Man at His Best

Benny Se Teo: What I've Learned

From Changi Prison to respected Chef, the CEO and founder of Eighteen Chefs bares it all

BY LUU AI HUY | Dec 1, 2015 | Food & Drink

Photograph by Ronald Leong.

I came to realise that I didn’t want that kind of life where I’m in and out of prison. I just wanted a normal life like any other Singaporean. That means getting a job, spending time with my family, going to work, coming back, watching some TV and going to sleep.

When I was very young, I loved to sneak into my neighbours’ homes and watch them cook. In my day, HDB flats were all open door, so you could run to any of your favourite neighbours’ homes.

It’s a gift from God, if you talk about religion. How can you believe that a man died for you on the cross 2,000 years ago? Sometimes, you can’t even trust your own brother, but somehow God has given me this gift of belief.

I don’t talk much about Christianity in my life. I live a life for you to judge. I’m a tree, whether I bear fruit or not, I don’t talk. Watch my life, and then you’ll watch how I live.

It took a couple of months for Simei to accept us [when we first opened Eighteen Chefs]. It was the first neighbourhood to accept us.

I am a stubborn social entrepreneur. To me, business comes first, helping people second. I don’t market myself as helping people; I market myself as a restaurant.

This piece of advice has been with me for a long time: “Whenever you drink a cup of water, remember the source.”

I run my business without a Plan B. If I did, I would have failed a long time ago.

I don’t really smile in pictures because I’m naturally very fierce. It depends on the photographer—he or she has to make me smile.

My life is very boring: breakfast in the morning, go out, check my email, go to work, go back, fetch my wife, dinner outside, and then back home again.

My proudest moment was when [Prime Minister] Lee Hsien Loong came and shook my hand after last year’s May Day rally. He said, “Benny, I’ve never finished a brownie, but your brownie, I finished it.”

If you can build an ex-offender’s confidence, he’s on the road to a full recovery.

We’re not selling only food; we’re selling a culture. We keep reminding Singaporeans that ex-offenders aren’t going to be offenders for the rest of their lives. Give them a chance and they can be as good as any decent person.

My biggest challenge was to make Eighteen Chefs what it is now.

I met my wife while doing some volunteer work at Willing Hearts. She was cutting vegetables and I was cooking. The rest is history.

I’m not an idealistic person where if I love to eat something, I want to do something related to it. No, I’m more of a businessperson, and my target audience loves this, so I’ll do something they like.

I became a chef when I was 45. I didn’t cook professionally before that. The only time I cooked was for the superintendents and the wardens when I was in prison.

Fortunately, in the last couple of years, because of the labour crunch, a lot of Singaporeans have no choice but to hire ex-convicts. So I think that creates the start of job opportunities that allows ex-convicts to integrate. It’s a good sign.

If I hadn’t been a drug addict, I would not be where I am today because I’ve always felt that I have been called to do this job. You can ask a millionaire businessman or a professor who has studied chemical dependency to run a restaurant that hires ex-convicts, but they might not be able to do it. If my boys were to ask, “Do you know what cold turkey is?” They might in theory, but have they gone through it? I went through that so I understand them. I can’t lie to them. They can’t cheat me. We’ve all gone through the same thing. They look up to me. If I can succeed, why can’t they?

One lesson I learnt at Eighteen [Chefs] is a passion for food. Before I went there, I was a Chinese chef and I thought I had a lot of passion. But I only realised what true passion was when I started working in this kitchen.

I can’t say that everyone here is going to end up happily ever after. A lot of them went to prison. But if you ask me how many people I’ve impacted, I think a lot. If I’m helping one of them, I’m helping their family, I’m helping their wife, and I’m helping their kids.

There are no secrets. All my secrets are inside my kitchen recipe book. All my staff can take a picture of it and they can be their own boss.

First published in Esquire Singapore's December 2015 issue.