James Rigato is wearing a shirt and tie now, but he jokes that tonight will be the first time he's worn a suit in two years. It's because he'll be working the front of the house for his old pal Luciano DelSignore, "playing" sommelier while his buddy Marc Bogoff of Eastern Market's Stockyard heads up the kitchen this evening. Normally, he'd be dressed much more informally, wearing something that shows off some of his 16 tattoos. For now, showing off his four earrings will have to do.
Still, you can tell the 30-year-old culinary whiz is laid-back as he rattles off his history with what some would wrongly call brashness.
"I'm a blue-collar guy," he says. "I came from a single-mother home, grew up on welfare — blah, blah, blah. I don't want to tell a sob story, but I grew up blue-collar: You work for what you want, and that doesn't escape you. I just love the living-by-what-you-can-produce-with-your-hands mentality. So farmers, butchers, chefs, servers — that's my people. If you're at a car repair shop, wrenching down a wheel, there's not a big difference breaking down a lamb and changing a tire."
That line about working for what you want is no joke. Rigato started in the kitchen in his early teenage years. By the time he was 16, he was on the hot line, cooking 600 covers a night. He was in culinary school by 17, graduated at 20, and worked at some of the most prestigious local restaurants before opening his own highly rated place, the Root. At 29, he was competing on Top Chef. He's now opening a second restaurant in Hazel Park.
"I just haven't stopped," he says. "I've never put anything in front of cooking."
As an advocate of local food, Rigato is passionate about the riches of Michigan agriculture.
"The real estate and the landscape, the four seasons, and the proximity to water — if you're not from Detroit, you have no idea the resources we have," he says. "What's gonna happen when we actually get our momentum up? I think we are absolutely ripe to be the next big food scene in America. And right now is the most exciting time to be a chef in Detroit."
Unlike the Detroit chefs of a generation ago, Rigato actively hangs out and shares information with the other people building Detroit's new dining scene, folks like Andy Hollyday, Doug Hewitt, Nikita Sanches, and Sandy Levine. Like Rigato, they're challenging staid ideas about fine dining and drawing more people to the table.
And, unlike chefs of old, Rigato doesn't have a whole lot of ego.
"Part of me is always gonna be a poor kid from Howell scrubbing dishes," he says. "I'm never gonna forget that. I love dishwashers. I love busboys. That's the bread and butter. The second a chef thinks they're above the dishwasher, I don't know. Sign me out. Get me out of here. This is a ministry of servitude."