Taste Bud Profile
Chef James Kent grew up running around New York City, getting into all sorts of mischief. Food always played a formative role in his life, and he now operates multiple restaurants, including one that overlooks the entire skyline of the city where he grew up. From tagging to working the line to growing his own businesses to mentorship—a feature of Chef James’s life has been drawing on everything around him for inspiration, and never forgetting that he always has something new to learn from those around him.
James Kent: The real beauty of food, to me, comes from the things that happen around a table. Food was always really important to me, and to my family. In my family food was more than just nourishment—it brought us together.
My grandparents had a houseboat where we’d all stay during the summers. It was like a Winnebago but a boat. It never moved. I doubt the engine worked. It was just docked there, and we’d all go live in it for a period of time. We’d fish off of the boat, set eel traps, and crab traps. We’d paddle out in canoes and set lobster traps. We sit in the shallows and go clamming—you feel for clams with your feet in the sand, and then pull them out. The feasts that we had afterwards—it was all stuff that we had caught ourselves, like we were really living off the land, which felt really cool as a kid. We’d fry up the fish and have clams from the half shell and pasta and steamed lobsters and we did all of that together, as a family. Everyone was packed into this little boat and it was incredible. Those summers really informed my life over the years, and to this day still influence what I like and what I put on our menus.
We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, so we never ate out in restaurants. But I was running all over the city tagging buildings and generally making mischief, and then I could go get falafel at Mamoun’s or something else and this was just normal food for me—I didn’t really differentiate it from anything else I ever ate. That’s very New York—it’s just food, not “other” food. It’s just delicious. I didn’t ever understand explicitly that I had access to that diversity as a kid, I just had that access. As I got older and I was working as a cook, I still didn’t really have money to go to anywhere fancy, so my buddies and I would go out to Flushing for dumplings or dim sum, or the Red Hook soccer field which 20 years ago had all of these Central and South American vendors posted up next to the fields. It was like, moms under tarps with bowls of sauces and buckets of ceviche and all these different fried things and agua frescas.
We’re the sum of all of our experiences, the good, the bad, the great. Everything I’ve done informs what I do now, from tagging to clamming to hustling on the line.
I don’t feel like I have a job. A job is something you wake up to and say, “Damn, I have to go to work.” What I do is wake up every day and get to meet interesting people, cook for anyone who walks in the door, essentially throw a party every night, and lead a team of young, inspired people who teach me something every day too.
I’ve been cooking for a very long time. Most of my life, actually. And what I’ve learned is that I know *this much*—it starts and stops somewhere. You know another amount. There’s stuff that will overlap with what I know, and then there’s a whole lot that won’t. I want to learn all of that from you. That’s how I look at my team. People need to really be part of the process, not just observe or even feel like it—really be in the process. I never say that the food at my restaurants is my food—it’s our food. I think that more broadly, this applies outside of restaurants. It’s about respecting the talents and skills of other people, and accepting that you don’t know everything, and that everyone can teach you something.