Restaurant Life

Why It Hurts So Much When Chefs Die Young

The tragic and sudden death of Jamal “James” Kent, the venerable chef and restaurateur behind New York City’s Saga Hospitality Group, sent shockwaves through the restaurant world last week. Tributes to the 45 year-old chef, who died of a heart attack on June 15, flooded social media, praising his compassion as a leader, generosity as a mentor, and stature as a chef. Aside from Anthony Bourdain’s shocking death six years ago, I can’t recall a restaurant figure whose passing was met with such widespread sorrow. Some prominent figures in the restaurant industry, like Daniel Humm, who presided over Kent’s rise to culinary stardom at Eleven Madison Park, struggled to find the right words. “The world wants immediate statements and ‘favorite moments’ of us,” Chef Humm posted on Instagram. “The truth is that I’m speechless.” When talented chefs like James Kent die young, language can be an inadequate tool to express grief.

I was fortunate to have worked with James Kent in the early 2000’s at Babbo in New York City’s West Village when he was a green, fresh-faced line cook. James was introspective but affable—he was a cook’s cook—well-regarded by both front and back-of-the-house. To be so universally accepted was unusual in a cutthroat fine dining restaurant like Babbo. Young cooks often harbored resentment toward waiters who made more money than them without getting their hands dirty. But James respected everyone’s role equally. He also wasn’t the vindictive type. My first meeting with him felt a little threatening; he had a knowing smile with the slightest smirk and stared you down when you spoke. But after a while, you became accustomed to the intensity. He didn’t just listen to people, he wanted to understand them. It was his greatest strength as a leader.

Although I’d only seen or spoken to James intermittently in the twenty years since we’d worked together, I felt the sorrow of his death profoundly. Inexplicable losses like his are always difficult to process, but it feels like it cuts deeper when a chef’s life is cut short. In grief, we learn that chefs like James are multi-faceted beyond their culinary achievements—in his case, an avid painter and graffiti artist, a hip-hop aficionado and scholar, a philanthropist, and marathon finisher. He was a proud husband, father of two, and mentor to scores of young chefs. Kent’s food, although universally admired by his peers and honored with many of the industry’s highest accolades, was an afterthought in the many heartfelt eulogies.

When young chefs pass away unexpectedly, our minds naturally drift toward awful contingencies. Concerns about suicide aren’t unreasonable given the sordid history in recent decades of chefs taking their own lives, especially in the ultra-competitive world of fine dining. But when death comes naturally, as it did in Kent’s case, it still feels unnatural. We’re left wondering how much the arduous lifestyle of a professional chef may have contributed to the conditions surrounding his death. “At the end of the day, this is a call to make sure that we’re all taking care of ourselves,” said Gregory Gourdet, chef of Portland’s Kann Restaurant, in an interview with The Oregonian after Kent’s death. Gourdet and Kent had recently announced a partnership to open a fine dining restaurant together inside the forthcoming Printemps, a Paris-based department store, opening in lower Manhattan next year. One thing is certain, James Kent died doing what he loved: cooking.

Detroit chef Maxcel Hardy died in March at age 40

This past March, another prominent young chef in Detroit, Maxcel Hardy, passed away unexpectedly. In addition to his successful restaurant concepts like COOP Caribbean Fusion and Jed’s Detroit, Hardy also founded a local non-profit to fight hunger and mentored the city’s underprivileged youth. In 2021, The New York Times named Hardy one of the 16 Black chefs who are changing the industry, along with The Grey’s Mashama Bailey and Compère Lapin’s Nina Compton. Like Kent in New York City, Hardy’s impact on the community in Detroit transcended his restaurants. His food was only a small fraction of his legacy.

When we lose chefs like Kent and Hardy, it feels like they’ve been cheated out of reaching their potential. To succeed at such a high level requires Herculean sacrifices—dedicating every waking moment to the craft of becoming a chef, enduring long work hours, financial duress, and extended absences from family. Chefs spend so much time and energy pleasing others that to be robbed of the fruits of their labor makes their premature passing feel even more cruel. But it also feels a little bit like we’ve cheated them. Our expectations of young chefs are higher than ever. Diners scrutinize a chef’s restaurants like food critics instead of supporting them like adoring fans. Underneath the sorrow, some of us are left feeling like we could’ve been more nurturing toward these young chefs who gave us so much. Did we take more than we gave back?

Losing chefs in the prime of their careers doesn’t feel all too different from losing iconic musicians—like John Lennon, Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston, or Prince—who died young. We can only imagine the kind of glorious music they would’ve made if tragedy hadn’t taken them too soon. The way that great musicians channel their feelings through music, chefs learn to speak through their food, filling the plate with pieces of themselves. They learn to cook with love. But cooking with love when the air conditioner is broken, the linen delivery is late, and the dishwasher walks out in the middle of service, is something only few chefs have the grace to achieve. According to the wealth of remembrances from colleagues and loved ones, Chef Kent not only cooked with love, but he created an environment for others to do the same.

The last time I saw James was about five years ago, when he’d just opened Crown Shy, his modern American bistro nestled inside an art deco skyscraper in the financial district. Even though we hadn’t seen each other in over a decade, we casually reminisced about the Babbo days as though no time had passed. In his impeccably starched chef’s coat, he seemed more intimidating now—like he’d grown physically larger. But he still had a way of putting you at ease. With all that had transpired in his life, the Michelin stars and World’s 50 Best Lists, he was still just a humble cook. His food was always an extension of himself, but he never put himself or his food above the team or screamed for attention with superficial, cheffy flourishes. When someone cooks from the heart the way James did, everyone who dines at his restaurants feels a deeper, more personal connection with the chef. It isn’t because he changed the way we think about food, but because he reminded us why we love to eat. Chefs like him are a rare breed.

Success! You're on the list.

Restaurants Don’t Belong To Us Anymore

There was a time not too long ago when you could grease your way into a trendy restaurant by slipping a crisp $50 bill into the maître’d’s palm. I suspect there are still a few impressionable gatekeepers willing to trade a cozy corner table for a generous bribe, but the good ‘ole days of buying your way into a restaurant are pretty much over. Scoring a reservation at everyone’s favorite place is becoming harder without connections, and many restaurant owners work hard to keep the velvet rope as short as possible. In today’s luxury-driven market, access to restaurants must be earned, and guests are expected to prove their worth through consistent spending habits.

Contrary to public perception, restaurants aren’t democracies. Conventional wisdom suggests that anyone can make a reservation, so we should all have equal opportunity to dine in every restaurant. However, the truth is that restaurants, especially high-end ones, function more as meritocracies. That means that people who consistently spend more money will often have an easier time getting a reservation. I can also tell you from experience that management in fine dining restaurants cultivates these relationships, establishing private lines of communication to facilitate the exchange of preferred access for generous patronage. Most restaurateurs won’t admit that they arrange such favors, but rigging the reservation book for the rich has been going on forever.

Restricting access has historically been an effective strategy for restaurants to build a reputation on exclusivity. In Dining Out: A Global History of Restaurants, Katie Lawson and Elliott Stone note that, even in the late nineteenth century, restaurants like the one in the Waldorf Hotel in New York City were known for limiting access to curate a certain clientele base. “Fine dining establishments, especially those at the very top, thrived not on friendliness, but on gatekeeping,” they wrote. “By being selectively welcoming, these places created prestige and demand.” The dynamic they describe sounds remarkably contemporary.

Gold-plated steak from Nusr-Et Steakhouse

I’m sure you’ve noticed that restaurant prices are skyrocketing lately. In a recent post on his LO Times Substack newsletter, former Eater food critic Ryan Sutton notes the corrosive effects of surging prices, lamenting how recent hikes are pricing people out from dining at their favorite restaurants. “Some of these increases are simply the unfortunate byproducts of living in one of the world’s most expensive cities,” he writes, of New York City, “and yet sometimes it feels as if more and more operators are saying to themselves: let’s go “whale hunting.” It’s true that many restaurants have become more whale-friendly than ever, but the “pivot to the rich” he’s describing is hardly a new development.

Reservations have become status symbols, especially in affluent circles, and the ability to get into a restaurant has become a form of social currency. For years now, high-end restaurants have been experimenting with alternative reservation systems to exert greater control over who has access. It started ten years ago with ticketing apps like Tock that treat dinner reservations like rock concerts, where securing a table requires guests to prepay their meals in advance. Today, third-party concierge services like Dorsia provide exclusive reservations to customers that are willing to meet spending thresholds that help insure restaurants against costly no-shows and provide a boost of adrenaline to their bottom line.

Companies like Major Food Group in New York City have been actively developing private membership models that cater to their most affluent clientele. The buy-in at Major Food’s ZZ’s Club and Carbone Privato in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, for example, starts at $30,000 with recurring annual dues of $10,000 (250 members were offered “Founder’s Club” status for a $50,000 initiation fee). Similar members-only restaurants like the 60,000 square-foot Core Club in NYC (and soon to open in San Francisco and Milan) are popping up all over the country with membership fees that range up to $100,000 annually per family. Carbone Privato provides curated experiences that include a private “chef concierge” service that will cook any dish of the menu for members (including personal family recipes with ample notice).

The privatization of restaurants seems exclusionary and classist, but the pay-to-play model was already firmly in place long before this new wave of membership models. Luxury restaurants create a club-like atmosphere by inflating menu prices to a level that only a certain caliber of clientele can afford. I had an experience recently at a swanky midtown Manhattan restaurant that reminded me of how prices can be exclusionary. The menu was littered with gratuitous upsells labeled “enhancements”—like adding king crab to any salad for an extra $33 or upgrading from the run-of-the-mill $27 burger to a Wagyu version for $37. The add-ons seemed designed as flexes more than anything that improved individual dishes in a meaningful way. It also made the default settings, expensive in their own right, feel pedestrian. The restaurant’s signature prime rib cost a full $100 and a lobster pasta with a few paltry chunks of meat sold for $75. It would be virtually impossible to have a proper meal for less than $200 per person, even without drinks. There was no big-name chef in the kitchen or farm-to-table ethos to justify the astronomical prices. Everyone present seemed to understand that we weren’t only paying for the food but for the privilege.

Caviar served with everything, except a reason.

Aside from booking high-end fine dining destinations like Noma or Alinea, most restaurant goers still reject the idea that they should be expected to pay in advance for the privilege of dining in a restaurant. Average guests still view a restaurant reservation more like a gentleman’s agreement than a contract. The same people will happily pay hundreds if not thousands of dollars above face-value to see a Taylor Swift concert or for tickets to the latest Broadway smash. For some reason, we reject the idea that restaurants should ever cost more than what we order from their menu.

Anyone who thinks that online reservation platforms like Resy prove that everyone has an equal opportunity to dine anywhere should be reminded that Resy was recently bought by American Express (presumably to ensure more exclusive access for their wealthiest clients). Heavily in-demand restaurants also often withhold a percentage of their tables (especially the more valuable prime time slots) from those online reservation services, to make sure they have availability for VIP guests, affluent regulars, friends of the owners, and celebrities. Once someone has demonstrated themselves to be a reliable guest who spends a lot of money, management tends to find ways to get those people in, even when reservations are tight.

These developments collectively portend a sad reality where average people are losing access to their favorite restaurants. “This is an era when becoming a regular, or even going to a nice restaurant once a year, can feel like an unattainable luxury,” writes Sutton, in his newsletter. He’s right that the days of our favorite restaurants always being there for us when we need them to be may be gone forever. The truth may be exactly the opposite: that we will need to be there for restaurants whenever they want us to be. Don’t forget to bring your wallet.

Success! You're on the list.