Karam Sethi is not exactly cool. He is a chinos and cashmere sweater guy, the clothes of a man a decade older than he is, which is a precocious 31. He is shy, introverted company at least until you've met him a few times or he's drunk a few cocktails. He is an excellent, mostly self-taught chef, but he's not zany like Heston Blumenthal or a game-changer like Noma's René Redzepi. His careers teacher at school probably didn't direct him towards a job in hospitality. His parents wanted him to be a banker.
But, in one respect at least, Sethi is basically a genius. It's almost a superpower he possesses. He knows what you want to eat. You might not even know you want to eat it. Actually, you might not even know that this thing that you really want to eat even exists just yet. But, on previous evidence, he'll make it and you will.
This gift Sethi has is not something he was born with. He launched his first restaurant, Trishna, in London's Marylebone in late 2008 aged 24. The food – upmarket Indian, focusing on the coastal cuisine of the south-west – was decent, the setting inoffensively millennial, but it didn't sing. Moreover, the financial crisis had reached the holy-shit stage and the restaurant's core clientele was now (pretending to be) chastened. "Lehman Brothers had just gone tits up, so there were a few times we were worried initially," recalls Sethi, as we sit in a booth at the back of Trishna, waiting for tandoori lamb chops and two Koliwada Kooler cocktails. "But there's never been a point where we've thought, 'This is not for us. It's not going to happen. We're not going to succeed.'"
His second restaurant, Gymkhana in Mayfair, which opened in September 2013, made Sethi's name. That is, made his name figuratively, as few people outside the industry have any idea who he is. This is mostly his choice and certainly his preference. (Sethi is in business with two even-more-silent partners: his older brother, Jyotin, who looks after the money, and younger sister Sunaina, who's in charge of drinks; collectively they are JKS Restaurants.)
No one saw the success of Gymkhana coming: the venture had not started life as a street-food, word-of-mouth sensation; the owners didn't have an address book full of celebrities, critics and food-world insiders. But, on the press night, the Evening Standard's Fay Maschler came and then she returned the next day for lunch. One dish, the Wild Muntjac Biryani, sent her into a reverie about founding father of nouvelle cuisine Paul Bocuse and his iconic soupe aux truffes, while the experience, she trilled, "can only be described as magnificent"; Maschler awarded Gymkhana her sixth five-star review in four decades on the job.
Giles Coren, The Times' scabrous critic and Esquire's editor-at-large, went one better: he made an unprecedented three trips in one week, eating 25 of the 34 savoury dishes on the menu. In December 2013, he wrote, "Gymkhana is the best restaurant I have ever been to." He realised this was a "ludicrous" statement to make so he qualified it, but only reluctantly. "Let's just say it has the best food I have ever eaten."
It wasn't just the critics who were in a sweat about Gymkhana. Chefs called in favours to sneak a table: Blumenthal and Redzepi, also Raymond Blanc, Anthony Bourdain, Sat Bains and Pierre Koffmann. Their endorsement was evident in the 2014 National Restaurant Awards, voted for by 150 chefs, restaurateurs and gourmands. Sethi had been hoping for a spot in the top 30 for Gymkhana, which had been open for just nine months. It placed first: the restaurant was officially the best in Britain.
If proof were needed that "fine dining" was dead, long live "affordable fine casual", or something, here it was.
"We thought it was a wind-up, a complete and utter piss-take," admits Sethi. "We're not really the best restaurant in the UK. There are better restaurants out there."
Sethi stops; he doesn't entirely believe that and it shows. He goes on, "You hear noises of your competitors saying, 'Why the fuck are they winning these awards? They're just a curry house.' We might be, but you don't see curry houses doing dosas with slow-cooked Chettinad duck, or duck egg bhurji, an Indian scrambled egg dish we serve with lobster. It hit the sweet spot basically, people got it. They came to Gymkhana and they just got the place."
The first Indian restaurant in London was almost certainly the Hindostanee Dinner and Hooka Smoking House, which opened in Portman Square in 1810. The entrepreneur behind it, Saik Deen Mahomad, was a Bengali, who joined the army aged 10 and became a surgeon. He hoped to entice the traders of the East India Company who had developed a taste for "currie" — a word that didn't really exist in India but was coined by the British to describe any dish featuring a sauce made with chilli and spices on their travels. Home delivery was even available "by giving previous notice". Regrettably the restaurant didn't quite catch on and within two years Mahomad had filed for bankruptcy and scurried off to Brighton to set up a vapour massage baths.
These days there are around 10,000 traditional curry houses in Britain and you're probably fed up with being told that chicken tikka masala is now our national dish. Two hundred years on from the Hindostanee Dinner and Hooka Smoking House, though, many elements of these operations are recognisably similar. The proprietors are not necessarily experienced chefs but, like Mahomad, immigrants – from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh mainly – no longer deemed qualified for the job they did back home. The food, then and now, makes little claim to be authentic or regional, only to appeal to a desensitised and undiscriminating British palette.
"When you talk about a curry house, they are typically run by lazy people," Sethi says. "Just the food colour — I know the shortcuts they take: serving one sauce with three different proteins. It's given Indian food a bad name. It's not the real, traditional food you'd find in India, basically. It's a bastardisation of a cuisine tailored to the curry-and-pint crowd of the Eighties and early Nineties.
"India's hugely diverse; it's like Europe," he continues. "There are eight languages spoken and about 64 regional cuisines. The food they eat in Tamil Nadu in the south compared to Lucknow in the north is like the difference between French and Spanish food."
Giles Coren is even more scathing. "Whenever we eat Indian food, it all basically tastes the same," he tells me. "I'll go out for my annual football dinner with the boys and it's delicious but you can't tell the difference between a prawn and a piece of mutton. The idea of a local high-street Indian doing a tasting menu, or different sharing dishes, is ridiculous. It's like: small brown thing followed by small brown thing followed by small brown thing… And it all comes out of the same hole, usually very quickly."
The menu at Gymkhana, which Sethi created and oversaw, was not setting out to reinvent Indian cuisine. That had been done in London a decade before, in 2001, when Tamarind and the now-closed Zaika had become the first restaurants from the subcontinent to win Michelin stars; Trishna, once Sethi had fired the launch chef and taken over at the stove himself, joined them on Bibendum's list in 2012.
At Gymkhana, however, Sethi wanted to have fun with the curiously overlooked middle ground between these modern high-end Indian places and the high-street curry house. The setting was informal — no tablecloths, attentive but not sycophantic service — and the food was presented family-style; that is, dumped in the middle of the table for everyone to fight over.
Sethi's singular innovation at Gymkhana, though, was to twist familiar Indian dishes in unexpected ways. So, a vindaloo was on the menu, but it was made from suckling pig cheeks. The meat in the biryani that Maschler rated the best "I've had outside of Hyderabad" was wild muntjac, a small deer taken down by a stalker on the Berkshire Downs, and it was served with pomegranate and mint raita. A curry of minced goat could be supplemented with creamy bheja (sautéed brains), for an additional £3. Such was the confidence in Gymkhana that this last dish became one of the most popular offerings on the menu.
"There's just a finesse and a love at Gymkhana and there's no sense of contempt," Coren says. "Indians are generally very polite but basically we are oppressive, pasty-faced slave masters who don't understand them, and why should they bother to lay themselves on the line to show us the best of their cuisine when we are just ungrateful, imperialist swine? And that's not the attitude at Gymkhana."
So, two years on, does Coren stand by his review? "Well, I've just booked a table for my mother's birthday, so I'm clearly still into it. Nowhere has been so surprisingly good since."
The food was one element, but where Gymkhana really stood apart was that now – for perhaps the first time in Britain – going for a curry was aspirational. An Indian restaurant had become a key stop on the paparazzi circuit; the kind of place where Nigella Lawson, in the midst of her excruciating court case, escaped to eat with Salman Rushdie. Or, as happened a few nights before I meet Sethi, Gwyneth Paltrow dined with a table of girlfriends next to a raucous gathering hosted by Vijay Mallya, the Indian politician and sports tycoon. No longer was it food that, if you had it for lunch, you'd need to have a lie down afterwards. An Indian meal was now something you could enjoy at the beginning of an evening before going on elsewhere, not just a booze-soaking afterthought.
Sethi modestly deflects some of these compliments. He had an idea about what people wanted to eat and the style and setting they might enjoy it in. "You can slate those curry houses but they did a lot of work in getting people familiar with the spices and flavours," he says. "With papadum and naan, biryani and butter chicken, all those classics that are probably more famous in this country than in India. That level of spice, it gets you, you crave it after a while. You just want more and more and more of it. It's food that gets you addicted."
Sethi's background, he accepts, is not that of most Indian chefs and restaurateurs. His father, Harash, a chartered accountant from Delhi, came to Britain in the Seventies; his mother Meena joined him a few years later and the family lived in Finchley, North London. Karam attended Haberdashers' Aske, a high-achieving public school in Hertfordshire. Summers were spent in Delhi, playing cricket and watching their grandparents' cooks at work. On special occasions, they would go out to Gymkhana Club or the dining room at the Delhi Golf Club. Two decades later, these visits were evoked by Sethi in the interior design of Gymkhana, with Raj-era, clubby wooden booths, whooshing ceiling fans, taxidermy and sepia photographs of sportsmen.
Harash and Meena had entrenched, fairly traditional hopes for their children, but Karam was stubborn. "You could tell he wasn't going to go down the normal route of Asian kids growing up, who become bankers, lawyers, accountants," remembers Jyotin, his brother, who was a venture capitalist before JKS. "He had that naughty streak. He wasn't obedient. He didn't follow orders. My parents introduced him to banks and he basically didn't turn up to interviews."
"I just always knew what I wanted to do," says Sethi. "My first work experience at school, aged 15, was at a hotel in Stuttgart in the kitchens. I was getting laughed at by all the other boys who were going to banks, but I thought, 'I know what I want to do and you don't, so let's see where we are in 15 years.' And now they are coming to eat in the restaurants and begging for tables."
From Trishna, we Uber into Soho and now sit at the bar of Duck and Rice, Alan Yau's reimagined boozer and chop suey restaurant. Sethi orders us two halves of unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell, delivered weekly from the Czech Republic, which is stored in a blingy golden canister by the entrance. The choice of location is a considered one: before Sethi had even heard of Alan Yau, he wanted to be Alan Yau. Again, the name might not be that familiar, but few people have been so influential in improving the way that Londoners – not exclusively, but mostly – eat. In 1992, Yau founded Wagamama in Bloomsbury and convinced us to share tables and spend £10 on Japanese noodles. Yau became unfathomably wealthy when he sold the chain in 1998 and he has since done, among others, high-end Cantonese, a tea and dim sum parlour, an Italian bakery and a Turkish pizza joint.
"I study all his restaurants," says Sethi. "He's way ahead with trends. Like, ramen is a trend today, but he was doing ramen with Wagamama 20 years ago. What he did with dim sum was unbelievable. When he opens a restaurant, there's no expense spared, every detail is considered. He's the god of London restaurants in terms of what he's done."
Sethi and JKS are not doing badly in building a diverse empire of their own. The family personally manages and oversees Trishna and Gymkhana, but from 2012,
it began investing in young chefs Sethi found talented and enterprising. There are now four London restaurants in the portfolio: Bubbledogs and Kitchen Table in Fitzrovia, run by husband-and-wife James Knappett, a chef, and Sandia Chang, a sommelier; James Lowe's impeccable Lyle's in Shoreditch; and Bao, in Soho, creators of the fluffiest, most ethereal gua bao (steamed buns) this side of Taiwan.
This last investment was "the biggest risk", according to Sethi, ostensibly because the team behind Bao – sister and brother Wai Ting and Shing Tat Chung, and Chung's girlfriend Erchen Chang – were design students not chefs. It has also been the most conspicuous success, with queues snaking down the block ever since it opened in April. No London launch has been so fussed over by critics and diners since Gymkhana.
Alan Yau, who has met Sethi only in passing, appreciates what he has seen. "You can read a lot into how people set out their menu," says Yau. "Particularly at Gymkhana, I like the Anglicised approach to the layout – the journey. The art of restaurateuring is likened to film-making, it requires many disciplines to come together. It also reflects the director's personal attributes. For me Karam represents the next generation going forward."
A few streets from Duck and Rice, we pop into Bao, guiltily but shamelessly queue-jump – "You have to be subtle," whispers Sethi, "there's been real problems with queue rage" – and scoff a few buns. Then it's on to the mother ship, Gymkhana. As we walk, Sethi – who stopped working day-to-day in the kitchen 18 months ago, but still develops new dishes – pre-emptively fusses about what he'll find. "I know I'll see 20 things I don't like," he predicts. "There will be dust on a stool or a bit on the floor that has not been restained, because it's an antique floor. Anyone who wants to achieve this level has to be obsessive, almost OCD. With the expectations people have, it needs to be identical every single day."
Upon arrival, 3pm on a Friday afternoon, Gymkhana is not as ramshackle as Sethi feared. In fact, he seems overcome by a proprietorial pride – or maybe it's the effects of the Black Samurai sake we downed as we left Bao. Sethi sourced much of the decoration himself or it comes from his extensive personal archive of sporting memorabilia. Prized possessions include a 2008–'09 Barcelona shirt autographed by the squad and their then-manager Pep Guardiola and a programme from the 100th Manchester derby, signed by Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson. He also has Mahendra Singh Dhoni's match-worn pads from his final one-day international. These are not on display, though, but kept in tissue paper and bubble wrap and stored in his mum's loft.
"Food and Manchester United are the two things that get Karam going," says Jyotin Sethi. "By nature, he's shy and if you're talking about general life stuff, he's not interested at all. When these conversations are taking place he switches off completely and he's more likely to be checking Twitter or Instagram. But when somebody asks him about food, he's in the zone."
We take a booth and Sethi has a surprise. In October, JKS is opening a new restaurant in Soho called Hoppers. It is named after a pancake made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk – technically an appam but British colonials struggled with that and somehow arrived at "hopper" — that are common in roadside boutiques in Tamil Nadu, in the southeast of India, and in Sri Lanka. Earlier, Sethi had phoned Gymkhana's kitchen and asked them to knock up a batch: a treat for us – now about to embark on our third lunch of the day – and an impromptu test for his chefs.
The man who knows what we want to eat thinks he has hit upon the next great dining trend. "It's not junk food," explains Sethi. "But hoppers are quick to make, relatively cheap and they taste amazing. It's kind of like the Indian hamburger."
The hopper arrives; an egg has been cracked into the middle of it while it was fried. It looks like a distant planet we haven't discovered yet. Alongside it comes a curry – or "kari", from the Tamil word meaning "sauce" – and a sambal and chutney made from pounded fresh coconut.
You can attack the hopper how you choose: tear off strips or roll it into one monstrous sandwich. The other speciality of the Hoppers menu will be the dosa, those wonderful, golden wigwam-shaped crepes that have become a Gymkhana signature. They will be around half the price of their equivalent at the sister restaurant, but, with no bookings, who knows how long you will have to wait in line to order one.
"I came up with the concept of Hoppers when I was on a stag do in Ko Samui in 2013," says Sethi. "We just create restaurants we would like to eat in ourselves and Sri Lankan – specifically Tamil – food really hasn't been done properly in London yet. The cuisine is actually quite close to Southeast Asian: it's very fragrant and it's got a peppery spice, not a chilli burn. Your palette will be singing."
I take a bite of my hopper and close my eyes. I hadn't planned to do it; the reaction is involuntary. The outside of the pancake is crisp, while the egg in the centre is just set, slightly bouncy. It tastes both familiar and comforting, but also like nothing else I've ever eaten before. My eyes still shut, I have a premonition: it's a queue, a long one, and I'm standing in it. This thing I'd never wanted before, never knew existed, has now become a compulsion. Blinking back to reality, I have demolished my hopper in four greedy mouthfuls and, while Sethi looks on with evident satisfaction, I'm already thinking, "When can I have one again?"
Hoppers, 49 Frith Street, London W1D 4SG opens in October