From the outside, the bright red barn looks ready for it’s inevitable destruction by way of redevelopment. In a town wrought with billionaires and homes valued in the multi-millions, the small bastion of Saddle River buildings that sit at the corner of East Allendale Road and West Saddle River Road look like they’ve been there since horse drawn carriages traveled down gravel laden unpaved roads, and for good reason: they have.
In Saddle River, where nearly everything was torn down and replaced by celebrity dwellings and the castles of CEO’s, these buildings sit as one of the final reminders of what Bergen County once was: beautiful farm lands.
Step inside the old red building at 2 Barnstable Court around 1:30PM on any given afternoon, and you’ll find a bevy of chefs, led by Chef Jamie Knott, prepping for the night’s fare. Return that evening, and you’ll be treated to one of North Jersey’s culinary wonders: The Saddle River Inn.
Much like the journey the town of Saddle River has taken, Chef Knott has taken one of his own. After working his way up from restaurant to restaurant, he is now proudly the Executive Chef/Owner of Saddle River Inn, a culmination of his experiences working with some of the finest chefs in the country. While this critically acclaimed restaurant may mark the pinnacle of food and service success for some chefs, to Jamie it is a mere starting point. See him in action and taste his food, and you’ll see why his star is rapidly on the rise toward the highest peaks of the culinary world.
Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, Jamie likes to say he had a pretty normal childhood. He was an altar boy, attended private school, and hung out with kids in the neighborhood. Typically, he neglects the part where from 4-8 years old he was helping his mother out at her bar “Lush’s,” washing glasses and well, pouring beer for the blue collar guys coming in for a brew after their shifts. “You could say I was kind of born into the service industry. I got a young start,” Jamie says with a laugh.
In order for Jamie and his older brother Eric to attend private school, Jamie’s mother worked two jobs, leaving Jamie’s grandmother in charge of entertaining two young and curious boys.
“My grandmother was a cook at an underground casino. Gambling in Baltimore wasn’t legal, but of course they found their ways. When she wasn’t at work, her home was my second home. When I was with friends, it was at her house. I have a lot of cousins, my mom is one of five, so the house was always bustling with a lot of mouths to feed. She always had 4 pots on the stove. It was here that I started to understand how to feed people. It was at her house that I began to grasp how family, community and food work together. It’s really the cornerstone of who I am,” Jamie reminisced.
Soon after Jamie turned eight, he moved to Nutley, New Jersey with his mother and brother. His mother had met Jamie’s stepfather at Lush’s. He was going to dental school and bartending there. When he graduated, they moved north to Nutley, where Jamie’s stepfather’s father had a dental practice since 1964, which Jamie’s (step)father now runs today.
“When I first got here, I was the new kid in 3rd grade with an accent, an earing and a skateboard. The kids used to just make me say things and would crack up after,” Jamie says now, with his heavy Baltimore drawl firmly replaced by Jersey’s finest accent.
“Those next few years I was a pretty normal kid though. I played a lot of sports. Basketball mostly, but football and baseball, too. When I wasn’t playing sports I was breaking windows and getting into fights,” Jamie laughed, looking out at the swath of twenty-four small windows spanning the Saddle River Inn’s South wall. “It’s a reminder of what not to do now,” Jamie chuckled.
“We had a clubhouse, two stories. It was cool. We would go on missions, just running around and taking things out of sheds, stealing hood ornaments from cars. That was our thing. Hood ornaments were fun. Things that wouldn’t hurt anyone directly, before you knew the value of a dollar,” Jamie reminisced.
It was when Jamie became a teenager though, that his passion for cooking truly began.
His first “real” job was at Franklin Steakhouse in Nutley, which is still around today. Here, he was a bus boy on Friday and Saturday nights and watched the parking lot on Sundays. “I was making $140 a week. I did what any thirteen year old would: I bought weed and clothes,” Jamie said laughing. “I had a lot of clothes.”
Jamie soon graduated to food runner and then bar back. “I was always watching the other cooks and I loved the camaraderie of a kitchen. There is just something about it that doesn’t exist elsewhere,” Jamie says. “The cooks would let me make the salad when the owner wasn’t there on Sundays, and it was a lot of fun getting real experience in a kitchen. I probably shouldn’t have been cooking for people yet though.”
In high school, like many of us, Jamie was cooking basic things for himself such as eggs and sandwiches. Unlike many of us though, Jamie was paying great attention to layering the flavors between the bread, which he soon realized was one of his first major culinary lessons.
“A young cook wants to put everything on a plate. You should’ve seen my sandwiches. I could make a hell of a sandwich. A great chef though, hits on all the notes with less,” Jamie pointed out.
Much like most athletic kids with a passion for sports in high school, Jamie opted to take Home Economics all four years. “First off, it was all girls in class. Second, I got to cook,” Jamie said in his defense.
“Home Ec was always after lunch. I would go out and have a toke or two in the park, and then come back to class hungry and create something delicious. It was a great schedule,” Jamie cracked up.
After high school, Jamie took his talents up to Boston with his brother. His brother’s roommate’s father had patented a processor for Dell, so there was Jamie and his brother, living in a 4-story townhouse in Beacon Hill with an elevator, balconies on each floor and a roof top deck with views into Fenway Park. Here, he found a job at a Spanish Tapas lounge called Sophia’s where he lived the dream of being both “sort of sous chef and a dishwasher,” Jamie remembered. “I was 17, didn’t know what I wanted to do, and just moved up there and had fun pretty much.”
“It was a busy place and a lot of fun. They had an 8-15 piece Salsa band nightly. The place was huge and those years in Boston were pretty much just one big party,” Jamie (somewhat) remembers.
While up in Boston, Jamie began dating his now wife Crista, a friend and lab partner of his from high school. At first, she was actually dating a friend of Jamie’s from Nutley, but Jamie likes to tell the story that he stole her away. She would come up to Boston or he would come back to Nutley almost every weekend to see each other, and the rest is history. As their romance continued to heat up, it was inevitable that Jamie would be heading back to Jersey in no time.
“I remember my (step)father calling me after about two years in Boston and saying, “It’s time you figure things out and put down some roots.” I moved back to Jersey shortly after that and enrolled in the Culinary Management Program at New York Restaurant School, which is now the Art Institute of Manhattan,” Jamie says. “My dad really helped me with that, which was great, because that’s a big investment. He told me if I wanted to be taken seriously I need to get a degree. That’s some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. I’ve been given a lot of advice, but that’s one of the few things that stuck,” Jamie says laughing.
While attending school, Jamie also worked at Stop & Shop in Clifton, and a fellow student in Jamie’s baking class soon brought him in for a job at Café Centro, a prominent French Bistro on the second floor of Grand Central Station owned by Chef Franck Deletrain and still open today. There, Jamie worked the amuse-bouche station.
“I was constantly running to a train or bus, studying and working in New York and living in New Jersey, but it was probably the best culinary experience I’ve gotten. I was learning by day in school and then practicing at night in a well-regarded kitchen, which made it all stick with me. Franck was a great mentor. He was a super talented guy, had gotten three stars from The New York Times, could speak four languages. He was just an amazing cook,” Jamie remembers. “He’s at Brasserie 8 ½ now.”
It was at Café Centro that Jamie honed his knife skills and really learned how to cook. He climbed the ladder from amuse station to cold apps and salads and then fish, meat and sauce, before leaving two years later as sous chef at 21. “I owe so much to Franck, and he probably doesn’t even know it. He was so impactful on me,” Jamie says with a gleam in his eye.
Franck and his restaurant group had taken over management responsibilities for Nick & Steph’s Steakhouse, and Franck brought Jamie on board to be his liaison to the staff of the new restaurant. By then, Jamie had a keen understanding of Franck’s style.
Alex Guarnaschelli was the chef at the time. Known now for her recurring roll as judge on Chopped and Iron Chef America, Jamie actually only met her once. “My first day was her last. She became pretty famous about four or five years later,” Jamie remembered.
Although it seemed at first that Jamie might follow in the footsteps of a celebrity chef like Alex, the new restaurant was presenting challenges Jamie wasn’t prepared for.
“It was a tough change of pace for me. I went to a very hostile kitchen with gruff guys who couldn’t care less about anything. We weren’t getting along well. About 8-10 months later, Franck let me go. It hurt a lot. I was sad, and then angry. I thought I was a big shot by then, and this was the start of a humbling few years,” Jamie recounted.
“They gave me another opportunity within the company at Brasserie 8 . , and I floundered that. I was late five days in a row, and the chef came up to me and said, “Jamie, you’re a talented guy, but I have to let you go.’”
“I remember taking that walk home, that walk of shame almost,” Jamie explained.
As luck would have it, a new opportunity would present itself to Jamie in the form of an old high school friend, Ryan DePersio. “I would see Ryan on the bus home from the city at night. He worked at Jean-George’s place, and had kept saying he wanted to open a place of his own. Sure enough, soon after I had gotten fired, Ryan opened Fascino in Montclair, and took me on as his sous chef.”
Opening to critical acclaim, the restaurant, originally only 40 seats, thrived in those first few years. “At first it was just Ryan, myself, and a dishwasher,” Jamie explains. “In those early days, we built a business. We hustled. We did every job. We also saw that real cooking has a place in Jersey.”
After being a part of it for three years, Fascino underwent an expansion. “There were a few partners, and they were all family. I wanted to buy in, but there was really no place for me. They are great people, and we are still in touch today,” Jamie remembers. “But it was onto the next thing for me.”
This led Jamie to his first executive chef role at Church St. Café in Montclair. The owner had sought him out from Fascino, and what looked like a great marriage between chef and partner began to bloom. “We were very busy in the beginning with great reviews, but it got much harder,” Jamie explains. “Unfortunately my partner wasn’t great with money, and it was tough to work without getting paid. I had to leave.”
That brought Jamie back to the eating mecca, Manhattan, where he got a job at Saluté owned by Jerry Sbarro, son of Mario Sbarro of the famed Sbarro pizza chain. There, Jamie met a lot of people who have since become stars in the food world such as Clifford Crooks, once executive chef of BLT Steak, Michael Devincenzi of Grissini’s, executive chef of Rails in Towaco, Frank Falivene, not to mention his pastry chef at Saddle River Inn presently, Leticia Meneses.
After working there about two years, Jamie had become close with Chef Bradley Day, who worked at Asia de Cuba across the street from Saluté. Brad was given the opportunity to become executive chef at China Grill, and brought on Jamie as executive sous chef. “It was like the biggest job I ever got,” Jamie recalls. “It was a long interview process. I had four separate interviews, and finally got it. I was making like 68k a year and I was 24. I was there about a year and a half when Brad got the opportunity to open the Empire Hotel at Lincoln Center with a new concept called Center Cut, and I was promoted to Executive Chef of China Grill.”
“I got the nod, it was right before my 26th birthday, and it was a big deal. China Grill was a $25 million restaurant, and they were leaving it to me. I came up fast. I had to learn all the other important aspects of running not just a restaurant, but a business. Things got a lot more serious at that point,” Jamie remembers.
“I was doing well. It was all going really well. I got to be creative, I learned purchasing. I had free range of specials and learned how to take care of things,” Jamie explains. “About a year after that, Center Cut didn’t make it, and they were moving Brad. I was in Ocean City, Maryland, where my parents had a beach house, and I got a call that they were going with a new concept at Empire Hotel and they had an opportunity for me. They knew I was young and ambitious, and asked me to be the chef of the new concept. My first question was “What’s going to happen with Brad?” But he told me I shouldn’t be worried about that. “He was cutthroat. His name was Scott Hubert, he was the regional manager. Worked with David Burke for a long time. He looked like a professional wrestler. But he challenged me. He asked me, “Are you the man for the new place?’”
“I called back the next day and told them I’d take it under one condition: they keep Brad on, and they did. He went back to China Grill. It was a bit awkward. I was going to fix the mess he made, but he had helped me get the opportunity,” Jamie remembers.
“The opening was a real bitch. It was called Ed’s Chowder House. It was popping. But we were also serving the hotel, plus two banquet venues within it. I was there around the clock. Every meal. I’d get a call at 8:30AM that the pancakes didn’t look good. It was that sort of corporate job. We didn’t get a great review in The Times and it killed me. It hurt a lot. Ed Brown was the Chef/Owner (from NJ) and we got knocked on our asses. It was his baby, and it was a hit, but not critically. We thought we would nail the critical acclaim. Then we won Top 10 in Esquire, so it was all kind of strange,” Jamie says, humbled by the experience. “The restaurant partners came in and said “The place is full every night, don’t beat yourself up.” They talked me off the ledge, sort of speak.”
After a small situation at Ed’s, the CGM Group, the management company that ran Asia de Cuba and China Grill, relocated Jamie as a consultant to open FoodParc in the newly built Eventi Hotel, as well as run food for banquets there. “They brought me back under one condition: at the original salary I worked for them at, at Asia de Cuba. I needed to be punished, and this was it, and it did hurt to be knocked back down, but it was a great learning experience. “FoodParc was the first of it’s kind, a food hall with 7 different outlets,” Jamie explained. “We tooled around with concepts like RedFarm, which is now super famous today with two locations.”
Jamie stayed for the opening of FoodParc, but knew it wasn’t for him, and soon found himself at Artisanal, the fine dining bistro on Park Ave as a consultant. Only four days later, he was promoted to Executive Chef.
“It was a big, busy place. We were doing 250 for dinner during the week, 350 Friday and 500 Saturday night, and then another 350 for brunch Sunday. When I first got there, there were all kinds of issues, and I like to be a fixer, so we redid it all and returned the restaurant to prominence over the course of two years. I learned a lot,” Jamie remembers. “It felt good.”
Following the turnaround of Artisanal, suitors were lining up to offer Jamie a job, and Jamie was looking for an out. After the firing of seven sous chefs by owner Terrance Brennan in less than two years, Jamie felt uneasy about Artisanal’s work environment. Chef Clifford Crooks, his friend and coworker from Saluté, recruited Jamie to BLT group to be the Executive Chef at BLT Steak.
“I went in to sign the paper work and all that jazz, and they told me I was going to be the Corporate Chef, and I’d be responsible for six restaurants,” Jamie remembers. “It was a big surprise. It was an interesting job, but it was not easy.”
The new role as Corporate Chef had Jamie running all over the place, from restaurant to restaurant, and then Esquared Hospitality which ran the BLT Group took over the Eventi Hotel, where he had originally consulted on FoodParc. Now, he was in a different role, with greater responsibility and more on the line. He had BLT Steak, BLT Fish, Casa Nonna, Steak 57, as well as changing concepts at the Eventi Hotel.
“I was getting 300 emails a day. The happiest day of my life was giving the Blackberry back to them, but it was an amazing learning experience. I learned how to manage my time, which I realize is so important now, and how to build a brand,” Jamie explained.
“While I was doing all of this, the Exec Chef at Casa Nonna left, and I had to do that too. We turned it around from doing about $40k a week to $160k, but it was just a lot. This was about the time I really began looking for a place of my own in Jersey.”
When Jamie saw the “For Sale” listing for Saddle River Inn, he knew it was the place for him. “We came here, had an appetizer, looked at the building and I said, “This is our place.”
It was July 19th, 2012, and Jamie, along with his then partner David Madison, closed on the property January of 2013, taking it off the hands of a tired Hans Egg, the chef owner of the Inn that started it’s tradition of culinary excellence.
“The owners just wanted to stay for New Years Eve, and we respected that,” Jamie explains. “We signed on a Monday, and we wanted to have friends and family there that Friday,” an ambitious Jamie retells. “We bought chairs, glassware, small aesthetic stuff, redid the bathrooms. We might have overlooked the whole “permit” part though, so there were some delays there,” Jamie laughed. “The inspector came in and saw the new wiring and basically said, “What the fuck is this?” We had to stop work and waited about 60 days, but, hey, we are open now,” Jamie said with a smile.
Around June of 2015, Jamie and David went their separate ways. David has taken on the revival of Park & Orchard in East Rutherford and the Saddle River Inn is now solely Jamie’s. Needless to say, he and the restaurant haven’t skipped a beat, receiving an Excellent from the New York Times just days after Jamie had taken full control of the restaurant.
“Things have been crazy for the restaurant since,” Jamie says smiling.
As I was seated at my table late on a recent Tuesday night, you might have thought it was a Friday within the wooden walls of Saddle River Inn. No table lay vacant, and at a BYOB where, for the most part, each table keeps to themselves, this is the ultimate testament to Chef Jamie’s cuisine.
The fare at Saddle River Inn is simple, yet skillfully crafted. Chef Jamie takes familiar ingredients sourced locally (not to mention his aquaponic vegetable garden behind the Inn) and abroad and artfully layers their flavors in a way rarely experienced by the palate, in a deliberate manor only an expert chef can.
While dining at Saddle River Inn, there is an aura within these simple barn walls that you, the diner, is part of something bigger. As the night goes on, you realize that although Jamie’s journey has brought him to such great heights at the Inn, he is nowhere near done. You as the diner may no longer be hungry, but Jamie, as a chef, most certainly is. His relentless ambition coupled with his present success and unbelievable talent makes Jamie a culinary force to be reckoned with.
The next few months look to only elevate Jamie’s status as one of New Jersey’s premiere chefs. In April he will open Cellar 335 in the basement of what was once a church in Jersey City. It will be a progressive American with Asian influences concept. He may begin filming a show on CNBC, and around the same time, he will be filming an episode of Beat Bobby Flay with a dish that is currently on Saddle River Inn’s menu. Not a chef to be out ego-ed, Jamie plans to leave Bobby walking off the set with his tail between his legs.
When Jamie isn’t in the kitchen, his food family is still on his mind. Just recently, he took the 24 person staff of Saddle River Inn to Stone Farms at Blue Hill for a night out.
“I have the most amazing staff. They are just good human beings, and their skills are a bonus. As a Chef, I have to hire to my weaknesses, and the staff at the Inn pick up where I lack, and that’s what has helped make this place such a power house,” Jamie says proudly.
Chef Jamie Knott, now 35, is still happily married to Crista and living in Nutley with three children. While he pursues other initiatives, Jamie is not putting Saddle River Inn on the back burner, with plans to make the Inn an even more prominent dining destination.
“Saddle River is a dry town, and let’s face it, it’s 2016 now. Fine dining and cocktails go hand in hand,” Jamie explained. “So I’m going to do my part in trying to get the community on board to make a liquor license available here.”
As you drive past the old red buildings around Barnstable Court, it’s easy to dismiss what may be inside. Over the past 3 years, Jamie has changed that. Saddle River Inn has become a dining destination wholly worthy of all of its critical acclaim. For the hungry residents of Bergen County, it might be the best dining experience west of the Hudson. For Chef Jamie Knott, it’s just the beginning.
Written By Brandon Goldstein