Chef Jamie Knott: Mr. Flat Out, Full On

Jamie Knott was always driven—to escape childhood wounds and to pursue his passions. But to become a major chef and restaurateur he had to beat the bottle, and that took years.

Chef Jamie Knott. Photo by Chris Lane

Jamie Knott has one wife, but 38 wedding bands. He owns 24 wristwatches, having just given away eight to one of his chefs. He has about 15 fine bracelets. When he dresses each morning, Knott picks a band, a watch and a bracelet that match. His belt, meanwhile, will match his footwear, which he keeps neatly arranged on racks in his Nutley home: 80 pair of sneakers and 60 pair of boots and dress shoes.

“I don’t think you understand the scope of my OCD,” he says, only half kidding. “I’ve always loved clothes. I won Best Dressed in junior high. When I dress good, I feel good.”

For Knott, 38, feeling good has not come easy. But over the last decade, having freed himself from almost 20 years of alcoholism, he has become one of New Jersey’s most creative and successful chef entrepreneurs. He now has three restaurants, each expressing a different side of his personality—the fine dining Saddle River Inn; the new, casual and health-focused Saddle River Cafe (which made our Hottest New Restaurants list); and the cheeky tiki-bar riff, Cellar 335 in Jersey City.

Through his gutter days and now even more so, attention to detail has been Knott’s stabilizer. “There’s always room for growth if you’re organized,” he says. “My food is always a searching. How can I make it look better, taste better?”

Adam Rose, chef/owner of Villalobos in Montclair, who has known Knott since high school, attests to this. “He’s extremely focused on his craft, as much as anyone I know in this business,” Rose says. “To say he is dedicated is an understatement.”

Franck Deletrain, executive chef of New York’s Brasserie 8 1/2, remembers training Knott, then a 20-year-old culinary student, at Café Centro in Midtown. “The way he was conducting himself, his passion for food and love for food—I felt like he was looking at everything with curiosity and was very into the details,” Deletrain recalls. “He respected everyone who knew more than him, and he wanted to learn.”

While Knott says he appreciates that assessment, he adds, “I had a big mouth, a big ego and was always late.” That dark side of his temperament is what nearly derailed him. Its roots run deep. Knott was born in Baltimore, where his mother owned a bar called Lush’s. His father, addicted to drugs and alcohol, was abusive. Knott says his mother had to secure a restraining order against him, and left the marriage to protect herself and her two children when Knott was just a toddler. Adding to the hurt, Knott recalls, “He told me he wasn’t my father.”

Knott’s mother’s family provided respite. “Hanging with my cousins at my grandmother’s house gave me a feeling of family,” he says. “And my grandmother was a great cook. It was through her I found that food made people happy.” His first lessons in cooking came at her side. “Her crab soup was city famous,” he recalls, “and her fried chicken was phenomenal.”

When he was eight, Knott moved to Nutley with his mother, older brother and soon-to-be stepfather, a dentist, who he says he considers “my real dad.”

Still, by 13, he was spiking blue raspberry Slurpees with vodka and smoking weed. At 15, during a wild weekend with friends in Wildwood, he took ecstasy for the first time and remembers swimming in the ocean for seven hours straight. “It was one of the best times I ever had in my life,” he says. “I felt everything.”

Knott calls this period “escapism at its best.” But escape was illusory. In high school, he worked in local eateries, and got fired from one for sneaking shots behind the bar. After graduating, he worked in a restaurant in Boston, and began dating his future wife, Crista, a Nutley High alum. Returning home after two years, his stepfather told him that if he was serious about cooking, he should go to culinary school.

In 2000, Knott graduated from the New York Restaurant School—“second in my class,” he notes, despite continued drinking. Landing jobs, cooking on the line for hours at a time. He thrived on the hectic pace, “but there were days where I would head for a barstool and wonder, How do people do this?”

He says he always had his act together in the kitchen, but after hours was a different story. Then in April, 2002, after a rowdy night of partying, he woke up on the front lawn of his parents’ house with a police officer’s gun in his face.

“I was resisting arrest and completely out of control, to the point that they called an ambulance and took me to the psych ward at Mountainside Hospital,” he recounts. He was given a choice: face charges of aggravated assault, or go to rehab and the charges would be dropped.

After completing 140 days at an inpatient program, he was sober for the first time in years. In June 2003, he connected with chef Ryan DePersio, a fellow graduate of both Nutley High School and New York Restaurant School, who was opening Fascino in Montclair.

“We just jelled,” says Knott. As DePersio puts it, “We were still young and dumb. He was 23 and I was 25. It was a very small restaurant, and we were really hustling. Jamie helped me make it to where Fascino made a name for itself.”

After Fascino, Knott headed back to Manhattan, working at Saluté, an Italian restaurant, then China Grill, where he fell in love with Asian flavors. His talent and diligence recognized, he was tapped to work with chef Ed Brown to open Ed’s Chowder House in the Empire Hotel across from Lincoln Center.

Then he backslid, racking up two DUIs in two years and crashing his car into his parents’ garage. In 2007, now executive chef of Ed’s, the 27-year-old went to a post-work party after a busy New Year’s Eve dinner service. He woke up in Nutley late the next afternoon, seriously hung over. He hightailed it back to the city, arriving hours late for work. His employers told him he was done at Ed’s, but he could keep a job with the restaurant group so long as he immediately sought help for his addiction.

“I’ll never forget that bus ride home,” he recalls. “I came in the back door, and Crista just looked at me like, ‘You got fired, didn’t you?’ I remember the feeling of shame and defeat. At that point we had one child, and she was pregnant with our second, and now I had to tell her she was right all along—I had a drinking problem.

“Since adolescence,” Knott continues, “I had used drugs and drinking to hide and push down all my negative thoughts, my flaws and feelings of abandonment. It was a lot balled into one.”
Knott enrolled in an intensive outpatient rehab program, and this time it took. He has not had a drink since New Year’s Eve, 2007. He eventually revived his career in New York, but began to hunger for his own restaurant close to home.

Saddle River Cafe, the newest of Knott’s three restaurants is a haven of healthy foods packed with flavor. Photo by Chris Lane

In 2013 he bought the Saddle River Inn from its long-time, much loved owner, Hans Egg, who was ready to retire. Slowly putting his own contemporary stamp on what had become a fairly staid menu, he won over regulars. Positive reviews in the New York Times and New Jersey Monthly attracted new customers. “We’ve grown the business more than 200 percent since I bought it,” Knott says.

In 2016, Knott opened Cellar 335 in Jersey City. A 180-degree turn from Saddle River Inn, the basement bar and restaurant combines tiki-bar cocktails with pan-Asian and more recently Latin-inflected cuisine in a basement boite that is as handsome and comfortable as it is hip. “Maybe it’s an ode to my rebellious childhood,” Knott muses, adding with a laugh, “It’s a peek into my crazy mind.”

Last July, Knott opened Saddle River Cafe, a block from the Inn. He originally envisioned it as a doughnut shop, but changed the concept to reflect steps he had taken to improve his health. About a year and a half ago, he cut sugar and carbs from his diet and began a daily morning-to-evening fast. So far he has lost 38 pounds, and says he wants to drop 18 more.

“I feel a thousand times better,” he says. “It guided me to what the cafe has become—healthy food and a low carb menu. It’s like a cleansing kind of place, a rejuvenation.” The space is bright and modern, the food vibrant, whether a smoothie or an indulgence like the richly endowed lobster omelet, worth its $22 tab.

Knott wants to open more Saddle River Cafes, each named for whatever town it lands in. He was looking at a space in Madison, but says the price was too high. Meanwhile, he and Crista have long dreamed of opening a seafood restaurant. Knott recently signed a letter of intent to open just such a place at The District at 15fifteen, a massive residential and retail complex expected to open in 2021 on Route 10 in Parsippany. Knott and his old buddy Adam Rose are discussing a food truck serving a mash-up of Asian and Mexican street food.

The shoe maven may even get into the shoe business. He’s in talks to buy into a small chain of sneaker stores and open a branch in Saddle River.

As he reflects on his life, Knott calls himself, “Always happy, never satisfied. A mind in motion stays in motion. When I was a kid, I played basketball five hours a day, and when I was an adolescent and in my twenties I went out and drank six hours a night. I think I finally found a way to control that energy and focus on positive things.”

Does he ever miss the binges, that fleeting sense of feeling everything?

“Early in sobriety,” he says, “I saw it as a curse, like I was missing out on a whole part of my life. But it became a gift to be comfortable in my own skin, present when others are in need and able to make decisions for the right reasons. It’s nice to know I can be counted on when everyone needs me.”

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