Cooking their way out of difficult times

Food business set up by former at-risk youth trains others in trade to find a new life

Mr Enoch Teo (left), one of the two founders of E&I Food Concepts, is a former at-risk youth. E&I runs three food outlets.
Mr Enoch Teo (left), one of the two founders of E&I Food Concepts, is a former at-risk youth. E&I runs three food outlets. ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

Former offenders and escargot do not usually go together.

But Stanley (not his real name), a former drug dealer who has been in and out of jail, has been boning up on the intricacies of French cooking at French stall Garcons since May.

Said the 24-year-old: "I can cook escargots, foie gras... I didn't even know about all these food items until I came here."

He is one of about 20 at-risk youth and former offenders trained and hired by E&I Food Concepts. It was set up in 2012 by Mr Enoch Teo, 25, also a former at-risk youth, and Mr Immanuel Tee, 28.

E&I Food Concepts specialises in gourmet-style European cuisine, but its three food outlets are run in coffee shop or foodcourt settings.

Garcons - which means "boys" in French - is part of the Essen foodcourt at The Pinnacle @ Duxton. The other two outlets are Immanuel French Kitchen (Block 119, Bukit Merah Lane 1) and By The Fire (125 East Coast Road).

Mr Teo, 25, was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder when he was 11. He never enjoyed studying, dropped out of secondary school and was involved in gangs and taking drugs.

At the age of 16, he was arrested for breaking into a car and stealing a laptop and CashCards, and was also found to have taken drugs.

He was then placed in a rehabilitation scheme for youth for about a year, and spent another year at a halfway house.

His mother told him to learn a skill and excel in it. So after his stint at the halfway house, he worked at French restaurant Absinthe.

Its then chef-owner Francois Mermilliod encouraged him to go for training to get his foundational cooking skills right. Mr Teo had been rejected by At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy once, but the chef suggested that Mr Teo try again, adding that he would write a letter of recommendation for Mr Teo.

Mr Teo was accepted, but just before his new term, he got into a motorcycle accident. His right leg was badly injured and he was immobile for about four months, but that gave him a wake-up call.

He was set on turning his life around and used the insurance compensation money from the accident to start a food stall in 2012.

Along the way, he collaborated with three chef partners, including Mr Tee, and started E&I Food Concepts. The social mission and financial success of their business go hand in hand, he said.

"The people who would settle for this kind of job are not the educated ones or the young guys from culinary schools. They want to go to the big restaurants and work for the big brands. If I don't train these at-risk youth, very soon we'll realise that we have no labour at all."

But training these young people is not easy, especially when they usually have zero experience in cooking. He and his partners also mentor and teach them life skills.

Although about 20 young people have been trained, many do not complete the training as they re-offend midway and go back in jail. Others realised cooking is not as glamorous as they had expected.

"There are some who come for the first day and don't return the next day. They realised there is so much washing of dishes, or that it's an unglamorous job," he said.

"It's tough for me. I have to find time to cook, to manage my operations, and then I still have to - to put in a blunt way - babysit them."

When asked if he considered hiring older former offenders who may be more mature, he said it is challenging for him to supervise older employees.

Mr Teo sees himself to be more suited to train younger workers.

He reaches out to his young charges as a mentor during cooking training or breaks.

It is important to instil positive thoughts in them, said Mr Teo.

"Their lives had been filled with a lot of negativity. The gangs tell them: 'Everything is happening to you because of the Government, because the white-collar people look down on you'," he said.

"I show them how to cook, and tell them: 'See, it's nice right? It looks like what you see in the YouTube videos'. Then they feel a sense of satisfaction that, finally, there is something in life that they can do well."

He currently hires three at-risk youth. Five others have completed their training and left E&I to start or join other food businesses. Two of them went to work in fine-dining restaurants Esquina and Long Chim at the Marina Bay Sands.

Said Mr Teo: "It's good. I don't have the mindset that if I train you to be as good as me, you'll become my competitor and you'll take over my rice bowl.

"I don't see it that way. If you do, I think it's very selfish."

He added: "If they become more successful than me, I just hope they remember me. But even if they don't, at least this industry will thrive, the next generation would be better than mine, and it should be that way."

In October, E&I beat about 300 applicants to become one of 11 groups that received the DBS Foundation Social Enterprise Grant.

Said DBS Foundation head Patsian Low: "Their proposal was innovative, leveraging trends such as affordable gourmet, and coming up with a hawker bar business model that was unique and refreshing in a matured F&B industry."

E&I plans to use the grant to scale up into catering and open another outlet, to offer more career progression opportunities to its staff.

As for Stanley, he is thankful for his circle of friends at E&I and for Mr Teo as a role model.

"He has a past like mine and he knows how we are, our kind of people. I want to be like him. Not many of us, our kind, succeed."

He added: "For me, the positive talk helps, but it's the silent learning by observation that helps me more. I see how he's changed and he really cares about people."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline Cooking their way out of difficult times. Subscribe