“I have been in and out prison and rehabilitation centres so many times I cannot keep count!” I was speaking to Benny Se Teo who decided he had enough of prison, and opened the restaurant Eighteen Chefs which has met with success.

Benny decided he also want to help other ex-convicts to get a skill, and get a life.

It was not difficult spotting Benny at this restaurant at Cineleisure – big sized, strong looking and bald-headed, looking exactly like a ‘Da Ge Da’ (big brother) but with a gentle heart who wants to go all out to help ‘his boys’.

His story is more than amazing. From a prisoner crying for help from his heroin withdrawals, Benny says that it is the “Grace of God” who broke him from his chains. He is now in turn training other ex-convicts and delinquents who want to make a decent living and turn back their old ways.

In a world where a black mark could mean a huge stumbling block for some, Benny was resourceful enough to call for help at the right places. When none of his previous ‘brothers’ would help him, he went to… NTUC. Surprise, surprise.

He found out about the Inclusive Growth Programme launched by the Labour Movement under NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute’s (e2i), which would give low wage workers better pay and easier, smarter and safer jobs from productivity initiatives.

Eighteen Chefs did not let his resources go to waste. Benny used the grants to invest food technology such as a sous vide machine, creating one of his current signatures – an egg toast set with a 64 degree sous vide runny egg which proves to be a hit with customers who are mainly youths and students.

“Most of my boys didn’t get much education, but every single one of them can cook every single dish on the menu with the technology. I want to empower them. When they have confidence in cooking, they will have confidence in their lives as well.”

Benny proudly says that his workers do not work more than 8 hours a day, and can receive between 8 and 20 percent increase in pay after 4 months of training probation.

I curiously asked, “So which ex-convicts do you decide to hire? Do you have a criteria?” (imaging if there would be an interview round of sorts).

He in turned asked me, “How many Singaporeans you know are willing to sweat it out in the kitchen?” I said not many.

We all know the current problems of Singapore’s F&B industry – locals are not willing to be service staff, and it’s hitting many restaurant owners hard. The problem is expounded when there is a labour quota imposed.

Eighteen Chefs decided to kill two birds with one stone, by further working with e2i to become a training centre of sorts to provide skills to prospective F&B workers. He recruits these trainees from prisons and homes, and many who passed the training went on to be recruited by many local restaurants.

Benny gleamed liked a proud daddy when he says some boys who trained under him eventually become head waiters and head chefs of other notable restaurants, and some have went to open their own hawker stalls.

A career path is planned for them. A single mum dishwasher is now his Assistant Manager. A hardcore drug addict is now his Head Chef.

By providing them skills, he is also providing them hope and a life.

There are two key lessons I walked back with. Ordinary people look at demand, we should look at supply.

When we are in a ‘demand’ mode, we focus too much on the lack of labour and limited resources. We may just need to switch our mind sets, and look for help that are seldom tapped upon. In Benny’s case, he went to the prisons and NTUC – two bodies we would have never thought of putting together.

In a society where ‘face’ has quite ultimate importance, and being an ex-prisoner could mean a huge social stigma, Benny went all the way out and is proud of it. His restaurant’s facebook shows him in a prison mug-shot, and even the restaurant name is symbolism to triads’ use of numbers in naming their gangs.

A life lesson for myself too: Not to be caught up with having failed before, not to be ashamed of starting from square one, as long as you are willing to climb that ladder up.

Eighteen Chefs
Cathay Cineleisure Orchard, 8 Grange Road, #04-02, Singapore 239695 (Somerset MRT), Tel: +65 6736 3800
Opening Hours: 11:30am – 10:30pm (Sun-Thurs), 11:30am – 2:30am (Fri-Sat, Eve of PH)

Other branches at Ang Mo Kio Hub #04-22, Bedok Mall #02-03/04, Bukit Panjang Plaza #02-19, Bugis Junction #04-06, JCube #02-13, NEX #01-57, Simei Eastpoint #01-12, The Cathay Dhoby Ghaut #B1-19/20


  1. I’ve always been wanting to visit 18chefs to give them support but haven’t got the time to get down yet.

    I actually know two young and handsome chefs in other restaurants who are in the Yellow Ribbon project, and they cook such excellent food. 浪子回头金不换!

  2. I always believed that Restaurants should change the lives of both the people working within and the diners that come to patronize Eighteen Chefs. I read many Eighteen Chefs reviews recently from blogs and others mediums and personally, though I loved the idea of helping ex-convicts, the food isn’t all that great.

    As a restaurant critic, when I critiqued Eighteen Chefs at Thiong Bahru, the food was horrible. I don’t expect the highest quality food considering their prices. But I do expect simple comfort food that is at least not frozen or if it is, is done well with proper thawing methods and prep work which was easy to tell considering their prawns were as white and flavorless as it gets. (And here I thought dead food can’t get mangled any further.)

    But no, the food was dry, much was flavorless and left my throat just as rough as the Sahara desert and I am not exaggerating it. My experience at Cathay – which was quite recent and my article isn’t out yet – wasn’t as bad as the previous but nothing worth shouting about.

    Considering their massive menu and the size of their kitchen, it’s far more obvious that barely anything fresh or even remotely of average quality can be found within.
    Service is also mediocre and as generic as it gets. I don’t know what you experienced or what others experienced but I didn’t get much of that so it was hard to really tip them, let alone be happy with anything from the food and service.

    Eighteen Chefs have done great justice in doing the right thing for the community, which is what many restaurants lack. But like the many restaurants in Singapore, it has done itself a great disservice serving food in a manner that doesn’t promote health and experience.
    For me, who have been in the F&B industry since 16 years old, there is nothing worth learning in a restaurant that doesn’t serve good people and build relationships.

    P.S: Keep up the good work on your website. I still love many of your articles.

    The food is cheap, sure, but

  3. The nearest station should be dhoby ghaut mrt. their first outlet was at east point. it was really simple yet nice and cheap for students. i wonder if you forgot to mention his master?

  4. @Shawn Tan, You didn’t really have to criticize them here, cant you tell that they are still receiving training? Did you really have to rant about the service here? if you are a food critic shouldn’t you write it in some report to them privately? By writing it here on the website you are obviously degrading them and turning their customers away.

  5. Hi im just wondering if my uncle is in the prison and if he need a job after his release can i tell him to find you or call you for a job interview rite? As in he need a job but now a days society they dont hire ex prisoners but I know that eighteen chef accept ex prisoners. in conclusion I just want to know that if a ex prisoner come and ask for interview will you guys accept them?

  6. I can’t say how much I love this restaurant! I knew Eighteen Chefs when I had an exchange program in Singapore this year.
    I was totally surprised when I walked into the restaurant Eighteen Chefs and listened to the story of Benny Se Teo, Eighteen Chefs’s owner. Such a great initiative!
    He’s saved many ex-offenders and changed their lives, like he said, “you don’t have to be a drug, can be a chef”. I have to say I felt warm when I ate at the restaurant!
    Ex-offenders should be given a second chance if they want fit back into a positive life. We need give support, less judgement. The past is past, they have paid for their wrong decisions. And sometimes, you could think they deserve a second chance when you find out their stories.

    Hope there could be more people can support ex-prisoners and more employers could give them job opportunities. Here’s the website for my social media campaign ‘Hiring ex-offenders, Changing Lives’. You can find out more stories about the group of people~

  7. I am rekha thapa exprisoner released in 2015 after 8 yrs stay in jail.Before imprisonment I was nurse.After release from prison I came to India from Nepal in search of job but still I am jobless homeless and helpless.My parents are also no more please sir help me.

  8. Dear,sir
    Here a chef,Wehaidy Noureldin is an a Italian Chef and i am an a Amercain with a lots of experiences at lots of countrys. I am looking for a nice chance of a good job.

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