Mentors + Motivation with Chef Nigel Jones

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chef nigel jones

In this new series we will explore some notable Bay Area chefs and their relationships both with and as mentors. From classic mentor/mentee relationships to paths that have taken a less-textbook approach, it’s clear that wherever a chef finds his or her beacon, that relationship is impactful in many ways.

First up, Nigel Jones, chef/owner at Kingston 11 and Kaya. Jones grew up in Jamaica and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. After pursuing a career in the garment industry, he made a major career change, leaving a senior position at Levi’s to open Kingston 11 in Oakland. He is someone who clearly knows the importance of paying attention: He has learned from people around him in every phase of his life, and that learning continues to make him a better chef/owner. Jones is passionate about training new cooks and inspiring in his commitment to the craft.

Who was your most influential mentor and why?

I’d be hard pressed to name one famous chef from Jamaica, where I grew up. Being a chef was just not a job that we viewed from a professional level so I found my mentors in my family and my culture.

I grew up with everyone around me cooking. It is so ingrained in the culture, and everybody, men and women, just own it. In the U.S. you have potlucks, but when I grew up you’d hear someone say, “Let’s run a boat.” Unlike an American potluck where people show up with dishes to share, we would hear this phrase and bring whatever ingredients were on hand and cook together. Even as a kid this was an important part of my community.

How did your mentor motivate you to cook?

My grandma used to make a calf’s liver dish that I did not like and wouldn’t eat. Her response when I complained was to tell me to make my own dinner. I was probably 10 years old and this is what initially got me into the kitchen—she showed me how to use a knife, taught me about ingredients and sparked my interest in cooking.

What made you decide to cook professionally?

I came to the U.S. at age 16. I eventually found my way into the garment business in New York, and when I relocated to the Bay Area in the early 2000s, I was hired as a supply-chain director at Levi’s. I saw a void in the local food scene when it came to high-quality Jamaican or Caribbean food, and that was the impetus to do it myself.

I took some foundational classes, mostly French classics, but because I come from a Jamaican background, I saw all those recipes through the lens of Caribbean cuisine. I figured out how I could use what I was learning and apply it to the food I’d grown up knowing so well.

From Levi’s to owning your own restaurant is quite a leap. How did it happen?

I was able to bring many strengths from my business background into the restaurant. Many chefs go into their own place as artists, and businesses fail because those owners aren’t prepared for the other aspects of the job, be it hiring, sourcing, growth strategies or costing.

I took what I’d learned about managing a supply chain translated that to my restaurants. For example, I work with almost entirely fresh food and operate with minimal freezer space, if any. To do this successfully I need to be cognizant of shelf lives, lead time in sourcing products, and forecasting orders and demand. I’m 100% confident I do this successfully because of what I learned in my previous job.

Now that you’re a chef/owner, what is your priority as a mentor in the industry?

As a person of color I need to have a sense of responsibility in terms of building the workforce. Given the very shallow pool of cooks, many people I hire in my kitchens come to us with no previous experience so I have to be committed to creating a culture that supports their training. This is a vital activity in terms of the survival of my business and if I can share my expertise with these young cooks, bringing them up and training them, I will eventually grow the pipeline of people who are prepared to advance in the field. It’s not unlike what we hear about women in Silicon Valley: if we don’t hire and train more women across disciplines in the tech world, we won’t have the pool of talent to draw from for future leaders.

For your new venture, Kaya, you have partnered with Daniel Patterson, a chef who has mentored many in the Bay Area. Can you talk about that relationship?

Daniel was a regular customer of mine at Kingston 11 and that is how we got to talking about him changing the concept at Alta. We have a very collaborative relationship. He has helped me gain exposure to fine dining and we share a lot of same goals culturally, so we work well together.

Any last words of advice for up-and-coming cooks?

My advice is to create enough space in your life to develop your own pride and passion for your craft and profession in the kitchen. This is hard work and you will have challenges at some stage in your career. The self-pride and passion for your craft will enable you to ride out these difficulties. These experiences will help build your character, stamina and self-motivation, which are keys for success in this industry!

Photo: Michael Short