Crown Shy chef James Kent dies at age 45

The chef Jamal “James” Kent, a Fidi resident who opened Crown Shy at 70 Pine in 2019 and who started his career three decades ago as a 14-year-old apprentice to David Bouley, died yesterday morning. The restaurant announced the news on Instagram. He was 45. This is a huge loss for Downtown as well the New York City food scene and industry. His star had clearly risen, but it had a lot farther to go. He was also a lovely, warm and gracious guy, the married father of two teenagers. He will be so missed.

“We are heartbroken to share that James Kent passed away unexpectedly earlier today,” the restaurant wrote on its Instagram. “The Saga Hospitality Group family is focused on supporting each other and most importantly [his wife] Kelly, Gavin and Avery as we grieve James’ loss. Crown Shy, Saga and Overstory will be closed tomorrow: Sunday, June 16th. Celebrate Father’s Day with your loved ones.”

Starting in March 2019, things moved very quickly forward — and literally upward — for his company, SAGA Hospitality Group. By November of that year, he and his then-partner, Jeff Katz, had a Michelin star and plans for the top four floors of 70 Pine, the former private apartment for the founder of Citgo. SAGA — an acronym of the business partners’ children’s names: Seylah, Ayla, Gavin and Avery — and Overstory, a riff on the Crown Shy concept, opened in late summer 2021. SAGA had two stars by the following year.

SAGA Hospitality Group also has three restaurants in the works, for Midtown, Park Avenue and Williamsburg.

Kent’s roots are here, Downtown. As a kid in the mid-90s, he was tagging subway cars as his primary pastime when his mother convinced him to ask their neighbor, David Bouley, for a summer apprenticeship. He was 14. In between those early beginnings and the opening of Crown Shy 25 years later is a long list of notable successes and awards at some of the best restaurants in the world and here (Le Cordon Bleu in London and Paris, the kitchens of Babbo, Jean-Georges and Gordon Ramsay, Eleven Madison Park under Daniel Humm, NoMad).

Kent was also an accomplished graffiti artist who continued to hone his talent on the streets and at LaGuardia High School till he was arrested in his teens. He showed me some quick tags he did in SAGA while the space was still raw; luckily someone grabbed a picture and the tags were going to be framed for the completed restaurant.

He was also sensitive to the work/life balance, very progressive for anyone in what is a brutally demanding industry. As a way to relieve the stress of the kitchen, Kent told Eater that he began running — with his wife, Kelly, and with his staff — eventually forming the Crown Shy Running Club. “He had become an outspoken advocate for prioritizing mental health in the hospitality industry,” Eater reported. Early in the pandemic, he and his partner assembled a campaign — Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants, or ROAR — to support restaurant workers.

I always found the staff at his restaurants to be warm and convivial — and to me that attitude starts at the top. You can see that reflected in the way Chef Kent reacted when I showed up at the edge of the open kitchen with my phone to get the picture above — he grabbed two chefs and leaned towards me. When I asked a waitress one time if they did a lot of yelling in the open kitchen, she said the only thing she ever heard yelled across the room was “oui.”


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1 Comment

  1. My husband and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary with a dinner at Saga this past Saturday night (June 16th). After dinner, as we were going down the elevator, a man got in from a lower floor and we and our fellow passengers in the elevator all looked at him quizzically (since it’s a dedicated elevator that goes from the ground floor to Saga and Overstory). He smiled and introduced himself to all of us as the chef and owner of the restaurant, hence his ability to enter from a different floor. He chatted with us as we finished our ride down and wished everyone a good night as we left. I was struck that night by how sweet and engaging he was, and by the fact that it was he who initiated the conversation. He made such a positive impression in just the time it took to ride down those few floors. When I read the news of his passing the next day, it was such a gut punch. My heart goes out to his family and friends for their tremendous loss.