Chef James Kent at the Ment'or Competition.

Remembering Chef James Kent

The culinary industry mourns the loss of a chef gone too soon.

On Saturday, June 15, the food and beverage industry was shaken to the core to learn the sudden passing of Chef Jamal James Kent.

Per the New York Times report, the Chef and Owner behind Saga Hospitality Group passed away of a heart attack while doing graffiti work — a passion of his — for a restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn. He was 45 years old.

“I met Chef Kent over the years and have known ICE grads who have gone to work in his kitchens,” ICE’s Chairman & Founder, Rick Smilow says. “James was in the major league of chefs who wanted to train his cooks to be the very best they could be.”

Chef Kent had a 30-year run in the industry, starting at David Bouley’s eponymous flagship restaurant, before moving on to notable establishments including Jean-Georges and Gordon Ramsay. He spent six years at Eleven Madison Park, ultimately becoming the Chef de Cuisine, and was the opening Executive Chef at NoMad. 

He left in 2018 to pursue his own venture, Saga Hospitality Group, first with the opening of Crown Shy in 2019. The cavernous restaurant located on the ground floor of 70 Pine Street garnered instant acclaim, receiving two stars from New York Times' critic Pete Wells and a Michelin star within its first year of operation. 

Chef Kent then expanded due north by taking over the 62nd, 63rd, 64th and 66th floors with the widely anticipated opening of Saga. The four floors included the tasting menu concept that would go on to be awarded two Michelin stars, glitzy cocktail bar Overstory (ranked one of the World's 50 Best Bars) and private dining rooms.

"I have had the great opportunity to see Chef's first project of his own, Crown Shy, open to well-deserved accolades,” ICE’s Executive Director of Industry Relations, Rick Camac says. "I was there week one — and more times than I can count thereafter — and saw the progression over five years. It was my go-to place. Not one bad experience. I recall a time during Covid when he popped into our yurt and said, ‘Hi, I'm your server for the day!’ A hugely talented and humble human being and, sadly, was just scratching the surface personally and professionally. He had so much more to offer."

Not only was he an incredible chef, entrepreneur, artist and leader, but he was also an inspiration in culinary education. Between Eleven Madison Park, Nomad, Crown Shy and Saga, dozens of ICE externs and alumni have trained and grown in his kitchens.

“When I started working at Daniel, I was at run club one Monday morning, running with him,” Culinary Arts alumna Grace Weber says. “I was talking to him about how my days were so much longer than when I worked at Crown Shy and Saga and how I ate most of my family meals in two minutes [while] standing at my station. I told him it was wearing me out. He said, ‘you know how to train for a marathon and you’ve done the long runs that make you tired, but you have to do them in order to race well on race day. Think of this time as a long-run training for when you open your own place someday. If you don’t train yourself for the long hours now you won’t succeed when it’s your turn.’”

"Chef James embodied what leadership can and should be in the kitchen — supportive, inclusive and respectful of everyone regardless of position," says Culinary Arts alum Kevin Bernhardt. "He was a generous mentor and an advocate for physical and mental health support, both in and out of the kitchen. He built an incredible team and imbued it with confidence, passion and a fearless attitude."

Chef Kent had his sights set on further expansion, with the opening of a new seafood concept on Park Avenue South this summer, and more projects in the pipeline.

Chef Kent is survived by his wife, Kelly, and his son Gavin and daughter Avery. Our thoughts go out to his family, team and loved ones during this time.

Thank you for everything, Chef.


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