Free Range Kings (FRK): What is behind the name Kingston 11?
Chef Nigel Jones (Jones): Kingston, Jamaica is divided into twenty postal zones, and Kingston 11 is the area where I was born and grew up. Trenchtown, where Bob Marley is from, is 20 minutes’ drive away in Kingston 12. I lived in Jamaica until I was 15 years old before I moved to the United States. My family still owns the house that I was born in Kingston. Given my deep roots there, Kingston 11 was the perfect name for my restaurant.
FRK: When did you start cooking and how did you learn?
Jones: I learned to cook from my grandmother, who raised me like she was my mother. In fact, I called her “mommy” and called my actual mom “Dee”, short for Diana. My mom went to the United States early in my life to work as a seamstress, and that meant my grandmother raised me. As a kid, I made a comment to her that I didn’t like all of the food she cooked. She told me “Then you better learn how to cook.” At that point on, I was by her side in the kitchen. She taught me how to cook. One of the first things I learned was how to bake Jamaican black cake. Later, when I got to the United States, I participated in French cooking camps, where I gained more knowledge of cooking techniques.
FRK: So, how did you get to the United States?
Jones: My mom married a Puerto Rican guy and they brought me over to the United States to live with them as a teenager. I went to high school in the Bronx, New York. After high school, I went to Jacksonville University, where I earned my bachelor’s degree. Afterwards, I moved back to New York and worked in the garment industry as buyer. After experience some early success in my career, I moved to San Francisco to work as a supply chain director for Levi Strauss. While in the Bay Area, I noticed that there was great diversity, but there were no restaurants representing my culture
, which wasn’t the case in New York.
FRK: Is that when you knew you wanted to open up your own restaurant?
Jones: Yes, but it took some time, because I didn’t know the business part of running a restaurant. After the 2009 economy crash, I left Levi’s to start my own garment business. As I ran it, I had the restaurant idea in the back of my head. In 2011, I decided to make the jump. I approached a friend who owned Guerilla Café in Berkley about getting into the restaurant business. He agreed to host a pop-up restaurant to give the opportunity to not only showcase my food, but to also see how running a restaurant would be like. Before starting, I visited as many Bay Area pop-ups to observe and get advice on every aspect of running a pop-up. Then I finally came across a pop-up I wanted to model my pop-up after: Radio Africa & Kitchen in San Francisco. They had a nice presentation, efficient service, and good food.
When I ran the pop-up version of Kingston 11, we would cook all of our food at an offsite commercial kitchen in Emeryville and then transport it all to Guerilla Cafe. As we getting more and more successful and gaining more customers, I was frustrated that we couldn’t replenish our food to sell. Once we ran out, our pop-up was done for business for the day. We would open at 6 a.m., there would be a line out the door, but not everybody would get fed because we’d run out of food earlier than closing time. I knew it was time for my own space.
FRK: How was your transition from the pop-up to opening your own restaurant in Oakland?
Jones: We opened our restaurant in November 2013, and it was like a “re-opening,” because we already had a strong following and customer base.
FRK: Oakland is one of the most diverse cities in America and embraces authenticity and supports their own community more than other cities I’ve visited. Did you specifically pick Oakland to start Kingston 11?
Jones: We chose Oakland to be part of a diverse community that supports one another. Everything we do is based on diversity, including our staff and price points. We want Kingston 11 to be inviting to ALL people, regardless of economic level, ethnicity, or age. We want to create a special gathering space for the community. We believe in “One Love,” meaning all are welcome.
Also, we noticed that more people of color were starting restaurants in Oakland and being embraced by the public. We filled the void for a Jamaican restaurant and we are still the only Jamaican restaurant in the area. But we have set a higher bar than just being the best Jamaican restaurant. We strive to be THE best restaurant in Oakland, period. To meet that goal, we have set extremely high standards for food, presentation, and service.
FRK: What distinguishes Kingston 11 from other restaurants?
The first differentiator is the food, where we do two things: (1) We start with core Jamaican recipes using authentic ingredients and (2) we enhance our dishes with street foods from different cultures. We are also interested in making traditional dishes healthier for our diners. My mother passed away from diabetes complications, so I am passionate about balancing good food with healthier ingredients and cooking styles. We minimize frying and smoke more. For our rice and peas, we use jasmine brown rice instead of traditional white rice. We use all natural and organic ingredients.
Of course, since this is a Jamaican restaurant, Kingston 11 serves 60 different rums at our full service bar. It’s an expectation. Like how a Mexican restaurant with a full service bar is expected to have dozens of choices of tequila.
FRK: What is next for you and Kingston 11?
Jones: In 2020, we are focused on growth. There is development all around us in Uptown Oakland. Across the street, they are building the Telegraph Tower, which will be the tallest building in Oakland. It will house new businesses with thousands of employees. How does this change customer demographics and how do we respond to the changes and keep growing our Kingston franchise?
Also, I am collaborating with a couple other chefs to open a new restaurant in Oakland called “Calabash” in April 2020. I am excited about it, because we will be blending the cultures of the three different chefs – one being Iranian, one being Malaysian, and myself being Jamaican. It should make for an interesting menu and also mirror the diversity of Oakland.
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