Trishna co-founder Karam Sethi on how his desire to recreate the energy and vibrancy of Indian food culture shaped one of Marylebone’s favourite restaurants and led to his family-run business becoming a major force on the London restaurant scene
Words: Viel Richardson
The world was a very different place in 2008. A little-known senator from Chicago named Barack Obama was named as the Democratic Party’s candidate for the presidency of the United States, the collapse of the Lehman Brothers bank led to the financial world almost literally running out of money, and just as importantly (for us, at least) a new Indian restaurant called Trishna opened its doors for the first time on Blandford Street.
“You could say that it was a challenging time to open a restaurant,” says Karam Sethi, smiling, as he casts his mind back over a decade. He had taken this bold decision along with his sister Sunaina and brother Jyotin. “It was tough, but also a time of great opportunity. Back then, the big hotel and expensive fine-dining restaurants were dominating the scene. There seemed no space for people to open on a smaller scale or try something new. The credit crunch changed everything, as people were suddenly looking for new types of investments. Then Russell Norman opened Polpo, which was a new style of restaurant, and his success showed what was possible. He was a real inspiration to a lot of people, including us.”
What Polpo demonstrated was that restaurants serving well-designed, beautifully cooked but keenly priced small plates was not only viable but potentially profitable. It was a style of dining that spoke to Karam and his siblings. The Indian tradition of dining, the tradition with which he had been raised, is based upon an informal family-centred experience, with everyone sharing communal dishes of excellent food. Karam had always believed that informality and unimpeachable quality did not have to be mutually exclusive and thought that the approach to dining espoused by Russell Norman could be a perfect fit for the Indian food he loved.
However, the British Indian dining scene was not a promising landscape for such an idea. On the one hand you had the local restaurants where people went for a limited selection of cheap Anglicised dishes, washed down by pints of lager. On the other were some expensive, starchy, overly-formal high-end restaurants reserved for special occasions. Neither of these appealed to our budding restaurateurs.
“The vibe in high-end restaurants didn’t appeal to us. It was really stiff, there was no character and the interior design felt sterile. There was none of the energy, vibrancy and life that I have always associated with India and its food,” Karam explains. “The food we wanted to serve was food inspired by home cooking, the food we have grown up eating both in London and on our visits to our grandparents in India. There, we would dine in clubs such as the gymkhanas and golf clubs, where the food was great and the atmosphere more relaxed. Those dining experiences as children still very much inform the type of food and style of restaurants we like. With Trishna, we opened the type of restaurant that we wanted to eat in ourselves. No pretensions, no stiffness and good food. For me, Indian food should be served in the middle of the table and shared.”
That consuming food should be a sociable and enjoyable experience is deeply important to Karam. For him, the excitement and pleasure that you revelled in when being taken out for a meal as a child should not disappear just because you are old enough to have children yourself. However, everything had to start with the food. And that, he thought, had to be tasty, consistent and authentic.
Quite how important authenticity would be was something that Karam and his siblings perhaps underestimated at first. “From the start, we were serving dishes based on the cuisine from the south-west coast of India. We were confident that it was something that would be new to many diners and that they would enjoy it as much as we did,” Karam explains. “But while things were going alright, the restaurant hadn’t really sparked into life. Something was missing.” After two years, the Sethis decided that a change needed to be made, and Karam himself went into the kitchen. “I decided to make just one major adjustment, but to apply it to everything,” he says. “From the start, we had adapted the spicing to what we thought the British palate preferred, and in hindsight this had been a mistake. I made the spicing bolder, punchier and more complex,much more reminiscent of how these dishes would be served in their native regions. It was not a case of making things hotter—too much chilli heat overwhelms the flavours, and the main ingredient still has to sing on the plate. You just need to use the spices with confidence. The dishes retained a modern twist, but at their core was the idea of honouring the skills of those who had created this cuisine, and trusting that our diners would appreciate the dishes they had created.”
That faith paid off—the following year Trishna was awarded Michelin’s Bib Gourmand, which recognises restaurants that serve outstanding food at affordable prices. But there was more to come. In 2012 Trishna became one of the few Indian restaurants in the country to gain a coveted Michelin star. “I thought that it was a wind-up,” says Karam. “I first heard on the morning of my 28th birthday, due to the list being leaked early. When we realised it was true, there was a real sense of pride as well as surprise. It was also a bit daunting, as with that star comes pressure. You are now in the spotlight, especially as an Indian restaurant. Suddenly, there was a curiosity among the public to see what a Michelinstarred Indian restaurant has to offer. We started pushing ourselves even harder to make sure we didn’t only keep it for a year. Everyone’s hard work means it is still on the door today.”
That was seven years ago and much has changed. Trishna has now grown into JKS Restaurants, the group taking its name from the first initial of each of the three siblings. What began as a risky punt at the start of a recession has led to the Sethis being some of the most influential figures on the London dining scene. The group is involved with 17 restaurants across London, split into two distinct areas. One is based around the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent and is made up of Trishna, Gymkhana, Hoppers, a delivery service called Motu, which focuses on Indian street food, and Brigadier. Then there are the ‘partner’ restaurants including places such as Lyle’s, Bubbledogs and Bao.
“Jyotin, Sunaina and I actively run the Indian restaurants, whereas we are investors in the partner restaurants,” says Karam. “Throughout our expansion of the Indian cuisine offerings, the ethos has remained the same: punchy, bold flavours inspired by authentic regional cooking. Along the way we have expanded the variety of regions we cover. In Gymkhana, the food has a wider range but is more from the north of the country; in Hoppers, dishes are inspired by the food of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu; and Brigadier is probably the most pan-Indian.” Karam explains.
That early lesson in authenticity has not been forgotten, and nor has a commitment to using the best produce available. “We import a lot of the spices and the chillies we use from India—Kashmiri chillies being a big one. We also import some other things like alphonso and Pakistani mangoes, and other produce we just cannot source outside India. However, we buy in as much as we can from British producers,” Karam explains. Things are going well, but there is no resting on laurels being planned any time soon. The differences in regional Indian cuisine can be huge, and this is an area that Karam, Sunaina and Jyotin are keen to continue exploring. “The cuisines in Goa and Delhi are as different as those in England and Portugal. There’s a huge amount to discover. It is very much at the forefront of our minds to continue to create a wide variety of authentic, complex and flavourful dishes.”
One sign of the change that Trishna’s success has helped inspire is the diminishing of the ‘curry and a pint’ culture that had become the dominant form of Indian food. Now, the suggestion that Indian food and good wine might be paired together is no longer met with the scepticism of old. “They were definitely not seen as a things that belonged together. We were working against a culture that said Indian food was not fine enough to warrant good wine, but we knew from our own experience that this was not true,” Karam recalls.
“This was a perception we really wanted to change and we put a lot of hard work into this from the beginning. We were sending out a message about the sophistication of good Indian cuisine. I believe Trishna was the first Indian restaurant to have every dish on the menu paired with a carefully chosen wine. We also had a wine flight option for our tasting menu. Sunaina has to take a huge amount of credit for this. She took on the job of building the wine list and worked incredibly hard at finding the right wines and working on the pairings—she was a real pioneer in this area. Funnily enough, we have now come full circle. At Brigadiers, the food is being matched with carefully chosen and interesting beers that we are brewing ourselves. Matching carefully great drinks with Indian food no longer raises eyebrows.”
Karam is still very much involved with the food side of the business, though he has stepped back from the daily grind of the restaurant kitchen. His time behind the stove is now spent alongside the group’s other chefs as they develop menus for new restaurants or work on new recipes for the existing ones. “We will hire a chef three to six months before the project opens and I am in the kitchen pretty much every day with them. During that time, we will be testing dishes, testing ingredients, creating the menu. We will very much go through the whole process together. The great thing is that we can create much more creative and adventurous menus than you once would,” Karam reveals. “I wouldn’t call myself achef anymore. While I still go into the kitchen during the set-up phase, I have to take a holistic view of the whole restaurant concept. I look at layout, decoration, menu, staff, uniforms. But my thinking on food is still very much the same. I’m inspired by old, rare and classic recipes and creating our takes on those recipes. We never ‘fancy them up’, but stay close to the roots of where the food originates. Bold, indulgent spicing with a sense of fun and a sense of occasion defines our food. It has to create conversation, be convivial. That is what I think our food is and should always be.”