Restaurateur who Swapped a thug life for a kitchen knife


After several stints in prison and rehab for heroin addiction, Benny Se Teo was a reformed character, but society didn’t want to know.

After finding it nearly impossible to get a job he decided to forge his own future. Now, over 20 years since he kicked his drug-habit, the Singaporean is the successful owner of a chain of restaurants called Eighteen Chefs.

While the restaurants focus on providing quality food, from the beginning Teo was determined that his business venture would also concentrate on helping those marginalized by society.

“I realized that in society there is this gap. Where once you have a criminal record you are unable to live a normal life, you are unable to integrate back to society,” he says.

“We are able to provide training and give them their self-respect which they lost many, many years ago.”

Before setting up Eighteen Chefs, Teo trained at Fifteen, Jamie Oliver’s London restaurant. He then went on to run a 200-seater Chinese restaurant, with 80% of the staff having a criminal record.

However, Teo found that the high number of ex-offenders was too difficult to manage. His first Eighteen Chefs establishment started off with a smaller proportion, 35% in 2012, and now 50% of his employees are troubled young people and people with criminal records.

There have been a number of success stories among staff, one of Teo’s employees began as a server and is now a regional manager at an international restaurant earning more than $6,000 a month.r Japan’s tsunami

Teo does not even mind if his employees steal recipes and ideas from him to start up their own small businesses, he’s just happy they aren’t going back to their old ways.

While his new life is free of his old habits and addictions, his restaurants retain an allusion to his former ways: the number 18 refers to a well-known Singaporean street gang.

But rather than advocate his breaking bad past, he would rather young people tempted by a thug life would pick up a pan and chopping knife rather than a switchblade.


Following some extracts of interview with Benny:

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

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

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

“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 his relationship with his family

 “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.”

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