In the roughly two years since Chef James Kent '02 announced his departure as executive chef at the Michelin-starred NoMad, speculation has been running high about his next project. Late last year, he unveiled plans for Crown Shy, a Financial District restaurant on the ground floor of the Art Deco office building 70 Pine. The restaurant opened to raves on March 18.
At Kent’s side in the kitchen is Daniel Garcia '14, who worked with Kent at NoMad and now serves as executive sous chef at Crown Shy. As JWU alumni, both chefs share a certain foundational philosophy — they also share the profound experience of competing in the Bocuse d’Or, one of the most intense experiences any chef can undertake.
Kent came in 10th in the world at the 2011 Bocuse d’Or — no small feat. Garcia’s road to the Bocuse began in 2016, when he and fellow NoMad cook Vincenzo Loseto won first place at the prestigious Ment’or BKB Young Chef competition, which serves as a Bocuse team qualifier. That win secured Garcia and Loseto spots on the 2017 Bocuse d’OrTeam USA, led by Per Se veterans Mathew Peters and Harrison Turone, both of whom took off an entire year to train. The intensity of the team’s training sessions (both separately and collectively) paid off with a first-place win for Team USA — the first American victory in the Bocuse’s 30-year history.
James gave us the tools to be as creative as we wanted.”
After the competition, Garcia and the entire NoMad team, including Kent, headed to the Alps to cook at the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival. On his Instagram, Garcia posted a group photo with the caption, “Family dinner.”
Speaking to me post-competition, Garcia shared his gratitude for Kent’s unwavering faith and support of his culinary growth. Right out of JWU, he took a corporate job that felt like the wrong fit. Unsure of where to go next, he staged at a few restaurants, culminating in a trial stint at NoMad. “At every other restaurant, they gave me mindless tasks. But at NoMad, James came right up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘We’re going to make pastas.’”
Garcia chose the NoMad position because he knew he’d be challenged. Soon after he started, the NoMad team brought up the possibility of taking part in the Ment’or competition. Garcia said he’d do it on one condition — that they had to win. From April until June, Garcia and Loseto trained on site in the NoMad kitchen most days from 8am until 2pm — an intense process that mixed practice sessions with analysis. “Two times a week the R&D chefs from Eleven Madison Park would taste and critique our work,” Garcia told me. “And when it came time to do the practice runs down to the second, we called it ‘the dance.’”
On some level, it must have been surreal for two young chefs to have an entire team of seasoned pros cheering them on, but Garcia again emphasizes the “we’re all in it together” philosophy of Make It Nice, the NoMad’s parent company. “[EMP Chef de Cuisine] Brian Lockwood was with us every single day. And James gave us the tools to be as creative as we wanted.” (Kent was there every day, as well, critiquing, watching and tasting.)
Kent, for his part, sees mentorship as central to leading in the kitchen. “To really lead a team, of course you need to know how to cook well,” he tells me. “But being a leader is a very different skill set.”
A true New York City kid, Kent grew up running around the streets of SoHo and Tribeca. His family had international roots: His mother was born in Rome, his father in Tangier. The jazz great Charles Mingus was his mother’s stepfather. (A young Kent occasionally went on the road with Mingus’ repertory bands — an education in and of itself.)
Given that background, it seems natural that music — specifically hip-hop — and food developed into twin passions for Kent. And New York City — that giant melting pot of music, culinary, and cultural influences constantly churning into something new — served as the perfect muse.
Now that Crown Shy is open, the restaurant’s Instagram feed showcases the usual stuff of restaurant social media: new dishes, dining room vistas and kitchen views. Scroll back a bit, however, for a series of deeply personal posts serving as Kent’s love letter to his city, from the Rock Steady Crew battling it out in front of Lincoln Center in 1982 to the overgrown High Line in all its pre-development wildness. A perfectly unbroken line of graffiti by the West Side Highway. A line of yellow Wils dairy trucks on Duane Street, across from Kent’s old job at David Bouley’s eponymous restaurant. (The trucks occasionally served as canvases for Kent’s graffiti crew.)
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We dined at Bouley for my 14th birthday, knew at that moment I wanted to be a chef and like I did with everything else in my life at that time I vandalized the match book. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ David Bouley lived in my building. My mom made me ask to spend time in his kitchen and it landed me an apprenticeship for summer of 1993. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #matchbookdiaries#crownshy#j2k#chefjameskent#kentkatz2019
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Dining at Bouley when he was 14 was Kent’s “a-ha!” moment that he wanted to be a chef. Bouley actually lived in the same building, and Kent asked him if he could work in the kitchen. That, in turn, led to an apprenticeship. Kent is the first to admit he wasn’t the most dedicated high school student, but working in kitchens was another story: “I never missed work. I learned a real work ethic.”
Competing in the Bocuse d’Or honed Kent’s culinary skills, and gave him the credibility to take on roles with increased responsibility. As he rose in the ranks — first at Eleven Madison Park, then at NoMad — he discovered that teaching came naturally: “I can teach anyone to cook if they care and want to work hard,” he notes. “We cook for all our stagiaires. At the end of the meal, we tell them, ‘We cooked for you, now you cook for us.’ It’s about seeing how someone can problem-solve and think on their feet.”
Now that Garcia is an executive sous chef, he might be teaching as much as he’s cooking. He looks forward to leading by example: “I’ve adapted the principles that [James] taught me. He holds me to a higher standard.”
TOP: KENT AND GARCIA in the Crown Shy kitchen. BELOW: Jeff Katz (manager) and Kent up on the rooftop at 70 Pine, where Crown Shy is situated. Photos courtesy of Crown Shy.