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How Kaya Restaurant Wants to Empower People of Color in Fine Dining

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Chef Nigel Jones seeks to push San Francisco fine dining harder

Chef Nigel Jones (right) with sous chef Walter DeLeon, February 2018
Alta Group

This is One Month In, wherein Eater discusses the hot topics that coincide with new restaurant openings.

The past few months have meant major transitions for chef Nigel Jones. For starters, he joined forces with nationally known chef Daniel Patterson as co-owner of a new and eagerly awaited restaurant idea called Kaya. In a matter of days, he then oversaw its creation at the mid-Market address where Patterson’s Alta CA once lived. The team overhauled the menu and gave the decor a light facelift, effectively turning it into a spinoff of Jones’ beloved Oakland restaurant, Kingston 11, which pays homage to his birthplace in Jamaica.

Back in January, Jones shared his intention to bring a “richness of diversity” to Kaya: “Coming into San Francisco, there is a void of that kind of spirit as the black community continues to be marginalized and move out. This is an opportunity where myself and Daniel [Patterson] get together to demonstrate that if we come together, we can do some wonderful things. I want to bring that richness back into the community, diversity into the space, and celebrate that.”

Now, almost a month into running the show at two restaurants — all while his daughter Irie is coming up on her second birthday in April — Eater checked in with Jones to see how it’s going.

How are things?

Every day I start over at Kingston in Oakland to touch base with the team and make sure everything is on schedule. The positive thing is that the restaurant has had my full attention for four years. I was worried I was neglecting the Kingston team, but they need to be able to run efficiently without me having a heavy hand on them every day.

Kaya needs the attention now at the early stages. It’s basically like a child: If you don’t give it the attention and affection early on, it won’t be what you want it to be when it’s ready to run on its own.

That’s a great analogy. Do you have kids?

I have a 24-year-old daughter who doesn’t need any parenting. But I also have an almost 2 year old. So much of parenting is about learning about yourself. I have a lot of support and help from my wife, but I’m a pretty hands-on dad. There’s a price to be paid with children, but there are a lot of rewards. You have to show up for it. My dad left Jamaica before I was born and went to England. Growing up without my dad was an issue, but I didn’t realize quite how much until I had my own kid. I know, I’m getting personal.

Well, childhood memories influence us very much as adults. Now, looking at the SF and Oakland menus, they actually look quite similar.

Everything may sound the same, but it’s a totally different presentation and prep. We’re keeping the same flavor profile as the original recipe, but we’re refining things. For instance the black pepper tofu: At Kingston we fry it in cornstarch and use three different soy sauces and white rice. At Kaya, we use the same tofu but we create a ball of it with the white rice and some different herbs. We sautee that and we put pickled veggies on top.

How is it working in the kitchen?

We had a short turnaround. Alta closed on December 23rd. Kaya was open on the 11th. That time period included painting and construction, so we really only had three or four days when we could be in the kitchen together and train before opening. I tried to keep it as simple as possible. One of many positives is that I inherited a lot of the Alta team who were used to the tools. They only had to learn the new menu. We started out by looking at most of the items that I was comfortable with from Kingston 11. After the first week we started to tweak things.

Is Daniel Patterson involved?

Yes! It’s Daniel and myself and former Coi chef Andrew Miller in the kitchen. We look at each dish and ask “how can we can stay true to it but elevate it a little bit?” In a couple weeks, I’ll have time to work on some new dishes. I’ll go back to some of the things I’ve wanted to do from growing up in Jamaica.

Like what?

There’s a dish we call “mackerel rundown.” It’s salted dry mackerel and we use fresh grated coconut and create a custard. Then we turn it into a stew with Scotch bonnet pepper, a little ginger, allspice — some of the typical Jamaican spices. We serve that with boiled green banana and fried bread dumplings. I want to look at that again and introduce it here in a different way.

Nigel Jones in the kitchen at Kaya, February 2018
Alta Group

How is the San Francisco clientele treating you?

Oakland has more generational and economic diversity. And there’s a huge artist community. Meanwhile, somebody told me there are more dogs in SF than kids. But overall, I like what I see in SF with the diversity.

We are getting Jamaican clientele in San Francisco and people of color — in particular black folks. There’s not a large Caribbean presence here in the Bay Area but they’re scattered around and finding their way here. Black Americans are also loving being in this space where there’s an eclectic and multicultural staff and multicultural clientele. Still, the demographic is of course a little whiter here than in Oakland.

Any regulars yet?

One of the things I pointed out to Daniel — because I’m here more than he is — is there have been lots and lots of repeat customers who are bringing in friends. We’ve been here three weeks and people have been telling me, “Hey this is my third time here this week!” Sometimes you want to take credit, but you’ve got to give the credit to the people that are spreading the word and telling their friends.

How did you cultivate a multicultural reach so quickly?

I think a lot of it has to do with the intention you project. I also think the food is amazing. And Jamaica as a country has a positive reference point with a lot of people. Remember, roughly ten years ago Puma had a lot of products with Jamaican themes on them. That’s because they did a word association test with people and almost everyone had a positive reaction to Jamaica. You know Bob Marley, reggae, the sunshine. So they had all these Jamaican flag colors and other iconography on their shoes and products. Jamaica is a place people go to get away from the hustle and bustle of America and one of my intentions for the restaurant is to allow that.

How so?

Well, we’re right in front of Twitter and Uber. There are a lot of young diverse workers that aren’t caught up on the path to race and class separation that is predominating our national dialogue right now. They’re turned off by the national noise. People want an excuse to be themselves and be relaxed and be accepting of each other. It’s hard to leave politics behind, but we’re allowing people to do what would come naturally for them. A place where they can just be here and be diverse and own that. A lot of interracial relationships feel less judged in our space. We want people to leave Market Street and get into a Caribbean state of mind.

Do you teach this ethos to your staff?

Yes, and Daniel and I talk about this all the time. Just last night we looked around and said “Shit, man, look what’s going on.” You can see diversity growing in the dining room.

Tell me about your work with Restaurant Opportunites Center (ROC) United, which advocates to improve wages and working conditions for restaurant workers. How does that intersect with what you’re doing at Kaya?

Running a restaurant is a little different than participating in this group’s efforts. As a black person and a business owner, it’s hard to find good quality folks that reflect the community. You don’t want to just hire for a political statement, you need to run your business. There are people coming from lifestyles that don’t afford them with the discipline and the reliability that you want in your workforce.

What I’ve recognized is that we have to be committed to hiring folks, training them, and also mentoring them. Sometimes you have to talk to people differently. I recently pulled over an employee and said “Hey you’ve got a kid. And I know you’ve been incarcerated. We respect you. Now do you want your kid to respect you? How can you tell your kid to work hard and get a job when you’re not doing it?”

I want to create opportunity. I’m open to anyone who is capable and can do the job. If I’m a white man and all is equal, I’m more than likely going to hire another white guy based on unconscious bias. At my restaurants, I’m not necessarily looking to hire people of color. But what we are trying to accomplish in the fine dining space is where and how I can make a decision to open the door for people of color. If a black person has the potential, I am able to recognize the quality that’s in them.

Jones adapted Alta’s soft serve to Jamaican flavor profile: chocolate habanero with molasses and lime.
Alanna Hale

At Kingston we have a bartender Justin Tam, he’s Chinese. We have Eritrean and Ethiopian servers and a white guy from Russia. We have a lot of employees who are gay. We wanna keep it like what our community looks like. I think that’s what people love about community.

Maybe you should run for mayor.

I thought about running for mayor. More as a joke. But it’s frustrating that politicians don’t think about how things could and should change on the ground. It’s not that difficult in terms of what they could be doing to give people more stake in the city. Take art. My older daughter went to UC Santa Cruz and she majored in history, but the school cut art because of funding. A lot of kids love art and music: That’s where their energy is. I would turn Oakland into a mecca for art: Use all these empty space to give these kids a place to do and think. Then maybe they pick up a book and they realize they actually like math. The point is that you meet people where they are. And we’re not doing that.

What have been the biggest challenges so far at Kaya?

Rent is more here. Financially the numbers need to keep making sense. The numbers are what’s going to be important for us. Every week we’re doing more business than the next. So I’m happy. For me, it’s also about staying engaged and keeping the staff engaged. It’s funny how customers are responding to the change. People will say “oh you know the food is really good and the service is so much better!” We have almost the same staff! But our staff has a different perception now. The guys in the kitchen love being so busy.

What are the best sellers?

Jerk chicken, oxtail, black pepper crab, and caramelized carrots are blowing out. I have a lot of people saying “Oh, you’re out of the crab.”

The freshly refurbished decor at Kaya
Alanna Hale

Are you happy with the decor? Does it capture what you were going for?

Yes! I am. The space was a beautiful shell. We tweaked the color. Gave it a shade of blue. Added recycled wood trims around the moulding and the bar edge. It has more texture and color. We made the wall bright white. The art on the wall is of playful scenes in Jamaica. One is some adults in Kingston playing and dancing. One is a black woman blowing a bubble that looks like the world. It’s joyful and energetic. The artist is from Trinidad.

My colleague Hillary Dixler Canavan loves your piri piri chicken. She wants to know if you guys are talking about doing a spinoff fast-casual concept around the chicken.

I don’t know, maybe [laughing]. She may be creating a new business idea. I may be thinking about and talking to Daniel about this.