Chef James Kent Was Building a Dining Empire Where Everyone Was Welcome

It was a memory that really stuck with chef Jamal James Kent. He’d gone to a famed Michelin-starred restaurant dressed smartly in cashmere and khakis, but sans a jacket. So when he arrived, he was forced to borrow a coat if he wanted to dine. “Halfway through the meal, I’m like, I’m taking this off,” Kent told me in March. “It was such a small coat. It was the most uncomfortable hour of my life.” It spoke to something bigger, he thought: In the rarefied world of fine dining, where he helmed some of the world’s best kitchens, he didn’t always feel welcome and allowed to be himself. He was determined that, at his restaurants, the ethos would be different. “For me, it’s like how do we make this kind of like antiquated and stuffy system feel youthful, young, current, and interesting?”

At the growing Saga Hospitality Group he led, Kent was doing just that, building a dining empire that ranged from a Michelin two-starred restaurant where he encouraged you to wear Air Jordans to dinner, to reimagining the fast-casual food at the Santa Monica Pier. However, the chef will not see the full vision of his empire to fruition, as he died this past weekend at the age of 45.

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“We are heartbroken to share that James Kent passed away unexpectedly earlier today,” SHG posted on Instagram on Saturday evening. “The Saga Hospitality Group family is focused on supporting each other and most importantly Kelly, Gavin and Avery as we grieve James’ loss.”

Kent was raised in New York City in an Islamic household (his first name is Jamal, but he told Eater he went by James professionally because after 9/11 he was worried putting his first name on a resume could cost him work), and the city’s confluence of cultures had a profound effect on him. “I grew up with people of all different stripes and different religions and came from different places, and I would go to their homes and eat dinner with their families,” he said. Kent worked at acclaimed kitchens throughout the city, starting at David Bouley’s eponymous restaurant when he was just 14. After culinary school, he cooked at Babbo, Jean-Georges, Eleven Madison Mark, and NoMad before setting out on his own.

In 2019, Kent opened Crown Shy on the ground floor of 70 Pine in Manhattan’s Financial District. The mix of cultures he experienced in his youth were on display as flavors from around the world all shared a place on the restaurant’s menu. “We’re an American restaurant,” Kent said. “We allow ourselves to be inspired by New York City, by our travels, and then it’s our take on how do we make it our own.”

After enduring the worst of the pandemic shutdowns, he opened Saga, his tasting menu spot on the building’s 63rd floor. The restaurant, which debuted in 2021 and quickly earned two Michelin stars, launched with a shareable duck tagine finale, a North African-inspired dish that’s a nod to Kent’s father who grew up in Morocco. Along with Crown Shy and Saga was Overstory, the acclaimed cocktail lounge on the 64th floor that has climbed up the ranks of the World’s 50 Best Bars list.

And Kent recently revealed that SHG had taken an investment from Lebron James’s LRMR Ventures to help fuel his budding dining empire. The projects include taking over the food operations at Santa Monica Pier’s Pacific Park, the dining options at Racquet Lounge (a member’s club in Southampton), a fried chicken concept at the U.S. Open, a fine dining restaurant at 360 Park led by current Top Chef finalist Danny Garcia, and a bakery and café helmed by Renata Ameni at the revamped Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn.

The investment from LRMR was driven by the team’s connection to Kent. “We all have this belief of what a two-Michelin-star restaurant is,” said Paul Rivera, chief marketing officer at James’s and Maverick Carter’s SpringHill Company. “Then you meet chef, and it’s like he’s like one of my homies. He’s a regular New York guy. It’s hard not to fall in love with him immediately.”

In the wake of his passing, social media has been flooded with remembrances of Kent that speak to a similar connection he made with people across the restaurant industry. The outpouring of heartbreak and affection underlines both his devotion to making fine-dining restaurants welcoming to diners and his insistence that they be an inclusive place for staff as well.

Pastry chef Sumaiya Bangee shared a memory of her first interaction with Kent at Eleven Madison Park on her first day there a decade ago. Kent walked up to her, a young woman in a hijab, and said “Yo, I haven’t seen you before. My name is Jamal, most people don’t know that about me in the kitchen. My dad’s Muslim, too, just know. . .whatever you need, I got your back.” And Bangee says in her post that he always stayed true to those words. “You were my chef then, 10 years later not only did you keep your word to always have my back but you became so much more than a chef to me, you became a friend, a mentor, my uncle.”

Numerous chefs shared memories of kindness Kent had showed them, or mentorship he’d provided. Yuu Shimano, the chef behind our Best New Restaurant of the year, said he thought of Kent like his big brother. Shimano has been a regular at the Crown High Run Club Kent founded, where people across the industry meet on Monday mornings to run together. It was Kent’s way to foster community in the restaurant world and promote healthy habits. Earlier today, the group met for a run in Kent’s honor.

It was clear that Kent wanted to be a leader in the industry and build a restaurant empire to match the likes of New York giants such as Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. It was just as clear that he understood that his desire to be a leader came with a responsibility to mentor people and foster their careers as well as his own. It’s a role he embraced. When it came time to announce Saga Hospitality Group’s expansion plans earlier this year, he didn’t cast the spotlight solely on himself—Kent had a photoshoot with the team surrounding him so they could shine, too.

But it was hard to outshine James Kent, because as one chef told me after hearing of his death, “He was easily the brightest star of our generation.”

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