Karan Gokani

Karan Gokani

Karan Gokani

After giving up his job as a lawyer to pursue a career in food, Karan Gokani channelled his passion for South Indian cuisine into the launch of the now hugely popular Hoppers. As creative director, he oversees menu development at all three Hoppers sites.

A passion for cooking doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is suited to a career as a professional chef. A life spent working tirelessly in a sweltering kitchen isn’t for everyone, after all. Thankfully there are other routes into the restaurant industry that still allow for creativity in the kitchen. Despite having always been passionate about food, Karan knew that a career as a full-time chef wasn’t for him and instead developed a Sri Lankan restaurant concept in London, which became the much-lauded Hoppers. As creative director of the JKS-run brand, he's still able to flex his cookery skills through recipe development, while also being involved in the progression of the outfit more broadly.

Growing up in Mumbai eating home-cooked Indian food, Karan can trace his love of cookery back to a very young age, ‘I remember when I was about four, being in the kitchen with our cook,’ he recalls, ‘I’d help him roll chapatis and then during the afternoons I started to go in and cook things for myself. It was that process of getting your hands dirty that I loved.’ This began a love affair with food, and Karan particularly enjoyed the creativity of turning raw elements into a finished dish - ‘I think I’ve always been quite artistic and food was just another way of expressing that.’

Despite this fascination with food, Karan initially decided to pursue a career in law, undertaking a law degree in Bombay. And it was during his time at university in India when he first worked in a professional kitchen, ‘it was just a summer job in a hotel kitchen,’ he explains, ‘but I realised early on that working in a kitchen permanently didn’t suit my personality. I had the bug and wanted to do more than just host dinner parties, but I knew I didn’t want to retrain as a chef.’ Still unsure of the way in which he wanted to be involved in food, Karan moved to Cambridge to undertake a second law degree, which ultimately led to a job in a top London law firm. After spending three years working as a solicitor, Karan quit his role in 2013 to return to India, longing for something more creative.

‘My desire to get into food just grew and grew,’ says Karan, ‘everyone I knew always joked about the fact that I clearly wanted to do it but I was also a very risk averse lawyer, so I wanted to slowly start getting familiar with the inside of the industry. It was all about finding the right opportunity and being brave enough to do it.’

The opportunity finally arose for Karan after he met and married his wife Sunaina Sethi, one of three siblings who founded JKS restaurants – the London based group who at that point already ran the likes of Trishna, Bubbledogs and Gymkhana. After conversations with both Jyotin and Karam Sethi about new restaurant concepts and JKS’s plans for expansion, Karan decided to fully dedicate himself to a career in food, and one concept in particular really appealed to him, ‘opening a restaurant had never really been about the cuisine for me,’ he explains, ‘I just knew it needed to be something close to my heart and something I could represent authentically. But I remember at our wedding in Kerala having a conversation with Karam about doing a Sri Lankan and being very interested. I obviously hadn’t grown up there but there was a lot of that culture around me, I’d travelled there a lot and I just loved the food. Around that time, people in the UK were also coming to understand hyper-regional food and that was something we felt we could really tap into.’

Initially, Karan moved back to London to work with JKS on some consultancy projects that they were involved in, but after a while his focus shifted fully towards the opening of his first Sri Lankan restaurant with JKS, having landed on the name Hoppers, ‘the idea was always for it to be a no reservation restaurant with small sharing tables,’ says Karan, ‘the idea being that no matter what walk of life you’re from, you’d come in, share a table and leave not just remembering the food but also remembering the conversation you had with your neighbour and the team who looked after you.’ Following various research trips to Sri Lanka to ensure the menu was as authentic as possible, Karan opened the first Hoppers at a small site on Frith Street in Soho in 2015 - it was an immediate hit.

As a result of this success, a second Hoppers site soon followed in 2017, this time in Marylebone, before a King’s Cross restaurant opened in 2020. Karan remained deeply involved with each of these openings, both in terms of hands-on recipe development but also overseeing the different teams, ‘I never want to be doing the same thing every day,’ he says, ‘I equally love dealing with people and dealing with food, and this role lets me do that. I’ll put my hands up and say I’m not a chef, but I am always trying to extract the best out of people at Hoppers.’ By spending less time in the actual kitchen, Karan has instead been able to work on other projects including cookbooks, collaborations and Hoppers delivery, bringing the food of Sri Lanka to even more people; and he shows no sign of stopping, ‘there’s still a lot more to come on the Hoppers front,’ he adds, ‘and I’ll be leading on that.’

Having spent a long time trying to find his way into the industry without being confined to the kitchen every day, not only has Karan found a role he’s perfectly suited to, he’s created one of London’s most popular restaurant concepts of the past ten years. Hoppers has helped shine a spotlight on a cuisine that Londoners knew far less about back in 2015, and that’s largely down to Karan's creativity and passion.