2016 Rust Belt Rising Star Chef James Rigato of Mabel Gray

2016 Rust Belt Rising Star Chef James Rigato of Mabel Gray
November 2016

A native of rural Howell, Michigan, James Rigato’s cooking philosophy started to form with his grandparents, who exposed him to hand-crafted Italian cuisine. At 14, he entered the restaurant business as dishwasher, and he enrolled in Schoolcraft College’s culinary program three years later. After graduating, Rigato spent eight years working in some of metro Detroit’s finer restaurants, including Morel’s, Shiraz, Rugbye Grille, and Bacco Ristorante.
In 2007, Rigato became the personal chef for Ed Mamou’s business, Royal Oak Recycling and Royal Oak Storage, where his passion in the kitchen sparked their friendship and future partnership. Rigato and Mamou opened The Root Restaurant & Bar in 2011, and Rigato’s Michigan-focused cuisine received regional and national attention. He competed on season 12 of Bravo’s “Top Chef in 2013, and in 2015, he won Food & Wine’s “The People’s Best New Chef: Great Lakes.” Last year, Rigato and Mamou brought their efforts closer to metro Detroit, opening Mabel Gray in Hazel Park—with the restaurant earning a nod from James Beard as a semi-finalist for “Best New Restaurant,” as well as a spot on Eater’s “The 21 Best New Restaurants in America.”
Diners at Rigato’s restaurants experience everything he loves about growing up and living in Michigan, and he’s committed to making Michigan better for everyone. Among other outreach, he works with local elementary students to grow their own produce. His “Young Guns” in-house dinner series showcases the work of Detroit’s promising young chefs, and he vigorously participates in local benefits.


Interview with Rust Belt Rising Star Chef James Rigato of Mabel Gray

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start?
James Rigato:
I grew up with a single mom, we were pretty fucking poor and I wanted a job so badly. I got a job as a dishwasher in a diner. It didn’t last long, and I went to a place called Pizza Station. I’ve never made a dollar outside the industry, it’s all I’ve ever done. At 16, I started skipping school to go to work early; people didn’t know I was 16, drinking beers in the kitchen and working until 2am. I’ve been cooking with straight forward momentum. The grill dude no-showed at Pizza Station and I said I would do it. It paid for college at Schoolcraft College in Lovonia, Michigan, the best culinary school outside of the CIA. Then I got more serious.

SK: When did Mabel Gray come about?
I bought this place for $80,000. We’ve been open a year next month. We opened our other restaurant Root in 2011, and it’s still rolling, but I don’t own it. I actually just bought an ice cream stand… Before Root, I was traveling, to France, Vermont, and San Francisco, popping around.

SK: Who’s your mentor?
Luciano del Signore, chef-owner of Bacco in Southfield. Time magazine did a digital piece on Detroit, and I wrote about him for it. Paul Virant out of Chicago is another mentor. Chicago has all our talent and products. They’re on Lake Michigan, they’re on our dick, but some farmers and purveyors don’t give a shit.

SK: How are you involved in the local culinary community? 
We are a family here, a militia. During the financial collapse, the banks left, and the auto industry went down. The cooks were a band of brothers. If you stayed, you built this place. Obama is my man for life; he cares more than the local government. The big three [car companies] are kicking ass now, and they wanted to move the auto show, the whole country was against us. Give us the fucking lakes, we’ll be the Republic of Michigan. Some cooks bailed and came back, and pretend like they were here.

SK: Where have you staged? 
France, old school French small town shit. Staging is hanging out, it’s vacation!

SK: What is your career goal? 
Curate the Michigan cuisine narrative, when you say Mexican, Creole, it’s very clear, but Michigan? Coney hot dog, that shit. The Rust Belt has a post-industrialist influence. You have the making of cuisine. The Rust Belt is a melting pot that’s very unique––no other city has that. Detroit was once one of the biggest cities in the world.

SK:What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant? 
I’m blessed. I have a great following and a small restaurant, but if you want to cook for a national community, then you alienate some of the locals. I’m pretty well received. But a neighborhood dude may be like, “fuck those guys, I can’t afford to eat there.”

SK: What’s your five year plan?
I’d like to continue the investment around me. Hazel Park is in need of development. A chef’s 30’s are a golden decade to explore diversity, so I would like to teach more. The industry is like the ocean, you have to ride whatever waves come along. I’ll always be cooking. We open our ice cream shop in the spring and I want to continue diversifying my business portfolio. I don’t see myself ever leaving Michigan.