become a training centre of sorts for prospective F&B workers.
While the restaurant runs on the fuel of a social mission, Benny is adamant that his customers do not patronise them “out of sympathy”, but rather due to the appeal of its innovative menu, wallet-friendly prizes or simply the fun, vibrant vibe it exudes as part of the dining experience. Chinese cooking remains Benny’s first love, and it regularly sees him heading to Hong Kong to gather ideas for reinvented items such as cheese baked rice and condensed milk with toast in a bid to strike a chord with his main demographic.
His marketing push has turned what could have been any other casual eatery into one with distinct character, “in the argot of the young crowd it attracts” and with which it aims to strike a chord. Indeed, food is a universal language that Benny serves up to send a message of hope. Most of the troubled youths hail from complex backgrounds, and when verbal communication lines are easily broken, scoring with people’s palates – especially those of Singaporeans, who can’t fight a comforting foodie fix – sparks renewed possibilities.
“I dare not say that I serve the best food in Singapore, and I don’t think we have the best service in town,” admits Benny. “But we have a lot of people who come because we sell a culture.” Amazingly, this incredibly successful business model has seen throngs of new fans and repeat customers alike streaming in for unique concoctions like Double Bypass Fried Rice or their good ol’ pasta in tom yum broth – amid a hip, uplifting environment complete with street art drawings on the walls.
Singapore still has a long way to go in their reintegration journey, as evidenced from its highest recidivism rate in nine years: Figures show that close to three in 10 inmates released in 2012 went back to jail. The heartening part is that few drug abusers released from Drug Rehabilitation Centres (DRCs) in 2012 reacquired their old habits. The prison service asserts that various measures have been put in place to ensure a holistic, “throughcare” approach towards rehabilitation. As the Director of Singapore Prison Service Miss Lee Kwai Sern puts it: “The public’s support is critical. However, the ex-offender himself must also be motivated to change.”
Benny’s actions echo this deep-rooted belief that it is never too late to begin life afresh. In fact, his only criterion in the hiring process – largely through walk-in applications – is that “they must be willing to change”. The successful social entrepreneur takes care of the rest, imparting his culinary knowledge with patience and sensitivity, and encouraging his charges to constantly up the ante and improve their food quality.
“When they have confidence in their cooking, they will have confidence in their lives as well,” Benny opines. Breaking free of one’s shackles is the first step, but it is this creative chain effect that continues to inspire.
For more stories and photos, check out Asian Geographic Issue 113.