From Corporate Banking to Culinary Queen: Nihal Felemban's journey of flavour fusions and restaurant success

From Corporate Banking to Culinary Queen: Nihal Felemban's journey of flavour fusions and restaurant success

The Jeddah-based chef, restaurateur, founder of The Lucky Llama restaurant, and creator of DipsNTrips food and travel blog shares her inspiring journey
23 January 24
Lucky Llama: Meet the chef, Nihal Felemban

“I come from a family that makes really amazing food. Our house has always been known for it,” Nihal Felemban says with an infectious smile.

The chef meets restaurateur meets blogger recalls a nostalgic tableau of flavours and aromas – a childhood spent in a bustling kitchen, in the company of the family’s matriarchs, surrounded by heart-warming smells and large plates piled with lovingly-cooked traditional fare.

These delicious memories are a big part of what shapes Nihal and her culinary prowess today. 

Born to a Saudi father and Moroccan mother, Nihal grew up in Morocco’s capital city of Rabat, spending the first 18 years of her life there. Nearly two decades of getting a taste of local cooking at home, her culinary interests then shifted towards more “Western” flavours and palettes, or “fancy food” that would only be eaten at restaurants, as she puts it.  

Right from the start, it was clear that Nihal was a natural in the kitchen. She learned about discipline and precision from a very young age, with her family serving as her toughest and most honest critics. Yet, she found herself diverging from cooking towards a different academic pursuit, and it would be some time before she would revisit the culinary world. At 18, Nihal decided to pursue a degree in International Business at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University, and went on to have a 12-year corporate banking career.  

Then, in 2014, something happened that left a lasting impression on Nihal: during a trip to a remote island in the Philippines, she developed a deep appreciation and connection to the beauty of a nature and traditions previously unknown to her. 

“I grew up travelling with my family to the same countries in Europe. The restaurants there are cute and charming but it gets repetitive. I wanted something more, I wanted to experience something new,” she explains. 

This Philippines trip inspired her to start blogging about lesser-known gems around the world. However, with a full-time banking job that did not allow for extended periods of travel, Nihal decided that she would introduce people to these cultures and destinations through cooking instead – a pastime she still, and has always, enjoyed.

And so, the food and travel blog DipsNTrips was born.  

In 2017, she received a diploma from Ashburton Cookery School & Chefs Academy, and not long after, she was approached by MBC to be the culinary expert on a travel show called Wain Alheen. Launched in 2019, the show centres on three young Saudi women embarking on adventures and exploring cultures around the world. The show took Nihal to various corners of the world, from Russia to South Korea to across Latin America.  

Wain Alheen ran for two seasons before the Covid-19 pandemic struck and brought the world to a near standstill – but not for Nihal. Forced to remain in Jeddah due to the pandemic, she seized the opportunity to work on launching her restaurant, The Lucky Llama, a fine-dining Nikkei concept that elegantly blends Japanese and Peruvian cuisine.  

“I had the idea of opening a restaurant from as far back as I remember,” says Nihal. She travelled to Asia and South America as part of her time with MBC and that’s when she decided on the concept of her restaurant venture.  

Nihal’s love and fascination with mixing flavours stems from her own blended origins (being Saudi and Moroccan), as well as the exciting and sometimes unexpected blend of ingredients that Moroccan cuisine is renowned for.  

“Think of it; a pastilla, for instance, combines cinnamon, pigeon, egg, and rosewater! How did they come up with that? Take one bite and you know it’s nothing short of amazing,” she explains. 

With the recent focus on local agriculture and the spotlight on homegrown Saudi food, Nihal is currently busy learning about the Kingdom’s rich offerings and how best to utilise them. “I’m interested in food sustainability, and sourcing food from right here in Saudi because we have so much to offer.”  

Although she is undoubtedly a master at putting together diverse flavours, the culinary expert is still very much drawn to Western and Asian cuisine, away from the traditional local flavours she associates with the taste of home. Nihal’s favourite continent when it comes to cooking styles is Asia; she has a deep appreciation for the diverse techniques found across different Asian countries.  

After the success of The Lucky Llama and its unmatched fine dining experience, Nihal has just launched her second venture called Nori, a more casual sushi concept that delivers quality and flavour at reasonable prices. Coming soon is a sliders concept called The Cool Kids. Launching with a pop-up in Al Balad, it caters to a wider clientele with crowd-pleasers and classics like cheeseburgers and Philly steak sandwiches. Also in the works is a wellness café concept that provides a holistic approach to health food.  

“I learned a lot in the last two years, about myself and my style, but also about different people’s preferences and needs. There are amazing opportunities here in Saudi, and there’s a boom happening across the Kingdom’s food and beverage scenes. I want to leave my mark on it, and I want to contribute to elevating it,” she says.   

Nihal’s Top Jeddah Picks   

Best Workout: Heartcore @heartcore.ksa

Best Supermarket: Danube Fayfa Mall  

Best Local Market: Azka Farms @azkafarms

Best Restaurant: Shababïk (the stuffed cabbage is a must!) @shababikksa
Click here to read our full review of Shababïk

Best Way to Unwind: Salhia Beach  

Best Brunch: Baker & Spice @bakerandspicesa
4056 Ibrahim Al-Anqari, Al Mohammadiyyah, Jeddah 23617