Executive Chef James Rigato Represents the D in “Top Chef: Boston”

By: Toni Cunningham | October 15, 2014
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If you’re a fan of locally sourced dishes and a proponent of Metro Detroit’s many sophisticated and sensational restaurants, there’s a good chance you’ve dined at The Root Restaurant & Bar, 340 Town Center Blvd., White Lake. And if you have, that means you’ve had the pleasure of sampling one of executive chef James Rigato’s many creations.

Rigato, who has been working in the food industry since the age of 14, is a contestant on the 12th season of Bravo’s renowned cooking show, “Top Chef,” which premieres tonight, Oct. 15, at 10 p.m. One of 16 cheftestants competing on “Top Chef: Boston,” Rigato was selected by a casting coordinator after a series of Skype chats, interviews and tastings.

“’Top Chef’ is probably the most legitimate cooking show, at least competition wise, out there… It’s been around almost as long as my entire cooking career has,” Rigato said, noting that the show did a great job of recruiting talent for this season.

When he was first approached, Rigato said he felt excited, but at the same time was instantly humbled and grounded. Although he calls it both a crazy and surreal experience, Rigato said he tried to be professional throughout the entire process.

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While auditioning, he was of course not permitted to discuss the show, but vowed to be a team player, a good chef and to not forget about the industry. And most importantly, stay true to his noble profession.

“Keep it real for Michigan and keep a level head. When you watch the past (seasons), there’s a lot of circumstance. Every chef competing has a great resume… At the end of the day, we’re still professionals in this industry,” Rigato said.

Always a step ahead of himself, executive chef Rigato dreams of having multiple restaurants going at once since reaching his current position. He said he’s always expanding his mental capacity to the next level.

“I love to dine, and I love the culture of food. For me, it’s the pursuit of perfecting the craft that generates excellence. Perfection doesn’t exist, and I certainly will never achieve it, but… you have to think outside of your means to excel. I think I’ve always done that,” Rigato said.

Circumstance has been the biggest difference between being executive chef at The Root and competing on “Top Chef: Boston,” because Rigato is free to make whatever food he wants at his restaurant, while the show is a competition with judges and time limits.

“It’s like ‘American Gladiators’ for cooking,” Rigato said.

In real life, Rigato is much more collaborative than competitive, which is evident through his Young Guns dinner series, in which he and five other chefs collaborate to each prepare one course for a six course meal.

“I try to be a leader in Michigan food and bring people together,” Rigato said. The next Young Guns dinner is hitting the road and will take place on Sunday, Oct. 19 at Traverse City’s Trattoria Stella.

Rigato did not train for “Top Chef: Boston,” he simply did what he’s been doing his whole life—cooking like the professional he is. We can only hope that he will bring his Michigan ingredient-focused dishes to the show!

“We all have our comfort zones, the areas that we’re experts in, and sometimes it flies (on the show), sometimes it doesn’t,” Rigato said. “When any of us are comfortable, we’re in our element. There’s a lot of give and take.”

It’s a good thing Rigato’s biggest fear in life is boredom, because having just turned 30, the self-proclaimed workaholic believes that this is going to be a great decade in his career. Not to mention, it’s a great time for the food industry in the mitten.

“There’s momentum in Michigan food and what’s going on in Detroit, what’s going on in Grand Rapids, Traverse City, and now is the time to work,” Rigato said.

These days, the right kinds of restaurants are opening up, farmers and butchers are connecting, and the food industry in Michigan is progressing as a whole. Rigato is happy to see that growth and knows things are going in the right direction, but believes there is always room for further success. This progression just shows how far the food industry has to go still in order for Michigan to become a culinary destination.

If you like seafood and want to learn how to prepare it courtesy of a “Top Chef” contestant (c’mon, of course you do!), you’ll want to mark your calendar for Wednesday, Oct. 29, when chef Rigato will hold a seafood/shellfish cooking class at The Root. Those who attend will learn the basics of seafood as well as how to clean and prepare items like mussels, clams and Michigan farm raised shrimp and scallops.

The class begins at 10 a.m. and will include coffee, a lecture from chef Rigato, a hands-on demo and lunch. Tickets cost $125/person and can be purchased by calling The Root at 248-698-2400. As of press time, there are only five spots still open, so get on it!

After being gone for eight weeks filming “Top Chef: Boston,” Rigato is eager and ready to go when it comes to getting back into the swing of things in Michigan. Keep your eyes peeled, because over the next four months, he promises collaboration dinners with fellow contestants from the show and more.

Chef James Rigato is one of southeast Michigan’s most beloved executive chefs, having been nominated for “The People’s Best New Chef: Great Lakes” by Food & Wine magazine in 2013, earning the title of “Best Chef by Hour Detroit in 2013 and 2014, as well as “Best Restaurant For General Excellence” in 2014 for The Root. The Root Restaurant & Bar was also named “Restaurant of the Year 2012” by the Detroit Free Press shortly after it opened in 2011. When Rigato isn’t in the kitchen, he’s indulging in his other passions, including music (do yourself a favor and bring up “Purple Rain”), his dog and poetry.

Tune in to Bravo tonight at 10 p.m. to watch chef Rigato compete on the premiere episode of “Top Chef: Boston”!