Quick Six With… James Rigato, Detroit Chef & Restaurateur

Quick Six With… James Rigato, Detroit Chef & Restaurateur

By Jessica Bryant, Managing Editor

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.

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The Resurgence of Downtown Detroit

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There’s something to be said for a neighborhood’s resurgence, especially when it can be partly attributed to local restaurateurs. 

Downtown Detroit, which locals described as once being a “dark and negative” place not too long ago, is having a rebirth. In this On Foodable feature, brought to you by the Foodable Network, we speak to lifelong locals, as well as restaurant operators and chefs who are helping to change the neighborhood for the better. How are these people playing a big role in the city’s growth? How do local residents feel about this thriving evolution?

Watch the video above to find out!

A Handful of New Restaurants Come to Downtown Northville

Tomato in Cast Iron dish from Lucy & the Wolf  | Credit: Yelp, J.K.

Tomato in Cast Iron dish from Lucy & the Wolf | Credit: Yelp, J.K.

Northville’s downtown area, which has become known for its number of restaurant options, now welcomes four new establishments to the neighborhood. Wok Asian Bistro, Lucy & the Wolf, Center Street Grille and Urge Juice expand downtown Northville’s offerings to 25 restaurants. This added diversity certainly increases consumer appeal to the neighborhood, which of course adds value. 

Wok Asian Bistro has a lot of things going for it. For one, the casual concept with full bar prides itself on using premium ingredients, like locally sourced produce and imported Thai shrimp. They also offer lots of customization options. Diners can cater their Wok Asian Bistro experience a few different ways: They can build their own stir fry from a list of ingredients and sauces, choose from one of the menu creations, or take the more adventurous route in telling a Wok Master what type of flavors they like and letting the WM take the lead. Another bonus? Wok Asian Bistro supports OneHope Wine, which gives half of all proceeds to various charities.

On the other side of the flavor spectrum is Spanish-inspired tapas. Interested? Try Lucy & the Wolf, which comes to you from the owners of highly acclaimed Table 5. Lucy & the Wolf only has one Yelp review so far considering how new it is, but the review is promising, giving a shoutout to the barrel-aged Manhattan served in a mini flask, the tomatoes (Tomato in Cast Iron: heirloom tomatoes, peppers, garlic, cheese curd, egg and baguette crisps), and the biscuit dessert. The menu, as far as we can see, includes a “charred” section (biscuits & honey, chimichurri flank, clams and double charred chicken wings are all on there) and a “chilled” section (smoke salmon tartar, Bay scallops crudo and a lentil salad, to name a few).

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Why Detroit's Dining Scene Should Embrace Local Competition

When it comes to the local playing field, the approach to competition in the restaurant & hospitality industry are changing. At least it is in Detroit.

While competition will always exist on some level — and more so in some cities than in others — Detroit is one example of a city taking a stand to create relationships rather than enemies with neighboring business owners. 

As Michael Jackman reflects in a recent Detroit Metro Times piece, the restaurant & hospitality industry is a great example of this progression. Because creating networks opens doors of opportunity, whereas competition only keeps them ajar.

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Detroit’s craft beer scene is a great example of this local camaraderie. John Linardos of Motor City Brewing, who was also a founding member of the Michigan Brewers Guild, makes a point that reflects on a national scale. Craft brewers tend to gravitate toward community and rally together to help each other out. This segment is also extremely transparent when it comes to things like sharing data or processes to solve problems and make craft beer better.

And perhaps that’s one of the biggest key ingredients to a neighborhood’s success: connecting not only to consumers, but to local chefs, restaurant operators and cocktail & beer professionals. At the end of the day, in order for a local dining scene to have sustainable success, you need to realize that you cannot do it alone. 

Read the full Metro Times article here.