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Sunaina Sethi

An interview with the co-founder of JKS

An interview with the co-founder of JKS

Interview by Anna Sulan Masing  |  Illustration by Gwendoline Blosse

It is no surprise that the restaurant world is called the hospitality industry; the act of service and the art of welcoming is what keeps us coming back to our favourite places, it is what makes us feel special, and what endears us to dining out. In this column, Anna Sulan Masing takes us on a journey around the UK, speaking to the talented people who orchestrate the most memorable experiences we have at the table. 

For this column Anna speaks to Sunaina Sethi, who makes up one third of JKS, a restaurant company that has a number of restaurants under their umbrella: Trishna, Bubbledogs, Gymkhana, Lyle’s, Bao, Hoppers, and Xu. Sunaina was General Manager at Trishna before becoming Operations Director and Wine Buyer for the group. 

How did your path into hospitality begin?

When we opened Trishna I was working for a bank in Germany. I moved back to London to help out at the restaurant and within two days I just got this feeling – it was so exciting, a fascination. All other career plans got thrown in the bin.

I started by running the bar at Trishna. It oversees the busiest side of the room, so you can really see how a restaurant works – the flow and rhythm of guests and service. But it was my middle brother that started it all. He wanted to open a restaurant.

As a family growing up we used to go out a lot, but more importantly our parents entertained a lot. It’s funny, even from that age you could see how our roles were defined: our middle brother was always in the kitchen with mum helping with the food, I would serve the drinks and our older brother would schmooze. It really highlighted our individual personalities and skill sets.

What in particular do you remember from those early days?

The interaction with guests. I started to see what we could improve through that communication. Being an owner and being on the floor, you can make changes quickly, be reactive and feel the vibe of the restaurant.

Why have you stayed in the industry?

It turned into an obsession. It becomes your life, and you want it to take over your life, in the best possible way. I am constantly finding new ways to do things – how you can wow people, give them the best experience they can have.

I still spend time in the restaurants, particularly those serving Indian food. What’s exciting is that no two days are the same: I can do a sommelier shift or a manager shift and they are so different – it’s a real adrenaline rush.

How is service and hospitality important?

Front of house don’t get enough love. Food often takes centre stage, as it should, but you are far more likely to have people come back if you give them a great experience. Guests will remember the conversations, the way a dish was recommended to them, the knowledge of the staff.

How did the restaurants evolve?

Sandia Chang (Bubbledogs) used to run Roganic next door to Trishna. I would grab her as she walked past after service and we’d share a bottle of wine and talk. We developed a great friendship, and from there we decided that we should do something together.

We approach the restaurant business in a very collaborative way. We partner with people we feel have similar mindsets to us, and in concepts that we believe in. It is very much their restaurants, and we offer support.

"There are two schools of thought. There are people who still want fine dining... Then there are those that want to feel comfortable, like they are at home with friends"

Was the range of different styles of restaurant purposeful?

Yes! The nature of the food and the space dictates the style of service and therefore the restaurant. We want to keep the strong hospitality angle, just offered in different ways. We want our staff to read the guest, preempt the guest – give them a great experience. The emphasis on efficiency and knowledge is the same.

What do you think guests value in a restaurant?

I think there are two schools of thought and expectations. There are people who still want fine dining – the detail, having wine poured for them – that is why they go out to restaurants. Then there are those that want to feel comfortable, like they are at home with friends.

Any tips on how to meet expectations?

It is important to know that you aren’t going to please everyone. You just have to be confident in your concept and the way you want to do things. You also need to get buy-in from your staff, make sure they understand the culture of your restaurant.

How has the industry changed?

There is a lack of people seeing hospitality as a viable career choice, but it is changing. For example, we are now invited to career days, which didn’t happen when I was at school. It is a cool industry, it’s so dynamic.

There is a new generation that is very much focused on collaboration. There doesn’t seem to be the same idea of competition – London is big enough for all to succeed. We really support each other and want to help each other out.

What are your predictions for the future?

It feels a little transient at the moment. There was a trend for fast casual, but I think there is a bit of a revival of traditional dining, but modernised, less stiff.

"There is nothing like sitting down with someone in the industry over a glass of wine – there is so much to talk about, so much passion, so many ideas"

What is the biggest perk of your job?

Meeting people – colleagues, industry people and guests. There is nothing like sitting down with someone in the industry over a glass of wine; there is so much to talk about, so much passion, so many ideas. With guests, you get to see such a range of people. Every day is different because of the people.

What happens after service?

This is a really important time, to sit down, debrief, chat. You can spend more time with people you work with than your families and it is an important bonding time. You get to learn from each other, discussing ways people dealt with different situations.

Who do you admire in the industry?

There are so many! Dan and Mark at Noble Rot – they are bringing in such a range of people interested in wine. Also Sandia Chang, Ruth Spivey, Leah Kirkland, Darren McHugh… so many more!

Tell us about one of your earliest food memories.

I grew up in the UK but I vividly remember visiting my grandparents in India. They had a big table with a lazy Susan in the middle – so of course I was playing with it! – and I recall being overawed with the amount of food and sharing it with family – hot chapattis continuously coming out of the kitchen.

What are your favourite places to eat?

Noble Rot is a firm favourite. And what I would call comfort food places – Xi’an Impressions in North London and Cobheh, which is near Trishna, for Persian food.

I do love being at my parents’ place. My brother will often send our mother recipes for her to cook, then turn up and change everything! We recently went to Portugal for a family holiday which was fun, with everyone cooking, giving opinions and sharing ideas.