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Chef James Rigato on Michigan's food scene

Executive Chef James Rigato at work at The Root
David Lewinski
Executive Chef James Rigato at work at The Root

James Rigato is the executive chef of The Root Restaurant & Bar in White Lake.

In a few short years, executive chef James Rigato of The Root in White Lake has made huge waves in the Michigan culinary scene. In 2012, during its very first year of business, The Root won the prestigious "Restaurant of the Year" award from the Detroit Free Press. Since then, Rigato has continued to earn recognition for his work, winning local accolades and competing on the Food Network's show Top Chef.

We caught up with Rigato to hear his philosophy on food and his predictions for the Michigan culinary landscape.

Since he was a young boy, Rigato has been infatuated with the restaurant industry. For him, it was the first time he saw "a real line" in a kitchen "with cooks and chef coats and fire in the pan" that solidified his desire to become a chef. That passion only grew over time.

"There is nothing I don’t love about [being a chef]. It almost becomes like masochism. You enjoy the pain of it – the hard work, the standing on your feet, the labor of love."

Aside from providing customers with a dining experience that combines the classics with culinary innovation, Rigato prioritizes supporting and networking with other local Michigan chefs.

In December 2013, Rigato started the "Young Guns" dinner event at The Root. Open to the public, the ongoing dinner series invites up-and-coming chefs from Michigan and around the country to prepare a course. Rigato explains the criteria by which chefs are selected to participate in the event.

"You are killing it. You are doing real food the right way, the methodical way. You are sacrificing income and quality of life in order to enrich Michigan’s food scene.”

Right now, Rigato believes that Michigan is a "chef's playground" ripe for the growth of a high-profile restaurant industry. 

“I am constantly inspired by the farmers and the growers and the butchers and the brewers.”

However, he does not believe that enough chefs are currently coming to Michigan to realize that potential.

“We have these  up-and-comers, we have a lot of the veterans,  but we don’t have enough chefs filling in the blanks.”

In the upcoming years, Rigato predicts that Detroit, Grand Rapids and Traverse City will continue to grow as culinary hot-spots. In the meantime, Rigato is contemplating his own options for the future.

“I have too many options. I want Detroit to become nationally relevant. I want to keep Detroit exciting. I want to keep it moving forward.”

-Ari Sandberg, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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