Chef James Kent of New York’s Saga and Santa Monica Pier’s culinary overhaul dies

Chef Jamal “James” Kent, who oversaw a burgeoning New York City restaurant empire and recently debuted a new culinary vision for the Santa Monica Pier, died Saturday. The lauded chef’s passing was first announced on social media via his restaurant company, Saga Hospitality Group. A representative for the group confirmed the cause of death was a heart attack. He was 45 years old.

“Somebody that seemed to be on his way to even more greatness just vanished overnight,” said Hedley & Bennett founder Ellen Marie Bennett, who knew Kent for about a decade. “I think everybody’s jaw dropped because of this.”

Trained at Le Cordon Bleu and Johnson & Wales, Kent began his career at 15 with an apprenticeship at chef David Bouley’s flagship French restaurant, Bouley, before working at Jean-Georges, Babbo and Gordon Ramsey. In 2007 the New York native joined the kitchen at fine-dining stalwart Eleven Madison Park, and later the NoMad. He represented the U.S. in global competition Bocuse d’Or, a great culinary honor, and one that found him training for six months. Kent is described by an Eleven Madison Park colleague as having “layers and layers and layers to his knowledge of cooking.”

After departing Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad to pursue his own businesses, Kent opened and operated three New York City restaurants under Saga Hospitality — Crown Shy, Saga and Overstory — with three more planned for the city. While Kent’s background centered on fine dining, with multiple restaurants garnering Michelin stars during his tenure in their kitchens, earlier this month his career touched down in Los Angeles with gourmet spins on more casual food set amid the Santa Monica Pier’s beloved roller coaster, Ferris wheel and midway games.

On June 7 Kent unveiled five new food stalls on Pacific Park’s boardwalk. His Snackville contains stalls for smashburgers, funnel cakes, stuffed churros, a range of French fries and an ice cream parlor. The partnership with Kent was potentially just the beginning of the chef’s foray into Los Angeles; a representative for Pacific Park said the iconic pier project was “look[ing] forward to implementing the new culinary concepts developed for ‘Snackville’ and other projects.”

James Kent debuted a series of restaurants called Snackville in Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier earlier this month.

(Pacific Park)

After news of Kent’s death was posted online, condolences and memories flooded social media from around the world.

“I would talk about him so much, like, ‘James is gonna be the king of New York, he’ll be the next Daniel Boulud, the next Jean-Georges,’” Hansei chef Chris Ono told The Times. They cooked together at Eleven Madison Park for four years and had reconnected in Los Angeles last week.

“He really admired and respected those culinary giants,” Ono continued, “and they respected him. They looked at him as the next one, the next great. I think that’s why it really hurts, and that’s why people are just so shocked by this.”

“He was an unstoppable force,” said Bennett, founder of L.A.-based apron company Hedley & Bennett, who met Kent as a young cook about a decade ago. “He just made you feel so seen and important, and he was always, always, always so kind. … He was one in a billion, he really was very special. He made time for everything that was important to him, and people were important to him.”

Kent, Bennett told The Times, often could be found in crisp chef whites but also colorful designer sneakers. Outside of the kitchen he had a penchant for street art and graffiti.

Though they only saw each other once or twice a year during Bennett’s trips to New York City, it never felt like missing a step, she said; he would fill her in on his latest restaurant plans and aspirations, gushing “like a big little kid” about them and especially about his family.

Multiple memories shared of Kent cite his giant, warm bear hugs; his food, Bennett said, always felt like an extension of those hugs.

“He was as Michelin-starred of a chef as you could get as far as technique, but when he cooked for you it was warmth that you got and deliciousness and enthusiasm and excitement — versus posturing,” Bennett said. “It was delicious, not just beautiful. He was brilliant, but he never made you feel less than him.”

For many, Kent served as a mentor both in and out of the kitchen.

“He was like a big brother to me — I really looked up to him,” said Call Again Hospitality chef Chris Flint, who cooked with Kent at Eleven Madison Park. “He led with love. We all get flustered, especially in that environment at that level, but he was able to keep his calm. He really built people up around him, he didn’t break people down.”

“It’s like a constant reflection,” Flint said, aspiring to cook and lead and manage as Kent would. Just last week in the kitchen, he said, he asked himself, “What would James do?” and thought, “That’s not how James would have done it.”

On Sunday the team of Saga shared that they would be reopening Kent’s three New York City restaurants for service that evening, and planning a memorial service for the chef.

“We have no fraction of a doubt that James would want us to continue to eat our fill and laugh uproariously,” the statement read. “James was obsessed with the idea of breaking bread: dropping big plates of food in the middle of the table that people tear into and share with their hands. In that spirit — and in his honor — Crown Shy, Saga and Overstory will reopen for service tonight. Together, we’ll find a new normal committed to building his legacy.”

Kent is survived by his wife, Kelly, and his children, Avery and Gavin.

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