Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The Heart and Soul of Manhattan’s Culinary Scene: A Tribute to Jamal James Kent

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James craved and created community everywhere he went, and he made sure to include everyone in his success. At any celebration or gathering, you could always find his brother Rashid, his mother Susanna, his father Peter, or his grandmother Sue somewhere nearby. And when it came time for him to start his own family with his high school sweetheart, Kelly, he took on the role of husband and father with extraordinary passion, warmth, and pride. He loved Kelly, Gavin, and Avery with a fierceness and joy that I couldn’t help but admire.

Not much later, I also had two young children of my own: Colette and Vivienne. James often joked that I was so competitive that I couldn’t help but follow his lead, and I suppose he wasn’t half wrong. No one knew how to rib me quite like he did. In this way, we became men together and experienced many of life’s important milestones side-by-side. He became my brother, and our children like cousins, inviting us to celebrate many holidays together as a big group.

After James took on the role of Executive Chef at NoMad, leading the restaurant to receive many glowing reviews from the New York Times and win a Michelin Star, I could tell that he was ready to run a restaurant of his own. His leaving was not an easy decision for either of us, as he was so important and well-loved at the company, but he knew that he would regret not making the leap, and I knew that it would be a disservice to New York City’s culinary future if I did not let him.

It has been such an honor and a pleasure to watch him open Crown Shy (and later SAGA and the Overstory). To see him flourish as a leader, a chef, and a business owner, while also keeping his family as close as ever.

One Easter, about three years before he opened SAGA, James invited me and my family over for a delicious meal at his place. To our surprise, before we sat down to eat, he took us up to the top floor of 70 Pine — just the beginnings of a construction site — where he had hidden eggs in every pocket, crevice, and corner. Surrounded by sweeping views of the river and the city, our four kids set off on an easter egg hunt for the ages while we watched from afar, just soaking in their delight. It’s an afternoon that will stay with my daughters and me forever. James always knew how to bring a sense of wonder into the everyday, and he thrived on creating joy for his family and friends.

Whenever you step into one of his restaurants, you can feel his personality shine through. He managed to blend his vast knowledge of classic French techniques with a culinary perspective that was playful, innovative, and profoundly personal. There is a real sense of openness, liveliness, and community that you can’t find anywhere else of this caliber. Everyone in the kitchen cares deeply about their craft, but is also having fun doing it. In his own way, he has created multiple New York City institutions that have made an impact far beyond 70 Pine Street. It breaks my heart to think of how much more he had left to achieve. He had so many dreams and plans that were just on the verge of coming to life.

In the few days after that awful phone call in Paris, I felt both a yearning and a resistance to return to New York — not knowing how to imagine the idea of the city without him in it. Walking around the streets of Manhattan, I can’t help but be reminded of him everywhere I go. His stories are woven into my perception of every block and corner, and they continue to reverberate through our culture at Eleven Madison Park. And at the same time, there’s nowhere else that has ever felt quite as much like home. His New York is now my New York, and I am forever grateful to him for that gift.

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