Marwa Alkhalaf

Marwa Alkhalaf

Marwa Alkhalaf

Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Marwa Alkhalaf had fresh produce practically growing on her doorstep. After falling in love with Iranian food , she now cooks her own modern, ingredient-led take on the cuisine at her London restaurant Nutshell.

Often someone’s passion for cooking a particular style of cuisine can be traced back to the food they grew up eating. For Saudi-Arabian-born Marwa Alkhalaf however, it wasn’t until her now-husband introduced her to Iranian food that she fell in love with the cuisine and began to learn more about it. Wanting to introduce this underrepresented cuisine to more people in the UK, she and her husband opened Nutshell in 2019, where she now serves her unique take on traditional Iranian dishes.

Growing up on the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia surrounded by wonderful produce, Marwa gained an understanding of the importance of ingredients from an early age. ‘We lived so close to the sea which meant we’d often have fresh fish,’ she explains. ‘We also had a farm where my dad would grow all sorts of different products, from tomatoes to makrut limes and Indian almonds.’ Although this abundance of produce led to an interest in food, when Marwa became one of the first fifty women to be offered the chance to study geophysics in the UK, she quickly put any desire to go into the restaurant industry to one side.

It was when she moved to London in 2007 to begin university that Marwa started exploring other cuisines and experimenting with her own food. ‘Moving to London just made me fall in love with food even more,’ she says. ‘I was always the person at university inviting my friends over for a feast; I’d call my mum and sister to ask them how to make certain things.’ At the time Middle Eastern food still wasn’t particularly well represented in the capital (‘To Londoners Middle Eastern food meant kebabs and rice'), so it wasn’t until Marwa met her husband, who grew up in Iran and introduced her to Iranian food, that she fell in love with it.

‘I’ve always been really passionate about showcasing the quality of ingredients,’ Marwa explains. ‘And Iranian cuisine is all about using local ingredients and not doing too much with them, which I loved. In a way it’s also a zero-waste cuisine because they utilise very part of the animal, fruit or vegetable. With fresh pistachios for example, they even turn the peel into a jam. Southern Iranian food in particular is very similar to the Saudi Arabian food I grew up eating.’

Having finished university, a job working for an oil company took Marwa back to Saudi Arabia and she started flirting with the idea of setting up an organic farm-to-table restaurant there. However, after things got more serious with her husband, she ended up spending more time in Iran and decided that was it was actually Iranian food Marwa wanted to focus on. By this point she was beginning to miss London, so she and her husband made the decision to move back to the UK to open the authentic Iranian restaurant they'd been dreaming of. ‘Before we left Iran, I tried to spend as much time as possible going to different houses to collect recipes,’ she explains. ‘I would sit down with my husband’s grandmother who had all her recipes written down and try to translate them because I also was learning Farsi at the time.’

In 2016, Marwa moved back to London with her husband and realised it was time to focus all her efforts into being a chef. Signing on to an eleven-month diploma at Le Cordon Bleu, she quickly started to master all the basics of classical cookery which ultimately led to her getting a position at Mayfair's two-Michelin-starred The Greenhouse – one of the first professional kitchens she had ever worked in. For a while Marwa tried to juggle working at a renowned restaurant with planning her own, but it quickly became too hard to manage. ‘We would schedule meetings somewhere near The Greenhouse and I would go and join my husband during my break between lunch and dinner service,' she laughs. 'But eventually it reached a point where it was too difficult. I felt like I’d learnt enough and it was time to focus on my own project.’

After years of planning, Nutshell threw open its doors at the end of July 2019 and was instantly met with praise. Serving Marwa’s own take on Iranian food, inspired by both her time spent in the country and the produce-led style of cookery she grew up with, Nutshell offered something that hadn’t really been seen in London before. ‘It was like a dream come true when we opened,’ she smiles. ‘We put so much effort into it and really took our time but the reception was better than we expected because we were doing something different. We’re the only restaurant in the world that’s serving a truly modern take on Iranian food.’ Not only has this allowed Marwa to become a leader in modern Iranian food but it has also meant that Nutshell has been able to change over time. Having initially served a broad, accessible menu to introduce people to the cuisine, its offering is now more refined than ever, with a tasting menu even on the cards for the near future.

Marwa has taken a cuisine that she fell in love with and added her own spin to it at Nutshell – something many people wouldn’t be brave enough to do. As a result, more and more people in London are getting to experience Iranian food for the first time. With her aim being for Nutshell to ultimately become the first Michelin-starred restaurant showcasing the flavours of Iran, Marwa certainly isn’t short of ambition and, given the progress she’s already made, we feel she could be the driving force behind Iranian food in the UK for many years to become.