From Wild Boar Biryani to Tandoori Guinea Fowl Breast, Gymkhana, which was the first Indian restaurant to win the National Restaurant of the Year in 2014, has introduced the British to the culinary marvels of food from India’s elite clubs. Karam Sethi, chef and co-owner of Gymkhana, tells Fiona Fernandez of the journey so far
Q. Why start a space inspired by the gymkhana theme? Why did you think it would work in cosmopolitan London?
A. The Indian dining market in London had been crying out for somewhere that was accessible, fun and high quality. Mayfair, the heart of London’s Indian dining scene, seemed too comfortable, stagnant even, and my siblings and I wanted to create a place that was authentic, unpretentious and understood what today’s diners want. We grew up visiting the gymkhana clubs of India in the summer holidays with our grandparents and loved the social vibe, chatpatta club food and the grown-up atmosphere. Brits have some of the most adventurous palates so I was confident that if we made a restaurant that we could be proud of ourselves, it would work.
Gymkhana Kid Goat Methi Keema, Salli, Pao
Q. What kind of research was needed to ensure that the place integrated the elements of the gymkhana way of life?
A. I should emphasise that we were not attempting to make a themed carbon copy of a gymkhana club in London, but to take the essence of the elite social and sports clubs. We spent two years nailing all the little details to get it right — it’s my grandmother’s barometer, and all my own pictures, Punch sketches and sports posters on the walls. The hunting trophies are from the Maharaja of Jodhpur and all the staff uniforms were made bespoke. I was obsessive with the interiors, and that they would properly reference classic Indian architecture so there’s lacquered oak ceiling panelling, ceiling fans, marble tables with burnished brass, deep brown leather banquettes and mottled glass screens.
Sethi siblings and Gymkhana co-owners (left to right) Karam Sethi (food and concepts), Sunaina Sethi (wine and operations) and Jyotin Sethi (finance)
Q. Tell us how you evolved the food and drinks menu. What were the specific challenges to ensure the menu appealed to a pan-UK palate?
A. The food has been conceived by me; the Gymkhana menu reflects the food I have grown up with — my mother’s and grandmother’s cooking and my visits to India. I’ve been working on the dishes since 2010 with my team at Trishna and given how personal they are, they cannot be replicated. I didn’t think about tailoring the flavours or spicing to suit a certain palate, because all palates can love these authentic flavours. India is so regional and each region has a particular taste and palate, so instead of trying to work out how to adjust flavours to suit what customers were used to, I trusted my taste, and people would like to be delighted by things that are new.
Wild Muntjac Biryani
Q. Sustaining dining places is a challenge. How have you ensured that Gymkhana continues to draw in loyal patrons and invite new customers?
A. We continuously monitor ourselves and standardise the recipes we use so that when our guests come in and love a dish they know that they can order the same thing next time. We do change dishes with the seasons; for example, when British grouse shooting season begins we’ll use game birds. Something I’m excited about for next year is doing more with wine. My sister Sunaina, who buys all our wine, has been instrumental in changing the perception that Indian food can only pair with beer. Guests find her unstuffy approach as a sommelier refreshing, and her suggested pairings, like an Argentine Cab Franc with Wild Boar Biryani, can take a dish to a whole new level.
Tandoori Guinea Fowl Breast, Leg & Green Mango Chaat, Mint Coriander Chutney
Log on to: www.gymkhanalondon.com
My favourite cuisines
>> I love the food of the Northwest Frontier, particularly the grills and kebabs as well as the influences from Egypt, Persia and Pakistan. The dishes that are cooked in the tandoor or clay oven rely on skilled chefs who can gauge spicing, marinades and cooking heats because there are no sauces or gravies to mask the flavour of the meats.
>> Food from India’s southwest coast holds a similar appeal. There’s more of black pepper and mustard seed, which works brilliantly with the fish and seafood available in that region.
Flavours of the season
We introduce certain dishes seasonally and serve only game, or Alfonso mangoes, for example, when they are in season. We also do special menus for Diwali with Ras Malai and Damson Chutney, and at Christmas, we do several special menus with things like a Mushroom Methi Mattar Pilau, with black truffles.
— Karam Sethi, co-owner