Karam Sethi: “We want to showcase Indian food in its purest and most classic form”

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Karam Sethi on JKS Restaurants latest Indian project Ambassadors Clubhouse

Related tags Karam Sethi JKS Restaurants Ambassadors Clubhouse Indian cuisine Gymkhana

Gymkhana and Trishna operator JKS Restaurants will open a high-energy Mayfair restaurant later this summer that will showcase ‘undivided’ Punjabi cuisine.

Your latest Indian restaurant project​ is inspired by your maternal grandfather. What was he like? 

He was a very intelligent guy that was educated at Cambridge. As the Ambassadors Clubhouse name suggests, our grandfather was an Indian ambassador stationed across India, Europe, Asia and Africa. He had a summer party mansion in Dalhousie (formerly part of Punjab) where my siblings and I (Jyotin and Sunaina, with whom Sethi co-founded the JKS Restaurants business) spent many of our family holidays. A lot of our understanding of Indian cuisine was picked up from that period. The mansion is also the inspiration for the design of the Ambassadors Clubhouse (which is set to open on Heddon Street in August). 

Gymkhana also offers some Punjabi dishes. What will the difference between them be? 

 ​There is a degree of crossover on the menu. For example, classics like butter chicken and sigri kebabs. Ambassadors Clubhouse sits somewhere between Gymkhana (also in Mayfair) and Brigadiers (in the City). It will have a party energy, especially in the basement, which will be more geared towards drinking. We are Punjabis from Delhi. Restaurant culture there is six or seven drinks before dinner, some kebabs to soak up the alcohol and then you’re done. The connection between Gymkhana, Brigadiers and Ambassadors Clubhouse is that they are inspired by the elite clubs of India in terms of the design, the food and the overall approach. The hospitality in India is second to none. These clubs are offering butler-level service. 

Tell us about the menu at Ambassadors Clubhouse

As at our other core Indian places, we want to showcase Indian food in its purest and most classic form. My siblings and I were brought up in London. In general, Indian chefs that come over from India are inclined to modernise and Frenchify the cuisine. We don’t do that. The food is exactly as you would find it in India in terms of the spicing and the presentation. The menu will feature age-old recipes from our family, and our trips to the region. We have worked with different chefs - our own ones, and Indian master chefs in Indian to get the recipes right. The menu will feature papads, chaats and drinking snacks; kebab recipes cooked across the tandoor, sigri and tawa; karahi and claypot curries cooked in iron karahis and clay matkas; and classic tandoor-roasted breads including warqi naans and amritsari kulcha. 

You haven’t opened an Indian restaurant in the UK since BiBi in 2021. Why so long? 

Indian food is at the core of the group. It's where we started (with Mumbai-inspired Marylebone restaurant Trishna in 2008) and it remains our biggest revenue driver. But we have been busy with other things, and we also had the pandemic to contend with. We have had the site (on Mayfair’s Heddon Street) for the past 18 months or so, but we have only recently had the resources to get things moving. The record performance and demand for our Indian restaurants means we can continue to grow in this space. Gymkhana (which was awarded a second Michelin star earlier this year) is in its 10th year and continues to grow. We have up to 1,000 people on the waitlist each evening. BiBi (which is helmed by chef Chet Sharma) sits outside our other Indian restaurants because it offers a contemporary take on Indian food whereas Gymkhana, Trishna, Brigadiers and now Ambassadors Clubhouse are more classic. I lead the creative on the food at our core Indian restaurants assisted by each brand’s executive chef.

Was Gymkhana being awarded two stars a surprise?

Yes and no. We heard rumours on the day that the second star was coming. It is refreshing to be the first classic Indian restaurant in the world to be awarded two Michelin stars. The influence the restaurant has had on the growth of the Indian restaurant market across the globe and the alumni to have come out of the kitchen at Gymkhana has cemented it as one of the most important restaurants of the past decade. It is flattering to see touches of Gymkhana pop up in other restaurants as close to home as Mayfair and as far away as Hong Kong.  

JKS Restaurants has attracted more Michelin stars in the UK than anyone else. What is your secret? 

Good ingredients and originality are important, but it's mostly about the consistency of the cuisine and service. It’s a matter of ensuring recipes are always followed to the letter and perfectly executed each time. But we have never and won’t ever chase stars. 

How do you keep tabs on the quality at your Indian places?

I eat at my restaurants constantly. I try and mystery dine to keep the chefs on their toes, but it doesn’t always work out because they see me on the CCTV. Our key ingredients - including lamb and especially chilies - change throughout the year. I can pick up tiny differences in seasoning and spicing that most of our guests would not notice. On top of what I do, the executive chef for each of our Indian brands tastes all the marinades and sauces at least twice a day and also tastes as dishes are completed. For Punjabi cuisine – which is big on tandoori-cooked dishes and grilled dishes – it’s all in the finish. 

Your relationship with food hall group Arcade has changed over the past year or so… 

We were responsible for setting it up and putting the brands and a management team in place, but we have now stepped away from the day-to-day running of the business. But we do continue to operate the standalone Bao restaurant at Arcade Battersea and the standalone Plaza Khao Gaeng at Tottenham Court Road. I understand that Arcade has more sites in the pipeline. We would potentially put our more casual concepts into any future Arcade ventures but that would be the extent of our involvement.  

Tell us about your expansion plans

In the UK, we have a few things in the works, but our two live projects are The Ambassadors Club and our Chiswick pub The Hound (which will be located in the former site of The Crown). It will be in the same vein as our existing London pubs The George and The Cadogan Arms but will have four bedrooms above it. But our focus is on international expansion. We are concentrating on the US and the Middle East (JKS Restaurants has a Gymkhana in Riyadh and Berenjaks in Dubai and Sharjah) because a high percentage of our diners in our London restaurants come from these regions.

How close are you to crossing the pond?

Close. New York is the target. We hope to have a restaurant open there within the next 12 to 18 months. It will be one of our existing Indian restaurant brands, most likely Gymkhana. Indian food in America is having a moment and we want to be part of it. We have a huge number of American bloggers coming to Gymkhana at the moment and the impact they are having on bookings is on another level. Over 25% of our clientele at Gymkhana and Trishna is American.  

You specialise in finding talent and backing them to do exciting things. Do you have anyone in the pipeline? 

Not right now. While we would not rule out getting behind someone new, we are not actively looking. This is largely because we are happy with pool of talent we have. We have also already done most of the cuisines we like eating. As a group, we are stronger than we have ever been since we launched 15 or so years ago.

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