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James Kent, chef who was building a restaurant empire, dies at 45

DANIEL KRIEGER/THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                Chef James Kent at Crown Shy in New York, in June 2019. Kent, a distinguished chef and successful Manhattan restaurateur who seemed poised to become a food-industry tycoon, died on Saturday. He was 45.
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DANIEL KRIEGER/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Chef James Kent at Crown Shy in New York, in June 2019. Kent, a distinguished chef and successful Manhattan restaurateur who seemed poised to become a food-industry tycoon, died on Saturday. He was 45.

James Kent, a distinguished chef and successful Manhattan restaurateur who seemed poised to become a food-industry tycoon, died on Saturday. He was 45.

His death was announced by Saga Hospitality Group, the holding company of his two restaurants, Crown Shy and Saga, and his cocktail bar, Overstory, which are all in the same building in the Financial District of Manhattan. The statement did not specify where he died or the cause.

In 1993, when he was a 14-year-old growing up in Greenwich Village and already working at a restaurant, Kent’s mother made him knock on the door of their building’s newest resident — celebrity chef David Bouley. The young man asked if he could spend time in Bouley’s kitchen. Bouley said yes. He spent the summer working at Bouley, the chef’s TriBeCa mainstay.

Before long, Kent was also working at famed New York City restaurants such as Babbo, Jean-Georges, Eleven Madison Park and NoMad, where he became the executive chef.

He opened his own restaurant, Crown Shy, in 2019 with a partner, Jeff Katz, the general manager of Del Posto, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan that closed in 2021. “At Crown Shy, the Only False Step Is the Name” read the headline of a “critic’s pick” review by Pete Wells, the restaurant critic of The New York Times. (The name refers to tall trees’ tendency not to allow their upper stories to grow entangled with the branches of their neighbors.)

Wells wrote that Kent’s dishes “regularly over-deliver.” He singled out for praise “an almost absurdly creamy purée of white bean hummus under a fiery red slick of melted ‘nduja;” a beef tartare with toasted walnuts and rye croutons; and oysters served with “cucumber jelly, diced cucumbers, grains of jalapeño and microleaves of purple shiso.”

Times restaurant columnist Florence Fabricant agreed, describing Crown Shy’s menu in a 2019 article as “eclectic and creative.”

Two years later, Kent gained four more stories in the same building, an art deco skyscraper at 70 Pine Street built in 1932.

Crown Shy occupies the ground floor; Floors 62, 63, 64 and 66 of the building were transformed from executive boardrooms for AIG, the insurance company, into Saga, Overstory and a private dining room. The space includes 12 terraces “with breathtaking views in every direction,” Fabricant reported in 2021. Saga’s “seasonal tasting menu” today costs $298 per person.

Crown Shy garnered one star from the Michelin restaurant guide. Saga earned two.

It was fine dining worthy of the European tradition, but with American casualness and the embrace of pop culture.

Kent played Wu-Tang Clan and the Notorious B.I.G. at Crown Shy. He eschewed a formal dress code. With his chef coat he could often be seen wearing expensive sneakers.

After years of doing graffiti while growing up, he became known as “a chef that’s also a wildly talented graffiti artist,” as Bloomberg reported in 2016. He was commissioned to do artwork at NoMad Hotel and restaurant tech company Salido.

“I’ve walked into these fancy restaurants and I don’t feel welcomed,” Kent told Bandit, a running brand and blog. He sought for Crown Shy, he said, to be “our generation’s restaurant.”

All this seemed to add up to a winning business formula.

In April, the Times reported that Kent and Saga Hospitality Group had leased 3,000 square feet on the ground floor of the former Domino Sugar refinery in Brooklyn for a bakery and a “casual all-day restaurant.”

The same month, The Robb Report described yet more ambitious plans. Kent was opening a new 140-seat restaurant on Park Avenue inspired by the Grand Central Oyster Bar, where his grandmother, Sue Mingus, first went on a date with jazz musician Charles Mingus, who became her husband and whose legacy she took charge of securing until her own death in 2022.

At the same time, Kent was also planning a fast-casual fried chicken sandwich restaurant on the level of Shake Shack, The Robb Report said. LRMR Ventures, a private investment firm of LeBron James and his friend and business partner Maverick Carter, was backing Saga Hospitality Group’s expansion.

Investors “believe Kent’s a rare, multidimensional talent who’s primed to become the next great American restaurateur,” The Robb Report wrote.

“When I walked into 70 Pine seven years ago, I was one person,” Kent said. “It’s not like I was Daniel Boulud with a massive team, and I built all the systems — everything — that we needed to operate on this level.”

Jamal James Kent was born in 1979. His mother was born in Rome and his father was born in Tangier. He grew up in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York.

In an interview with the tea brand Kettl, he described his upbringing as poor and said he had to work “as a young kid” in a restaurant owned by his uncle and his uncle’s best friend to make money. Then his mother encouraged him to introduce himself to Bouley.

He studied food service and culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, and he took part in a study abroad program at Le Cordon Bleu in London and Paris.

He grew up in an Islamic household, and when he applied for jobs as a young man, he used his middle name, worried about Islamophobia, he told Eater in 2022.

As Kent became more successful, he was associated particularly with his tenure at Eleven Madison Park, “the equivalent of Harvard for ambitious young cooks,” Wells wrote in 2023.

The Saga Hospitality announcement of Kent’s death listed as his survivors his wife, Kelly Kent, and his children, Gavin and Avery.

James Kent spoke at length about how hard he worked. He said that he noticed himself looking fatigued in photographs. He described once having a panic attack showing up to work. He said running had helped him feel more grounded.

“Before running, I only had professional goals,” he told Bandit. “I was like, ‘I want to be the best, learn from the best, and run these incredible restaurants.’ And then I got to the point where, without the personal goals, I was on the floor thinking I was going to die.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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