A Shift in the Michigan Food Scene: Executive Chef James Rigato

By: Toni Cunningham | March 26, 2013

As an avid (read: obsessive) Food Network fan, there have been countless times I’ve wished I lived elsewhere, or at least traveled more. That way, I’d get the chance to sample all of the fantastic restaurants featured on screen.

What I (and I’m sure some of you) sometimes fail to remember is that there are so many great restaurants in Michigan, especially in the Metro Detroit area. For instance, The Root Restaurant & Bar, 340 Town Center Blvd., White Lake.

Clearly I am not the only one who thinks so, as executive chef James Rigato was nominated by Food & Wine magazine for “The People’s Best New Chef” award. Rigato was one of 100 chefs nominated in the regional competition, and the only chef to be nominated from Michigan.

Rigato’s passion for food began at age 14 when he took a job at a local diner in his hometown of Howell. He hasn’t had a job outside of the food industry since. Before opening The Root with owner Ed Mamou, Rigato worked at several other Metro Detroit eateries, including Shiraz, The Rugby Grille and Bacco Ristorante.

Rigato grew up in a home filled with homemade pastas and sauces, and his mother was very involved in gardening and natural living. He spent most of his summers up north in the woods which deepened his love for his home state. This combination developed his passion for food, and a desire to become the best Michigan chef he could be.

“My favorite aspect of being an executive chef is controlling my own destiny,” Rigato said. “Being able to have a voice in the industry. To purchase the items I want, (having) the power to support a local farmer or brewer on a significant scale. To offer opportunities in the industry to my peers and colleagues that want the same things I do: a food focused Michigan.”

Rigato and Mamou opened The Root in 2011 because there weren’t many restaurants in Metro Detroit that focused on local, seasonal food made from scratch.

“Ultimately, we did it because we wanted a vehicle to showcase the incredible resources Michigan has to offer,” Rigato said. “We had a great network of industry professionals and built a phenomenal team in order to do so.”

Working as executive chef and general manager for 80 to 100 hours a week can be challenging, according to Rigato, but it’s also the most rewarding part of the job. His self-proclaimed “unflinching love of food” is obvious, and one of the many reasons he was recognized by Food & Wine magazine.

“The nomination is significant to me because it represents a shift in the Michigan food scene. It puts Michigan on a national stage. We have wonderful resources, a top-notch culinary school (Schoolcraft), three master sommeliers, the best beer in the country, and the largest quantity of fresh water in the world,” Rigato said. “We deserve to have a food scene and culture that represents that. This is a step in the right direction.”

For more information on Rigato and The Root Restaurant & Bar, visit the restaurant’s official website.