Give them a second chance: F&B establishments owned by ex-convicts who turned their lives around

PHOTO: Instagram/soonhuatbkt, instagram/journey_by_chef_enoch

The stigma that comes with a criminal record has lasting effects. Unfortunately, people still shun these so-called black sheep of society.

Despite that, a number of ex-convicts have decided to bravely press on to make something for themselves after doing time — and some of them have delved into the F&B scene to do so.

If you want to support and give them a second chance, you can consider patronising these eateries that have been opened by ex-offenders the next time you dine out.

Chef Chik

Prior to opening Chef Chik, founder Chik Ka Chung was an executive chef at Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza's Wan Hao Chinese Restaurant.

That was also where he committed the crime that landed him in jail for four months — pocketing money from a seafood supplier in return for continuing orders.

After his release, Ka Chung decided to open Chef Chik, a hawker stall that specialises in a myriad of Cantonese dishes at Haig Road Market & Food Centre.

While the switch from a luxurious hotel kitchen to a humble hawker set up must have taken some time to adjust, Ka Chung seems to be happy with the outcome, considering that the stall is still around after opening in 2012.

Address: #01-36, Haig Road Hawker Centre, 14 Haig Road, Singapore 430014

Journey by Chef Enoch (Bangkok)

Who would have thought that a former secondary school dropout and drug addict would eventually move on to open a restaurant in Bangkok?

That was exactly what Enoch Teo did. After a year behind bars for breaking into a car, the young man decided to turn over a new leaf and pursue his passion for cooking by working at a tzi char restaurant.

Despite being rejected by two culinary schools, he managed to snag a job at French restaurant Absinthe. There, he worked under chef Francois Mermiliod, who wrote him a recommendation which finally got him into a culinary school.

Eventually, Enoch managed to open the now defunct French establishment, Garcons, with his friend, Immanuel Tee.

Some may have wondered where Enoch is after shuttering Garcons. A Bangkok Foodies article reveals that the ambitious chef has decided to start a restaurant in Ekkamai, Bangkok called Journey by Chef Enoch. There, he will be selling Singapore-inspired cuisine so that the locals can have a taste of what our little red dot has to offer.

Address: 2 Sukhumvit Road, Phrakanong-Nuea, Watthana, Bangkok 10110, Thailand

Kim Keat Hokkien Mee

Some of you have tried the famous clay pot Hokkien mee from Kim Keat Hokkien Mee at Lor 4 Toa Payoh. But did you know that stall founder Kelvin Lee, was previously a pimp and drug dealer?

Kelvin spent a good bulk of his life in and out of prison — around 20 years in jail. Since he was a teenager, he committed crimes such as extortion, illegal hawking, pimping and drug dealing.

After promising his family that he would change for the better, he eventually managed to open up a stall in a Toa Payoh coffee shop selling Hokkien mee. Soon, his stall was on the public's radar after being reviewed by popular food bloggers such as Leslie Tay - the one who gave him the idea of serving his noodles in a clay pot with roast pork.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CK8U73VM6Mv/

Kelvin also took the opportunity to help others like him and hired ex-offenders to help him at the stall.

Sadly, Kelvin passed away in 2016. However, the reins of the stall have been taken over by his son who has decided to continue his father's business.

Address: Block 92 Toa Payoh Lorong 4, #01-264, Singapore 310092

Reimondo Seafood Congee

An ex-convict-turned-chef who recently made the news is Raymond Tan. In an interview with 8days.sg, the 33-year-old talked about how he used to live a life of crime before eventually setting up a car rental and repair company as well as his new eatery, Reimondo Seafood Congee.

When he was younger, Raymond had been a troubled youth who was spent most of his time in prison and boys' homes — from crimes like shoplifting and housebreaking.

In a bid to stay out of jail for good, he started his car rental and repair company. Business was so good that he became a millionaire in two years but after that, he gambled all his hard-earned money away, which led to him having a turbulent relationship with his wife.

However, after hearing that she was pregnant with his second child, he decided to stop spiralling and opened up a hawker stall at MacPherson which specialised in crabmeat wanton mee.

Unfortunately, business was as not good and he had to shutter the stall in 2017, but in 2020 during the pandemic, he decided to try giving the hawker life another shot and opened Reimondo Seafood Congee in Pasir Ris. He eventually hopes to hire ex-convicts like himself to give them a second chance.

Address: 110 Pasir Ris Central, #02-07, Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre, Singapore 519641

Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh

Easties may have come across Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh, a popular restaurant in Simpang Bedok that specialises in herbal bak kut teh — similar to those that you can get in Malaysia.

The establishment is helmed by Jabez Tan, who spent 12 years in jail for drug and theft-related offences. However, being in jail did not deter Jabez from using his time wisely and he determinedly worked his way up from being a kitchen dishwasher to the main prison chef.

After serving his time, he created a unique bak kut teh recipe and set up shop in Simpang Bedok. He also wanted to give ex-offenders like himself a chance, so the bulk of his staff are mostly ex-criminals who are seeking a new lease of life.

Address: 302 Bedok Road, Singapore 469460

The Caffeine Experience

Changing lives one cuppa at a time is ex-offender Matthew Poh, who banded together with ex-prison officer, Hilary Lo, to open The Caffeine Experience. The aim of this social enterprise cafe is to provide a second chance to ex-convicts just like Matthew, and they've been in the F&B scene since 2018.

While in prison, Matthew had feared not being able to land a job after he was done doing his time. As an ex-business owner, he planned on starting something once he was out and shared this dream with Hilary while he was still in prison.

In an interview with Frasers Property, Matthew said that convincing potential investors was a struggle and it was extremely difficult for him to gain the trust needed to raise funds for the project. However, he didn't blame them for feeling this way.

When he finally managed to set up The Caffeine Experience, Matthew reached out to various agencies to link him up with individuals who needed a second chance at life. He also makes it a point to let his staff run the cafe themselves "so that they feel like they are capable members of society."

Address: 10 Hospital Boulevard #01-04 SingHealth Tower, OCH 168582

Wow Wow West

Wow Wow West's story is a tad bit different from the others on this list as founder, Eric Huang, is not an ex-convict. Instead, he has made it his life's mission to take in ex-offenders and give them a second chance in life thanks to a deal he made with God a few years ago.

When his oldest daughter, Elizabeth — who is now the second generation owner of Wow Wow West — ran away from home, Eric had turned to Christianity and promised to dedicate his life to serving God as counsellor with a halfway house if his daughter returned home.

She did come home in the end. Keeping to his word, Eric took in ex-offenders sent by halfway houses and made them full-time employees. Apart from teaching them how to cook, he also counsels them for encouragement and motivation.

Address: ABC Brickworks Food Centre, 6 Jalan Bukit Merah, #01-133, Singapore 150006

Eighteen Chefs

We'll be ending off with one of the more famous convict-turned-chefs around — Benny Teo Se, owner of Eighteen Chefs.

Apart from being known for his pretty humorous Facebook posts, the chef has been vocal about his concerns for ex-offenders and individuals who struggle with addiction.

Actions speak louder than words and to do his part, Benny employs ex-offenders at his restaurant, Eighteen Chefs.

Benny, of all people, would understand the struggle as he himself has spent many years in and out of prison. A near-death experience was what pushed him to start his recovery journey and after spending six years in a halfway house, he finally opened his own restaurant.

It wasn't easy managing a bunch of ex-offenders and at the start, Benny struggled as fights constantly broke out. However, over time, he has learnt how to train his staff and now, Eighteen Chefs has grown to become a household name.

Address: 200 Victoria St, #04-06 Bugis Junction, Singapore 188021

melissateo@asiaone.com