Chef James Kent has had a storied career in food. From working at Eleven Madison park, to now being the head chef at his Michelin star rated restaurant Saga and running other two incredible projects Crown Shy and Overstory. He's a decorated Chef with a well established reputation for producing the best.
But his personality and work ethic have deeper roots and a broader function than just standing up incredible dining experiences. He drives to integrate his NYC rooted personality in everything he does, and with that comes a style that inspires his staff to produce greatness. Part of his secret, is his love for running.
We sat down with Chef to talk about how he approaches his work, life, and running.
Bandit: When you visited Bandit HQ, we talked a little bit about your mantra and purpose as a leader in the hospitality industry. Can you talk to us about how you think about leading your team at Saga, Crown Shy and Overstory?
Chef: Leadership is the most important thing that I do. For me it's about inspiring the next generation and inspiring my team.
I wanna inspire them to do good because they just want to be great. You know what I'm saying? Like when we opened the restaurant, we had this staircase that went on two flights and the architect is like, yo, you're gonna make them run up the stairs. I'm like, they're gonna wanna run up the stairs. I'm not gonna make them do anything. You know, they're gonna wanna do it because they wanna make this restaurant great. Because they're self-motivated to invest in themselves.
How did you get to where you are? What can you tell us about the principles you live by and the purpose you have that’s driven you to this rare level of excellence?
I just worked really hard. You know, I just worked. I've been cooking since I was a kid. I fell into restaurants and fell into food and then I made some good decisions.
I'm lucky that I found something that I was really like passionate about, you know, it's not a job to me. This is something that I wake up in the morning, and I'm like, yeah, we get to throw a party every night.
Are there any principles that you you think have gone along with that or you, you sort of nurtured those along the way?
I just learned a lot. I've been working in restaurants in New York. I've lived here since I was a little kid and, you know, for the past 20 years full time.
And I just made it a point to learn from the people that really inspired me. And for me, I ultimately found out who I was in the restaurant. I became the leader that I am today by making mistakes and bad decisions.
I've matured and grown up through those experiences.
Shifting gears, how did your running journey start?
Oh yeah. So for me, I was basically a fat chef. And that's after having been a fat kid my whole life. My body just wants to be fat, and when it's like that... you really have to fight it actively.
I'm not like one of these kids that tries to gain weight to get big. Years ago, I was just really unhealthy. I was super stressed out, and I was working one day and found myself totally out of breath. Scary. Turns out I had a panic attack walking into work one day and I thought I was dying.
I went to the doctor and they let me go in like an hour. And I was just like, yeah, I feel absolutely terrible. Why are you letting me leave? I'm like, clearly gonna die.
I ended up getting basically every test known to man and they were like... you're good, you're just stressed out. After that experience, I was really just looking for a way to give back to myself, so I just started running.
That first one, was truly my first real run ever. Like I ran from the cops as a kid in my crew, RFC. That's the only time I was running. So on my first real one, I ran through Hell's Kitchen. I ran one mile and I sat down for like 30 minutes and then I ran one mile back and I was like, this fucking sucks.
But I kept at it. Since that first run, I've completed four marathons and have clocked over 4,000 miles.
You gotta work on you. You gotta work on your wellness.
What role does running play in your life? How does running translate into being a world-class chef? How do you even find the time?
I think you need two things. You need to have professional goals and personal goals. Before running, I only had professional goals. So I was like, I want to be the best, learn from the best, and run these incredible restaurants. And then I gotta to the point where, without the personal goes, I was on the floor thinking I was going to die. And I realized, yeah, you have to give yourself goals that are outside of this professional realm that balance things out. You know, like growing your family, like finding someone to love, like giving back to yourself, running, swimming, you know, whatever it is.
There needs to be something outside of your like professional life. So that's something that I think is really important. Traditionally, and especially in hospitality, we would just hurt ourselves outside of our work life. Like, let's go drink whiskey till four in the morning and fight people- let's like eat terribly, you know? So it was one of these things that, as a more mature person, I just realized that I needed that balance.
The day before we opened Crown Shy, I ran the New York City half. Leading up to the opening, we worked like 40 days straight and me and Danny Garcia who was running with us, convinced me to run it. I really didn't want to run after working so non-stop.
But he pushed me far enough. So the day before we opened this restaurant, after working 40 days, me, him and my wife ran it, and I was just a zombie. My wife was like, like pulling me to the finish line.
But then I came back to work. Everyone was like, this guy's a psychopath running a half marathon while at the same time trying to open one of the best restaurants in New York. You have to be able to inspire people one way or another. And I think that that translated for the team.
You’ve become known as a bit of a sneaker-head. What are you currently rocking? What’s your current, most prized pair?
Oh yeah. Right now, I'm rocking Travis Scott 6's, the green ones. For me, with sneakers, it's like, when I was a kid, we were literally broke. Like everyone had Jordans and nice sneakers. And all the things that I had always wanted were out of reach when I was a kid.
So for me, like once I got to the point where, where I, I had access to these kicks and people just giving kicks, they're like, yo, you're like, you know, doing cool things here, like these cool sneakers. And I, and, and I wear them in a restaurant like Crown Shy because it is a New York city restaurant. We play dope music, Biggie Smalls on the wall.
I'm a New Yorker. And for me, it's like, I just wanna show like a little bit of myself, you know, and I wear chef white, a chef coat and, and, you know, I can have purple sneakers on, you know, just to kind of like have show a little bit of little bit of swag.
You’re a native New Yorker and dabble as a graffiti artist. How’d that come to be? Does that influence your cooking?
For graffiti, I didn't realize my whole life just doodling and drawing and painting on walls and scratching, you know, you know, train cars with, with, with like grinding stones, like all this like ridiculous stuff, like basically helps translates to how I put food on a plate and like working with negative space and angles and colors. The texture and all these things, you know, it's interesting.
Like I brought this hobby back. I'm like, yo, this is a hobby that I love. That's really important to me. Now I paint canvases and I'll do some murals every now and then, and I'll just doodle, like, you know, like some something that, that is part of me is, is as much part of me as this cooking.
We’re all about vibes at Bandit - so we’re curious, how do you think through creating a discernible vibe at your bar and restaurants? Do you control the music? How do you think through syncing the music, the aesthetic, the ambiance, etc.?
I have a team that is really great and cares and is really invested in the experience. For us, it's making it our generation's restaurant. So we'll play Wu Tang. We've done away with having a dress code. We want you to feel like it's this luxurious restaurant and it's this special place where you feel like you're really getting taken care of, but also not a place that you feel like you're not welcomed or you're not comfortable.
I've cooked my whole life. I've worked in various restaurants, but I've walked into these fancy restaurants and I don't feel welcomed. And I'm like, this is my community, so how the fuck am I not feeling welcomed in these places? You know? So for me, making it a welcoming place lets you come in and let your down, chill and be taken care of at the highest level possible.
Anything else to plug?
Wait, you know, I'm just really proud of my team. I'm proud of my sous chef Nick. Nick lost like a fucking hundred pounds. Paul, my other sous really inspires me. He's one of the illest runners that I've ever run with. My wife is the one that started one of the run clubs at our restaurants Crown Shy. She's like, yo, I'm getting Coach Jerry from GoldFinger Track Club and we're gonna run.
Anway, there's lots to do and I'm excited to see what the future looks like for us.