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Former drug addict cooking up social change

Chef Benny Se Teo now runs restaurant chain committed to hiring ex-offenders and youths-at-risk.

Published on Apr 14, 2014 6:28 PM

Grim questions, begging for answers, had been eating away at his mind all day. Chef Benny Se Teo was in the deepest funk of his life since recovering from drug addiction in 1993 and starting the casual Western restaurant, Eighteen Chefs, in 2007.

His first shop in Eastpoint Mall, started with two partners and a pooled capital of $200,000, had spawned three branches in Yishun, Tiong Bahru and Buona Vista in 2009. But less than a year after the breathless expansion, the chain was haemorrhaging losses. A branch had been forced to close and a similar fate loomed over another outlet.

How would he face his debtors? How was he to pay the mounting bills? Could he still keep his remaining shops open for business?

As he stood alone that night in 2010, depressed and distressed, in the elevator rising to his ninth-floor Housing Board flat in Telok Blangah, another snare came his way - a long straw of heroin on the elevator floor.

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Background story

My life so far

“I asked Liam Black (former chief executive of Fifteen) to give me a chance in the kitchen. He said no, their apprentice programme was only for the British. But I continued to ask him every two days, then every day on Fifteen’s online public forum. He finally said, ‘Okay, you can come, but you have to settle everything yourself.’ The whole trip, airfare and lodging, cost me $7,000. All my peers in the kitchen were young kids but I never felt the least embarrassed. I knew what I was there to achieve. I wanted to run something like that in Singapore and I wanted to see its kitchen operations.”

On his stint at London’s Fifteen restaurant, a social enterprise that trains disengaged youths

“This is not a place where you come in and, straightaway, you become a good, responsible person. This is a place where if you take it seriously, you will get a skill and have a chance to change. But if you take it as a place where you can get away with not putting in effort, then you could go back to jail. Many of my trainees have later gotten caught and gone back to jail.”

On what Eighteen Chefs offers ex-offenders and youths-at-risk

“A lot of young kids look up to me, young employees, Facebook friends and regular customers, even those in secondary school who bring their parents to eat at our restaurants. So whatever I do, my speech, my behaviour, I really have to think about the people around me. For example, I don’t curse. Do I lose some freedom? Definitely. But it’s worth it.”

On being a role model to young customers, friends and employees

“I am very close to my family, but only in recent years. I don’t blame them because I know how troublesome it is to have a drug addict in your family. They never thought I’d be the one to go to drugs and they never thought I’d recover and have a normal life. They thought they had lost a brother to drug addiction.”

On his relationship with his family