Jean Winter, 42, is the founder of Jean's Private Kitchen, which started in 2011 as an underground dining concept from her home in Geneva, Switzerland, hosting VIP politicians, business owners and professional footballers. She took her business to Hamburg, Germany a few years later. Since moving to Dubai in 2016, she has expanded to events management, catering and consultancy, while still continuing to fly around the world to cook her Peranakan cuisine — a blend of Malaysian, Indonesian and Chinese influences — for private clients. In the UAE, among her patrons is the Singapore Embassy and she recently was one of the organisers for the Crazy Rich Asean fashion show on the grounds of the residence of Singapore's ambassador in Abu Dhabi. Her British husband, Andrew, is director of an international shipping company and the couple has two girls, aged 10 and 12.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
I think the way I look at money, the way I look at wealth and luxury is completely shaped by my background because my mother, who is Singaporean, came from a middle class family and my father, who is Malaysian, came from an extremely poor family. I remember him telling us stories where my grandfather would have to work three jobs just to put them through school — and his stories used to make me cry. For example, there would be no money to buy him uniform pants and he would have to wear his shorts to school and be made fun of. So he came from very humble beginnings. My dad was born in Malacca [in Malaysia]. By the time he was 17, he had lost both parents and moved to Singapore to find a job. He started off as a clerk on a pineapple plantation doing accounts and somehow he started applying to bigger and bigger jobs. He basically worked his way up to be one of the vice presidents of Bank of America by the time he retired.
Pretty much my whole life I grew up seeing my parents being very, very humble. I’m sure my dad could have afforded a big house if he wanted to, but they chose to put their money to helping people instead. Even till today — my parents are 70 and 74 — right now they are holding a children’s camp in an old fishing village in Malaysia. When I was growing up, all my friends were from affluent families and some of the most powerful families in Singapore. But my parents have always kept us grounded. My whole family, including me, we are happiest eating at the hawker centre — street foods, street stalls — as opposed to eating at a three-star Michelin restaurant.
What was your first job?
I was 16 and I had never worked a day in my life. So, typical of my dad, he said, ‘darling, we buy you stuff on occasions, but if you want to buy something that is a luxury, then you have to work for it’. And he said, ‘Why don’t you get a job?’ I was horrified — I never had to look for a job, I didn’t even know where the classified ads are. I remember calling up some friends and they said, ‘easy, go be a waitress’. So I applied to be a waitress at Phoenix Hotel on Orchard Road. I remember it was a peppermint green uniform with pink sleeves — it was really ugly, but I wore it. Pretty much by the first hour I said I want to quit, because I couldn’t even lift the tray with all the dinner plates on it, it was so heavy. I went up to the floor manager and I said, 'I quit' and I took a bus home. The very next day my mum and dad marched me to the restaurant and said, ‘You cannot give up so easily. We didn’t bring you up like this.’ And they basically for the entire shift sat in the corner of the restaurant to make sure I worked. By the end of the month, I became the best employee and I even signed up for overtime. We were paid around 8 Singapore dollars (Dh21) per hour. And I got promoted to hostess, able to wear my own black dress and standing at the front of the restaurant to give menus.
What is the most expensive meal you have ever cooked for your clients?
The most expensive meal was probably for a private party in Geneva where there wasn’t a budget given. My instruction was to give a very good party and it was an eight-course dinner. And this was private clients, individual business owners. Some of them would fly in on their private jets from London to my house for dinner and then fly back out after dinner. And they would book again for four months later. It would go up to maybe 500 euros (Dh2,060) per head, excluding wine. Just last month I had two requests to fly to Bali — one for three days, one for five days — just to cook two meals a day and they pay for the flight and accommodation.
How about in the UAE?
In the UAE, I host my parties on-site and I don’t charge just per meal — I also bring in things like entertainment, I do the floral arrangements. It goes up to Dh100,000 a night or even more. Some events, the flowers alone are Dh100,000 or more. It really depends on the client and the event and the budget. Some clients really have no budget.
Are you a spender or a saver?
It depends. On daily stuff, I don’t spend on myself at all. If anything, Andrew is the one pampering me all the time. He’s the one telling me, go get a facial, go buy a dress. Because I always think everything is a waste of money. But there are things I would definitely spend on. For example, even as a young girl 20 years ago, with my scholarship money [from university] I would take it and travel alone. I did Everest base camp. I travelled to 30 countries by the time I was 23. For travelling, gaining life experience, I would do it.
And now, what do you spend and save on?
I would spend on the kids, definitely. I would save on everything. I’m very practical, so if there’s something I can do myself, I’ll do it myself and not spend that money. Like everyone asks, ‘Jean, you’re running around all the time, why don’t you get a driver?’ Yes, it’s tough, but all of us, half of Dubai, we are all doing the same thing, we are all trying to juggle. Why would I spend money on a driver when I can use that money somewhere else more productive? My soft spot is probably travel and maybe shoes.
Do you use a financial adviser?
Andrew does, for our finances. I hate dealing with money — it’s not a good thing. My dad still handles all my money [in Singapore] — this is terrible — I don’t know how much I have in my bank account in Singapore. And then Andrew pretty much handles our assets and investments. We make decisions as a couple — it’s not individual — but he handles the financial side of things. I find that boring. For my business, I have my accountant who handles everything. Of course, I know what’s going in, what’s going out.
What is your retirement plan?
It took us a few years to finally agree on where we would like to retire. In Singapore it’s so expensive, even though I love my country. The UK is too dreary. We have said that ideally we would like to go somewhere by the beach.
What about your financial retirement plan?
Oh — that’s boring.