Money & Me: 'For me, you are rich when you’re generous'

Entrepreneur Nadira Benaissa says you are wealthy if you have food, a roof over your head and you are happy

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , November 27  ��� 2018 :- Nadira Benaissa, founder of Top Chef in her cooking studio on Jumeirah Beach road in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For Business. Story by David
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Nadira Benaissa worked as a French language teacher and real estate agent before launching a business in 2012. Fired by her passion for cuisine and entertaining guests, the Algerian-born entrepreneur founded Top Chef, a cooking studio in Jumeirah, Dubai, to teach adults and children how to cook and present food. Mother to two daughters aged 25 and 22, Ms Benaissa, 48, lives with husband Nasr, world sales director for Breitling, in Umm Suqeim. Here she shares her money story.

How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?

I was raised in Algeria until 17 and then went to France to study. Mum became a midwife and my father is a gynaecologist and surgeon, still working as a professor in medicine. They used to do a lot of work for the Red Cross in Nigeria, ex-Yugoslavia, Brazil. Every time there was a conflict, they used to go. I saw hard work, dedication. That’s what I got from my parents. I admired what they’d do for people without expecting anything in return. They always chose to work in the public sector. We had a nice house in a high-end area of Algiers. I have three sisters, I’m the eldest. We weren’t spoiled, but had everything we needed. In Algeria you don’t live the life you can have in other countries. It’s not a capitalist country so you have what you have, but it was a very happy childhood. We didn’t get pocket money because there was nothing really to do in Algeria, no cinema.

How much were you paid in your first job?

The first time I had to earn money was when I went to France as a law student in 1988, working as a sales person in the department store Galleries Lafayette. I was paid 20 Francs (Dh12) per hour. My parents sent me a certain amount, if I needed more I had to earn it. It taught me life, you need to pay your rent, electricity, for food.

What brought you to the UAE?

My husband used to work for TAG Heuer watches, which opened its office here in 1995. At the time we lived in Geneva. We moved the family in 1997. I was 26, never had a maid, so I took care of the kids. In 1999, Berlitz language centre opened and I was the first French teacher hired and I worked there for five years. I had a group of girls for six months who decided to open a real estate company, so I started with them in 2003, until 2012.

Why start a cooking studio?

I used to entertain a lot at home and people always asked me for the recipe of something that I’d cooked. I said ‘one day I’m going to open a cooking school’ and then it happened in 2012 (using) all my money. There was a big gap in the market and I wanted to do something myself, something I’m passionate about. At that time I was in real estate for 10 years, I specialised in Jumeirah and Umm Sequim villa rental. I got this villa in my hands and thought ‘why not take it for myself (for Top Chef)’. I was 40 at that time. I said ‘I don’t want to work for someone else’.

Are you a saver or spender?

I’m in between, I’m quite reasonable with money. I like to spend on nice things when it is really worth it. I’m quite a generous person. You give, not expecting something in return, but it comes back.

Where do you save?

We save together. My husband invested some, he was previously a consultant at McKinsey. We bought some products, but it is mainly our real estate. We have a beautiful property in France. My daughter studies in Paris and uses it. I have a couple of investments in Algeria, a house and land. We also invest in limited edition watches, Patek Philippe, IWC, Rolex.

I met people in real estate who disgusted me - greedy landlords.

What is your best investment?

The property in Paris, from the time we bought it to now it has really increased in value. We don’t rent it out because I spent a lot refurbishing. I don’t care about the money it would bring me. I don’t want the trouble of a tenant.

What is your philosophy towards money?

Money comes and goes. If it’s here, it’s here; if it’s not, it’s not. I’m very relaxed about it. I have lost a lot of money, but I’m still here enjoying life. I met people in real estate who disgusted me – greedy landlords. For me, you are rich when you’re generous. You’re rich when you have food, a roof, you’re happy. I don’t need a lot of money to live my life.

Is there anything you regret spending on?

I lost a lot of money on an apartment in 2008 with a friend. My big mistake. My husband was completely against it and it was the first time I didn’t listen to him. The developers called us to say they were cancelling the building and would not give back the money. Three years later they said finally ‘we decided it will happen, now you need to pay the second instalment’, but I was not friends with my friend any more and I was putting my money into Top Chef. I lost almost Dh700,000 (deposit).

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , November 27  – 2018 :- Nadira Benaissa, founder of Top Chef in her cooking studio on Jumeirah Beach road in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For Business. Story by David

What are your luxuries?

I’m crazy about art, paintings. I have some good artists from the region, maybe an investment, maybe not. I buy because I love art. What I’ve got has value, but I didn’t buy to make money.

Every year we have a very nice trip - with my husband and daughters. We started when they were seven and still do it. We travel a lot in Africa, camping, wildlife photography. We also did Alaska for photography. Travel is our biggest pleasure.

What has been your key financial milestone?

The business – I put in a lot of money. The fact that I created a venue and gave a job to people makes me happy. And I’ve taken control of my destiny.

Do you prefer paying in cash or by credit card?

A debit card, but when I have big expenses I prefer to pay with credit card for convenience and I get points towards air miles. I pay it off, I will never spend money that I don’t have.

Are you wise with money?

Very. I don’t spend my time in shopping malls, it is very rarely. I’m not attracted by brands, bags and jewellery. I have priorities. We own our house. We’ve been here 22 years and paying rent doesn’t make sense.

Do you plan for the future?

Yes, for my personal life and business. I wish I could expand (the existing branch) of Top Chef and I have a couple of ideas I hope to realise. Ideally (in the future) we would live six months here, six months in Europe.

What would you raid your savings for?

Maybe an emergency to help family – my girls. Maybe to buy another property. If I buy now, it will be in Africa. I’m in love with Africa.