Search
The Caterer

JKS Restaurants: sibling harmony

11 December 2015 by
JKS Restaurants: sibling harmony

Neil Gerrard how their skills complement each other to ensure success

Sibling restaurateurs Jyotin, Karam and Sunaina Sethi needn't have worried about evil spirits as they opened their latest restaurant, Hoppers, in October.

Amassed at the back of the new Soho venue, which will major on the Sri Lankan pancakes of the same name, as well as the cuisine from Tamil Nadu in southern India, is a collection of raksha masks - vibrantly coloured, ferocious-looking demon faces with popping eyes used widely in Sri Lankan festivals and said to ward off evil.

Not that the family business, JKS Restaurants, seems to have much call for ways to stave off malicious forces. Pretty much everything it has touched so far has turned into gold.

Here's a far-from-exhaustive list of the awards and accolades it has won to give you a flavour: the 2015 Restaurateur of the Year - Independent Catey; a Michelin star in the 2016 Guide for Lyle's, a restaurant backed by JKS; stars in the 2015 Guide for Indian restaurant Gymkhana, as well as for Kitchen Table at Bubbledogs - another restaurant backed by JKS; and the UK's best restaurant for Gymkhana at the National Restaurant Awards 2014. And that's before you even consider the fact that Trishna has held onto its own Michelin star since it was first awarded in 2012, or that it has been almost impossible to get into Bao in London's Soho, yet another restaurant backed by JKS, ever since it opened earlier this year, such has been its popularity.

Trishna

It's a far cry from the early days in 2008, when Karam set up Trishna with help from his brother Jyotin, who was then working in banking for Barclays. Karam has a degree from Nottingham University in business management, and had previously worked at Zuma and trained at the Maurya Sheraton hotel in Delhi. He took over as head chef of the restaurant in 2011 after the previous head chef left, and not long afterwards Trishna picked up a Bib Gourmand from Michelin. "We thought at the time that seeing as we had a Bib Gourmand, we couldn't win a star, so winning a star was a complete shock," says Karam.

From that one success has grown a group of acclaimed restaurants, and the name of the business changed at the end of last year to reflect that. What was previously Trishna Group became JKS Restaurants.

"Trishna Group was kind of an accident," admits Jyotin. "It was never meant to be known as that. When I left banking to join the business full time [as managing director], we just decided to call it Trishna Group instead of Trishna London. We got known as that for three or four years and needed to rebrand."

Jyotin, who describes himself as the "least foodie" of the trio, nonetheless has plenty of business nous and experience to call upon, thanks to his 11 years in Barclays' private equity team. "I leave the creative stuff to these two," he says of Karam and Sunaina.

Gymkhana

Sunaina, meanwhile, also toyed with the idea of a career in banking and spent a year on placement in Frankfurt in Germany working with HSBC. Having decided that finance wasn't for her, however, she considered management consulting and, in the meantime, Karam asked her to lend a hand in the restaurant. It was there that she discovered a natural flair for front-of-house service and later a passion for wine that has led to her becoming a fully trained sommelier and wine buyer for the group. "That was it - the job applications went in the bin," she said of her experience starting at Trishna.

To have three siblings all working together to run a business is a relatively unusual situation, which begs the question - do they all get on?

"It works," says Sunaina. "You have challenges and it tests your relationship at times, but - touch wood - I don't think we have had issues where it has affected our relationships too much. You get things done efficiently because there is no beating around the bush or tiptoeing around any issues. You say what you feel. Your goal is the same, so you solve problems quickly and get on with getting the job done."

It is also fortuitous that the trio should have been born with the attributes required to form an effective group of restaurateurs - Karam with his skills as a chef and creative nature, Sunaina with her aptitude for front of house, and Jyotin with his affinity with numbers.

Bubbledogs

"Yes - and you could see that growing up as well," agrees Sunaina. "We all fitted into those positions or the roles that we have taken on."

Favourable genes aside, it's no fluke that JKS has been so successful, not just in operating its own Indian restaurants, but in selecting and working with the partners it has chosen to back. So what's the secret?

For Karam, it is about the uniqueness of the food that the restaurants serve. "The style of the restaurants is like nothing else in London," he says. "The kind of diner who is now eating out in restaurants has changed since we opened Trishna. Since 2010, we have seen the rise of Polpo and MEATliquor and Bubbledogs. These places are seeing a younger generation of diner and our restaurants appeal to this kind of foodie," he says.

Jyotin adds: "Food is important, but I think people are a big part of it as well. If you look at James and Sandia at Bubbledogs or James and John at Lyle's, or the guys at Bao - it is about their ambition, how talented they are, their vision. We make sure we work with the right people as well as making sure the food is the very best it can be."

When it comes to choosing those people, whether in their own restaurants or those they decide to back, the formula is simple, according to Karam. "They need to have a level of obsession with what they are doing," he says. "They are obsessed about food, about restaurants, about eating out - they have to want to achieve something and build a profitable, successful business."

"A lot of people talk about how they are passionate and ambitious," says Jyotin. "But it is a tough industry and to really make it work you need that relentless obsession and attention to detail - it is all-encompassing. It is a characteristic of everyone we work with, Indian or non-Indian. You need to have talent, but it is obsession that turns that talent into a successful business."

Bao

"Whenever we have family dinners, the talk will always be about food and restaurants - what is happening where, who is doing what," adds Sunaina. "There is just so much happening in London that it keeps it fresh. You just don't switch off at all."

I get an illustration of that obsession a little later on, when, while The Caterer's photoshoot is taking place, the siblings' attention switches to the transfer displaying the Hoppers logo on the window of the restaurant's main entrance. It hasn't been properly applied and is bubbling ever so slightly. Sunaina spots it straightaway and it is pretty clear that it won't be left that way.

But given their relentless focus, does that mean that they can't but help get involved in the projects of the other restaurateurs they are backing too, or are they left to their own devices?

Trishna

"Typically it is the guys' first restaurant that they have owned and run themselves, so we do make suggestions on how their idea could work," says Jyotin. "For example, the guys at Bao had a market stall where they served three dishes, so we advised them on how they could convert that into a restaurant menu. But ultimately they are completely in control of what they want to cook and the way they want the site to look because I think that is particularly key in terms of the partnership. They want the autonomy and independence, and we put in our expertise and experience on the business side."

When it comes to their own plans for the future though, they are keeping their cards close to their chest - although with a new restaurant to open they will probably be quite busy enough for the time being. "There are no real plans at the moment," says Karam. "When we do another restaurant is site-dependent. Finding a property in London in the last year has become a lot more difficult than it was in the past. Premiums are huge and rents are the biggest they have ever been."

"We are working on a couple of things on the Indian side and the non-Indian side, but at the moment the biggest priority is Hoppers," adds Jyotin.

And if the odds ever seem too heavily stacked against them, which is hard to imagine at the moment, well, there's always those masks…

JKS Restaurants

Trishna

Opened 2008

Location 15-17 Blandford Street, London

Covers 80, with another 10 outside, private dining room for up to 12

Style Coastal cuisine of south-west India

Operator JKS Restaurants

Websitewww.trishnalondon.com

Bubbledogs

Opened 2012

Location 70 Charlotte Street, London

Covers 36

Style Grower Champagne served next to a menu of hot dogs

Operators James Knappett and Sandia Chang

Backer JKS Restaurants

Websitewww.bubbledogs.co.uk

Bubbledogs

Kitchen Table

Opened 2012

Location 70 Charlotte Street, London

Covers 19

Style Contemporary European cooking

Operators James Knappett and Sandia Chang

Backer JKS Restaurants

Websitewww.kitchentablelondon.co.uk

Kitchen Table

Gymkhana

Opened 2013

Location 42 Albemarle Street, London

Covers 100

Style Food based on that available at colonial Indian gymkhana clubs, set up at the time of the British Raj

Operator JKS Restaurants

Websitewww.gymkhanalondon.com

Gymkhana

Lyle's

Opened 2014

Location 56 Shoreditch High Street, London

Covers 60

Style Modern British food from the former head chef of St John Bread and Wine

Operators James Lowe and John Ogier

Backers JKS Restaurants

Websitewww.lyleslondon.com

Lyle's

Hoppers

Opened 2015

Location 49 Frith Street, London

Covers 36

Style Hoppers and dosas and other dishes based on the cuisine of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu

Operator JKS Restaurants

Websitewww.hopperslondon.com

Bao

Opened 2015

Location 53 Lexington Street, London

Covers 30

Style Taiwanese-inspired street food, specialising in steamed milk buns

Operator Erchen Chang, Shing Tat and Wai Ting Chung

Backer JKS Restaurants

Websitewww.baolondon.com

Bao

Hoppers

JKS Restaurants' latest venture, Hoppers, manages to stand out as unique in London. "There's nothing with a menu like this," says Karam of the concept that he first dreamt up a couple of years ago. It's inspired in part by growing up with and eating in the homes of his Sri Lankan friends. While former Duck Soup chef Emily Dobbs runs a street food pop-up called Weligama, serving hoppers on Druid Street Market, and some other Sri Lankan restaurants in Harrow and Tooting offer Hoppers, none puts the spin on the style of Sri Lankan and Tamil Nadu food that JKS has come up with for Hoppers, Karam asserts.

It is Bao that Hoppers is probably most similar to, despite the fact that this will be the third Indian restaurant directly operated by the Sethi siblings, whereas Bao is rooted in Taiwanese food and is run by Erchen Chang, Shing Tat and Wai Ting Chung. Both, however, take a more casual approach. Bao, on Lexington Street, started off as a six-seat street-food stall and bar on Netil Market. Hoppers, meanwhile, promises to cost diners about £20-£25 per head, including alcohol - not bad considering the food is supplied by restaurateurs with Michelin pedigree.

Set in what is a relatively small site on Frith Street in Soho, in what used to be Koya, the 36-cover venue aims to serve around 150 people per day over lunch and dinner, with meals expected to last about 45 minutes to one hour.

While those who visited Koya would recognise the layout of the site, a new bar has been added and the design is considerably different, thanks to the efforts of designer Katy Manolescue of Article Design Studio. Exotic touches abound, from the bar and windows festooned with pineapple plants, money plants and ferns, to the rattan ceiling and the ornate and heavily detailed tiling on the floor. There's also a collection of vintage Sri Lankan posters adorning the walls, and then, of course, there are those masks.

While group executive chef Rohit Ghai will lead the kitchen operations at Hoppers, Karam will be on hand for the first few months to ensure the launch goes smoothly.

When it comes to the food itself, the hopper (made with ground white rice and coconut milk) and dosa (made with rice, black lentils and fenugreek seeds) take a central role.

The menu will also feature smaller snack dishes such as a pig shank roti (flat bread), rasa crab omelette, and ash plantain fry; plus a selection of 'rice and roast' dishes, such as the buffalo biryani with bone marrow and buffalo yogurt; the Tamil spit chicken, with gotu kola sambol (a condiment with shallots, chilli and coconut, dried fish, tamarind, and lime juice); and the hogget kothu (minced) roti.

Each hopper will be cooked in a wok-type 'appachatti' pan to form a spongy pancake with crispy edges, served with a choice of meat, seafood or vegetable kari (curry) accompanied by three sambols (condiments): Pol with coconut; seeni with a caramelised onion base; and katta, made with red chilli, onion and Maldive fish.

Dosas will be cooked on an Indian-made dosa tawa (flat griddle), and again served with a meat, seafood or a vegetable kari option, plus a tomato and coconut chutney, a curry leaf chutney and a fresh coconut chutney.

Both hoppers and dosas will also be available with or without a black pepper podi, which is a powder made from red chilli, urad dal, chana (split baby chickpeas), dal, sesame seeds, asafoetida and curry leaf that is sprinkled on the inside of the dosa as it cooks.

Desserts will include watalappam (steamed custard with coconut milk and spices); and a falooda (cold dessert drink) of buffalo curd, salted cashew and candied ginger kulfi (frozen yogurt), rambutan fruit, coconut water and pandan plant jelly.

Karam, Sunaina and Jyotin Sethi

The Caterer Breakfast Briefing Email

Start the working day with The Caterer’s free breakfast briefing email

Sign Up and manage your preferences below

Thank you

You have successfully signed up for the Caterer Breakfast Briefing Email and will hear from us soon!