You may have heard of Fifteen, a UK restaurant-chain started by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver that offers young people, often in need of a break in life, the experience of learning to work in the restaurant business.
But did you know there’s a social enterprise similar to Fifteen right here in Singapore? And its association with the renowned chain doesn’t just stop at its concept.
Known as Eighteen Chefs, this youth-oriented restaurant was founded by Benny Se Teo with the aim of providing troubled youths and ex-convicts a non-judgmental working environment, thus making it easier for them to reintegrate into society.
An ex-convict himself, having been in and out of prison four times for heroin addiction, Se Teo wanted to help those like him who found it hard to start life anew after they left prison.
So when he learnt about Fifteen and how its vision was something he wanted to achieve, Se Teo persuaded its CEO Liam Black to allow him to do an internship there. His persistence paid off and he became the first Singaporean to work at the restaurant.
During his time at Fifteen, Se Teo worked with top chefs such as Gennaro Contaldo, widely known as Oliver’s mentor, and honed his Western culinary skills. Upon returning to Singapore, he set up Eighteen Chefs with the backing of two partners.
Least you think Eighteen Chefs focuses more on its social objectives than its food, Se Teo says that the restaurant’s offerings have garnered rave reviews from some of Singapore’s most popular food bloggers.
The restaurant’s signature dish is its cheese-baked rice, which is made with special sauces concocted by Se Teo. Customers can choose from 8 sauces, 30 ingredients and 12 top-ups to create a dish customised to their individual tastes. Se Teo estimates he has sold half a million bowls to date.
Business has been so good that Eighteen Chefs has since expanded to two more branches – at Tiong Bahru Plaza and Fusionopolis.
But success hasn’t deviated Se Teo from his initial vision. When looking for new hires, he still gives priority to ex-convicts over others with similar skills. He says this is because a normal person can get a job anywhere but the ex-convict will have problems because of his prison record.
Se Teo’s efforts have not gone unrecognised. He was a Spirit of Enterprise honouree in 2009 and made a Social Innovation Park Fellow in 2010. Eighteen Chefs was also featured in the Singapore Tourism Board’s Uniquely Singapore campaign.
For Benny Se Teo, getting to where he is today has been an amazing journey considering his past. Being able to achieve his vision of helping ex-convicts start life on a new page makes it all the more sweeter.
Learn more about Eighteen Chefs here.