July 17, 2013 09:12 AM

Wonders of 18 Chefs


By Joyce Tan Reported on July 9, 2013

Keywords :

Drug addict, heroin addict, ex-convict - some say "jail bird" - chef and more recently, the social enterprise owner who is not affected by the city's tighter foreign worker hiring policies. Benny Se Teo has been called that and more by people who he don't know. 

Benny Se Teo of 18 Chefs


With a penchant for quality food and drinks, and the burning need to help ex-offenders and troubled youths reintegrate back into society, Se Teo started 18 Chefs. An ex-offender himself, he is more than determined to help these groups of people stay off the hook. 

"After my last release in 1993, I was determined to lead a normal life," Says Se Teo. The first thing he did was to seek employment, but to no avail. "I went for six job interviews but no one called me back." This led him to make a vow - one that promises to hire ex-offenders and lend them a helping hand when he becomes boss. 

As luck would have it, the stocky man found himself in the kitchen of Fifteen - the split-level London restaurant run by celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver. He gained skills in cooking and restaurant management to start his own diner. 

Today, 18 Chefs is well-known for its personalized baked rice and pasta dishes. Right smack in the middle of Singapore's most famous shopping strip, the 50-seater casual diner offers a plethora of perennial Western dishes touched with Asian influences. The restaurant is popular among Singaporean youths and young working adults. FOODRINK Asia susses up with Se Teo to find out more about the man behind 18 Chefs. 

Benny Se Teo and his culinary team

Why did you choose to be a chef (and what motivated you to get started in the culinary field)? 
ST: After spending over 10 years of my life going in and out of prison, I wanted to be a normal person. I wanted to give back to society; I wanted a job, but nobody wants to give me the chance to redeem myself. So I told myself that if one day I were to become boss, I would hire ex-offenders and troubled youths.  

Apart from my past, what motivated me to be a chef are my love for food and the strong encouragement people gave after sampling my cooking. In fact, it was my experience working alongside doctors, nurses, and disaster relief helpers during the 1999 Turkey earthquake that inspired me to take up cooking. 

What is your favorite cuisine? 
ST:  Chinese food - when I was working in London, I craved for Chinese cuisine; I cannot stand having burgers every day. 

What is your specialty and why did you choose to specialize in it? 
ST: Western cooking aka "Ang Moh" style of cooking. 

I did a study about the city's youths and young working adults and to my surprise, found that these groups of people loved Western food. So I decided to go into this area to capitalize the market opportunity that beckons. 

What is your philosophy when it comes to food? 
ST: You must be passionate about cooking. 

Before I started work in Fifteen, I didn't know the true meaning behind the word 'passion'. One day, while preparing salad in the restaurant's entrée department, the sous chef told me that leaves have life and I should use both hands to handle them gently and with care. That's what passion in cooking is all about - you need to take care of your ingredients and carefully reassemble it on the plate. 

How do you come up with ideas for the dishes in your restaurant? 
ST: I google to find out what people like; ask them what they like to eat, and I'll go and prepare it. 

Other times, I do my ground work by looking around at what my competitors have to offer. 

Let's talk about 18 Chefs. Why the name '18 Chefs' and how did it come about? 
ST: Take the digits three, six, and nine, and sum them together, you get 18. For the benefit of those who don't know, "Three-six-nine" in Hokkien is 'sa lak gau', a local gang. The number 18 carries along an underworld-ly connotation. I'm indirectly dissuading the members from the gang to reconsider their future and to come here and pick up a skill that'll go with them a long way. 

Apart from your personal background, what inspired you to start 18 Chefs? 
ST: Back to the word 'passion'. If you don't like what you're doing - your job - you will dread it. You won't be motivated. You won't feel challenged to face the world and fight.  

As a restaurateur, what are the challenges you face in your line of work, and how do you overcome them? 
ST: Human resources management. When you hire normal people, you face problems. But when you hire these group of people, you face a whole different set of challenges. The only way to overcome this is to be prepared for the possible challenges you may face.  

Profitability is also an issue because I won't want to lose money, granted that rental in the city is very, very high.  

Name the type of dishes popular among your customers. 
ST: The Heart Attack fried rice, aglio olio, Japanese curry rice, and the Root Beer Fish & Chips are our best-sellers. 

People also dishes with unique names.  

Where do you see 18 Chefs in, say, 10 years' time? 
ST: I hope that one day, we're able to expand into other markets. 

What do you do in your free time? 
ST: Actually, I don't really have any time to myself - I'm always working to improve my dishes. Nevertheless, I treasure every moment of it. 

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