“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.
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