Wednesday, December 4, 2013

[EID Feature] Young Guns: James Rigato, The Root Restaurant + Bar

Oh yes, I went and saved the best for last, just like in that Vanessa Williams song from 1992.

James Rigato is the Executive Chef of The Root, and the brains behind these Young Guns dinners. He's also one of my favorite people in the world, and that's equally as important. Because it is. Read more about James's background and how The Root came to be in this feature from Metromode (fellow Guns Andy Hollyday and Nikita Santches are also featured in it); you can also read more about James and how it was total LAFS at our first meeting here.

For this Young Guns interview series, I have loved all of the answers the Guns have given me and all of them are my favorite, though some are more my favorite than others. James came through with my favoritest, as I suspected he probably would. Please enjoy. It has been a pleasure bringing these to you. You can read all of the other Young Guns interviews via the links here.

EID: What is your culinary ethos? As in, as a chef, what do you BELIEVE in? What is important to you as a chef in your cooking and, in a bigger picture, what do you think the most important values are for a chef to have?

JR: I believe in food as a source for life. Not just literally, but holistically. The act of cooking is a responsibility to the earth, the guest and everyone in between. I think it's important to cook every day thinking like that. Am I giving as much as I'm taking? Can nature handle my impact? Am I connecting with my guest? Do they understand me? It's important to me to ask those questions. Sustainability. Seasonality. These should be a given, any good chef will tell you that. But are we thinking about the future of food. Where things come from? Where will they come from?

I find that being a chef can be an isolating experience from normality. I've severed nearly every nerve to holiday enjoyment. I can't sleep. I can't handle going to the mall. But spending so much time in food servitude makes me savor the little time I do have with my loved ones. So we break bread. I think the most important thing a chef can do is dine out. Drink Barolo. Drink aperitifs and digestifs. Say yes to champagne. Pick up the tab. Get coursed out. Be the customer in someone elses restaurant that you want in yours. And when you get back to your restaurant cook like your fucking life depends on it. Because, guess what? It does.

How/where do you see Detroit's/Michigan's culinary scene fitting in on a national level? Thinking in terms not of where it is (which is still far behind most other major cities/states) but where it COULD be, how can Michigan chefs/restaurants evolve and where do you see them going?

I pretty much agree with every other chef that answered this question. My only addition would be that Michigan is a source. We make food. It grows wild. We forage, hunt, harvest and fish. Not every region can claim that. To me, that's the origin of significant food regions. I believe Michigan is the most beautiful and rewarding state in the US and I think chefs are at the front line of showing the world exactly that. I think we can go as far as we want. But I look to places like the pacific northwest, Chicago and Vermont as regions that should parallel.

What advantages does a chef have in Michigan over other states? 

Seasonality. Farm land. Space. Water. Tenacity. Fearlessness. DIY attitudes. Midwestern grit. Callouses.

Michigan makes me proud because of it's unflinching forward-moving determination. We opened The Root in White Lake in 2011. Everyone told us it was a bad idea. But I stuck with my gut and bet on Michigan wanting real food and it paid off.

I've mentioned many times that the 8 Mile soundtrack album was the soundtrack to opening The Root. And at the risk of sounding cliche, I feel like that's what makes Eminem so enigmatic here in Detroit/Michigan. He's the mascot of any underdog putting passion first. So yeah, we got Eminem.

What is your favorite cuisine and/or what are your favorite or signature dishes to make? What do you geek out over?

This is my most asked and least favorite question. But I will say I love Italian food. Real Italian food. When I need to eat, like really eat, as in my spirit hurts, my hands are cracked and bleeding and I am forgetting why I sold my soul 15 years ago, I go to Bacco. I take a friend, a coworker, my wife or a sous chef. We sit and eat Italian food and drink Italian wine. Even though I've never been to the motherland I feel at home. And I am restored. Literally.

As for cooking. I love charcuterie. I love vegetables. I love whole animal cookery. I love Jacques Pepin. Anything he does. I geek out over his style of cooking. My favorite chef in America right now is Paul Virant. I think he is wildly underrated and the new north to which I calibrate my compass.

I love olive oil. A lot.

Who have you worked with who has most influenced you, and who most inspires you as a chef?

Paul Virant. We've done a few dinners together at collaborations and charities. He is a great chef and a kind, generous man. A real poet. He is the one who inspired me to get my Michigan chef friends together for Young Guns. Chef Dan Hugelier moved me as a student. I used to tear up in class listening to lecture. I've never heard anyone speak about the industry so passionately as him. Luciano Del Signore is my industry adopted father. Chef Brian Polcyn is my industry adopted crazy uncle. Matt Prentice was a rolling stone.

Hard at work, doing his thang.

How - and maybe more accurately why - did you first come up with the idea for the Young Guns dinner? What greater goal do you hope to accomplish with this dinner aside from it just being a totally awesome event?

The Young Guns came to mind shortly after a dinner at Vie in Chicago with Bill Kim, Paul Virant, Paul Kahan, Johnny Anderes and Elissa Narrow. It was one of the best nights of my career and I thought, why don't we do this back home? So when I got home I thought about what a dinner like that would look like here. Metro Detroit has some great veteran chefs that are easy picks. But when I thought about who I was seeing at events and whose food I was eating and who was taking chances or swashbuckling I put together this group of guys. I want to keep the Young Guns evolving and doing more dinners and rotating chef's based on who's available. I think it has potential to be an entity of Michigan cuisine. A canvas.

I also wanted to showcase the talent behind a lot of these local restaurants. Few chefs can be owners, therefore, many chefs are victims of circumstance or agenda or budget. This event is to free them/us of that. This night is for us. We certainly see a value and encourage being a customer of such an event but this is our night. That's why there's no menu available. No options or modifications. It's like music. This is our debut album.

I should also mention I've heard the saying Young Gun's referred to young "hot shot" chefs 1000 times. I also hear the reference of Detroit being the wild west, especially with food. So I found it appropriate. We take food seriously. Not ourselves. Does that make me Emilio?

What made you approach the particular group that you did? Can we expect to see more of these dinners, maybe with some other local talent?

Andy is great. I met him as a customer and fan of his at Roast. We share distributors so we hear about each other but we finally met and just really got along. I love his food. Michael Barrera is a great customer of mine and a really great guy. I love stopping in Streetside and noshing when in Birmingham. It's the most approachable, comfortable spot in Birmingham. Brennan is electric. Not only are his taco and salsas and bar food ridiculously high class at Imperial but he's holding back immense talent. I think he's a star about to burst. His flavors are so loud and tight I'm inspired by a goddamn taco. Nikita to me is the definitive Young Gun. Blue collar. Tireless. He literally built his reputation one plate at a time and built his own restaurant one brick at a time. I'm excited about his future. Nick Janutol and I worked together at Rugby under Dave Gilbert. Nick was as intern from CIA and a relatively quiet young guy who I'd challenge to late night dance off's in the kitchen, to which he'd lose. But since then his career has flourished as did his resume. I think his attention to detail and French focused style rounds the group out. Then me. I think The Root is a great place to start the event because of it's size and freedom to create. We have a large kitchen and no culinary rules. We're free.

But really, these guys are the real deal. These are my brethren. These are the people you will hear about years from now. Michigan food will evolve at their hands.

Future events are in the works as we speak. [UPDATE: Since conducting this interview, the second Young Guns events has been announced.]

As a chef, what do you hope to achieve in your career? Where do you see yourself in 5, 10, 20 years? And how do you hope to help strengthen and bolster Michigan's culinary scene?

I want to continue supporting the local butchers and farmers that work so hard for me. My goal has always been to showcase resources. I am very blessed to be able to work this hard and see gratification. I will not let up. I feel like my generation of chefs approach martyrdom. For me, I have nothing else. I can't support myself in any other field. I'm a cook. I'm a dishwasher. A janitor. A servant. A chef.

I want to keep my focus on putting Michigan on a national stage. Cook every plate like it's my only chance. I think building the reputation of our region is extremely important but not as important as delivering on that reputation when actually called upon.