Top chef started cooking journey in prison , Latest Singapore News - The New Paper

Top chef started cooking journey in prison

Chef Peter Teo knows the bitter taste of rejection, as all five applications for his first internship were rejected due to his criminal record.

The chef, who was in jail twice for drug and assault offences, watched his Shatec classmates get hotel restaurant internships.

He had ignored his mother’s pleas to give up drugs and even wanted to succeed in the drug trade.

But he got caught, and his criminal record proved to be an obstacle to him getting internships at restaurants.

He said: “I just felt very dejected. I desperately needed a job, why couldn’t I have this one chance?”

Fine-dining French restaurant Les Amis was the only one that offered him a trainee role, and a scholarship, in 2010.

Chef Teo, 39, went on to help the establishment clinch its first two Michelin stars and become one of its highest-ranked chefs.

In March, Chef Teo will be calling the shots at a new French cafe in Changi Village, called Breakthrough Missions, which hires former convicts.

As an “alumnus” of Christian halfway house Breakthrough Missions, which owns the cafe, Chef Teo said: “I want to do my part and give back, so they don’t have to go through what I went through.”

Chef Teo was only 15 when he took drugs with fellow gang members, and quit school.

He said: “My mum cried and begged me to stop, and to throw away the drugs. But my intention was never to change. I only wanted to make it big in drugs.”

At 18, he was jailed for one year for drug consumption. But after his release, he relapsed and also sold drugs.

He was arrested again in 2005, hit some officers and faced assault on top of drug consumption charges, landing him a 42-month jail sentence.

On his second time in jail, he said: “Initially, I wanted to build a bigger network (to sell drugs).

“But I could not see my future. Sometimes, I felt like my life kept going around in a never-ending vicious circle.”

Providence came in the form of a humble prison kitchen, where he cooked for up to 3,000 inmates daily.

He drew inspiration from cookbooks his parents brought during prison visits and whipped up special dishes such as kung pao chicken, to the inmates’ delight.

After his release from prison and a six-month stint with Breakthrough Missions, he was accepted into Shatec’s diploma programme in culinary arts. His lecturers encouraged him to apply for a scholarship offered by Les Amis.

Six years later, he became executive sous chef at the Les Amis group’s flagship French restaurant, which now has three Michelin stars. He was later appointed executive chef of the group’s other establishments in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Breakthrough Missions, which previously owned an eatery selling local fare at People’s Park Centre for 17 years, sought out Chef Teo to take over operations when it moved to Changi Village in 2023.

The 90-seat cafe, slated to open in March, will serve classic French dishes like foie gras and roast chicken.

Its executive director, Pastor Simon Neo, said of Chef Teo: “His life has transformed. This is good for our brothers who need this kind of training.”

Chef Teo, who has three sons aged six to 14, will lead a team of about 12 at the cafe.

He will train them in serving etiquette and preparing French cuisine.

He said: “When you’re striving on your own, it can be very difficult. Sometimes, you just need that helping hand to lift you up.”