At 31 years old, James Rigato’s plate is heaping with opportunity. Last year, he opened Mabel Gray, located in Detroit suburb Hazel Park, which is now up for a James Beard Award for “Best New Restaurant.” To be qualified for this award, a restaurant must have opened in the calendar year before the award is given, it must already display excellence in food, beverage, and service, and is likely to make a significant impact in years to come.
With 43 seats, Mabel Gray serves locally sourced American cuisine from a handwritten menu that is changed out daily. The menu generally includes 8 to 12 items and shifts 25 to 50 percent each day. “Most dishes don’t last longer than a week,” said Rigato. He cooks on the line every night.
But this isn’t Rigato’s first restaurant. At the age of 26, he opened The Root in White Lake, Mich., which also showcases local ingredients. It was named “Restaurant of the Year” in 2012 by the Detroit Free Press. More recently, Rigato, who holds many accolades, was named “The People’s Best New Chef: Great Lakes” in 2015 by Food & Wine.
If you think he looks familiar, you may have seen Rigato in the 12th season of “Top Chef,” an opportunity he said taught him a lot about how to look at his dishes and the season, and how to edit.
“It definitely made me a better chef and I’m really appreciative of that opportunity,” he said. “The big win was really to network, so now I have friends I didn’t before and that’s better than winning.”
A graduate of Schoolcraft College’s culinary arts program, Rigato started his career at restaurants such as Morel’s, Shiraz, Rugby Grille at The Townsend Hotel, and Bacco Ristorante.
Below, we ask the chef six quick questions about the restaurant that changed his life, the most important lesson he’s learned as an operator, and which culinary trend needs to fade out.
The Quick Six
Foodable: What’s the first meal that changed your life?
James Rigato: My grandparents were phenomenal cooks, so eating at their house was always special and we did so once a week. My first tasting menu was at Tribute when I was 17, which gave me some serious scope. But Charlie Trotter’s when I was 21 was the big shift in my understanding of food and service.
Foodable: Where is your favorite restaurant to eat at when you aren’t working?
JR: I have many across the country. But in Michigan, it's Selden Standard, Bacco, Chartreuse, Rock City Eatery, Loui's Pizza, and The Root — all for different reasons, but all spectacular.
Foodable: What's the most important lesson you learned (good or bad) in your first year of owning a restaurant?
JR: Lead by example and be the hardest working person you know. Also, hire talented people and get out of their way. Learn from them.
Foodable: Tipping or no tipping?
JR: I like the current tipping model in America. There are many variables, and in some cities there's even more, but in Detroit and Michigan I think it works.
Foodable: What culinary trend needs to fade out?
JR: Bad food. Inexperienced cooks trying to skip steps or just do popups and call it “earning stripes.” I still believe in working in restaurants that kick your ass and push you as a cook. If you're comfortable, you're doing it wrong. Too many cooks can't shuck an oyster, butcher a chicken, clean an artichoke, poach an egg, or utilize an entire animal. Chefs and restaurants need to keep real food practices alive to better teach the next generation.
Foodable: Who is your culinary mentor?
JR: I have many. Every cook and chef who has a skill I don't — specifically, guys like Luciano Del Signore and Paul Virant have offered me tremendous knowledge and guidance in recent years. But Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon's service philosophy has shaped me as a chef, as well. So, it's not only chefs.
Read more here about Rigato’s “Top Chef” experience, collaborative Young Guns dinner series, and why he’s sick of a white-collar food industry.