They Keep Ex-Offenders Off The Street And Make Excellent Escargots

Singapore
By:: 
Sabina-Leah Fernandez

Enoch Teo (centre) with his colleagues

His love for cooking saved him from drugs and gangs. Now, Enoch Teo's social enterprise E&I Concepts is helping ex-offenders turn their lives around, just like he did.

Like the youth-at-risk that E&I Concepts employs, chef and co-founder Enoch Teo’s teen years were not easy. At 14, Enoch (pictured, middle with his co-founder , left, and team member, right) dropped out of school and worked as a cook in a zi char stall. Diagnosed with ADHD as a young boy, he never took to academics, but he loved cooking, taking great satisfaction in having a specialised skill. Unfortunately he fell in with the wrong crowd and picked up bad habits. After a stint in a halfway house (aka rehab), Enoch felt aimless. "I would wake up every morning and think that I had nothing to lose," he said.

A motorcycle accident four years later brought about a wake-up call. He realised couldn’t play the fool forever and he had to make a change and he set about turning his life around, used the insurance money to start his very own western stall in 2012 – at Golden Shoe Hawker Centre in the CBD.

Today, Enoch is the co-founder of E&I Food Concepts which runs 3 food retail outlets. Together with his Chef Partners - Immanuel Tee, Alexander Chong and Liew Gao Gi, they run Garçons (in The Pinnacle @ Duxton and Timbre+).

E&I has developed two winning formulas: firstly, gourmet European cuisine in a coffee shop-setting and secondly, training and employing ex-offenders (from boys’ homes) in French cooking techniques. In Singapore, chefs tend to only employ graduates from culinary institutes like Shatec or At-Sunrice, but E&I takes in youth-at-risk with zero experience and teaches them everything from scratch.

“Not everyone is given the chance I was given, and I just want to impart the change I’ve been through to others,” Enoch says. “Our guys are not bad people, they just have no one to guide them... I never say ‘no’ whenever my guys recommend one of their friends or YouthReach or Boys’ Home sends me potential candidates. I say no one is unteachable.”

The staff are patiently trained in everything from how to fillet a fish to how to serve customers. The process is long but the results are undeniable. The food is delicious – we loved Garcons’ escargot, a steal at $12.90 – but also, the social mission works. Former E&I employees have gone onto work at Esquina (run by Michelin-star chef Jason Atherton) and Alkaff Mansion.

“Enoch used to be like me,” says Jay, 22, who works at Garcons. “So I thought if he can do it, so can I.” A reformed drug dealer who has been in and out of prison, Jay had a tough time adjusting to the job at first.

“I’m not used to waking up early and working till late. I’m used to counting money on my bed!” he says with a laugh.” But he gets serious when I ask why he gave up that life.

 “I don’t want to disappoint my family. I don’t want to make them cry anymore,” he says, looking down.

“Very few of our kind succeed. They make a lot of money and drive sports cars but they’re wanted men. They have to leave the country and they trade their family for this life. They make it into the newspapers but not for good reasons. But look at Enoch, he’s in the newspapers for good reasons,” Jay explains. It’s not hard to see why Enoch is a positive role model for his staff.

Apart from training, mentorship, a fun work atmosphere, E&I also gives their employees incentives like profit-sharing to motivate and encourage them. E&I plans to use the DBS Foundation grant to scale up into catering, consulting and kitchen management so there are more opportunities for internal promotion and staff retention. Or, as Enoch puts it: “To help our guys grow.”

I ask Enoch what he would say if he met his 14-year-old self. He pauses to think for a second, and then smiles.

“I wouldn’t say anything, I would just offer him a job.”

Garcons  Essen @The Pinnacle, 1 Cantonment Road, 01-01 

By The Fire Alibabar the Hawker Bar 125 E Coast Rd, 91854824,

Immanuel French Kitchen 119 Bukit Merah Lane 1, 

 

 If you want to find more about socially conscious living in Asia, check out Asia For Good's social enterprise directory.

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