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James Beard semifinalist, Top Chef alum aims to bring Michigan cuisine to national stage

Mar 2, 2016

Chef James Rigato
Credit Joe Vaughn

Anyone in the restaurant business or any regular viewer of Top Chef can tell you that it doesn’t get much bigger than winning a James Beard Foundation Award. College football has the Heisman Trophy, Hollywood has the Oscars, but for chefs, just getting a nomination for a James Beard Award can make a career.

Just five months after opening the 43-seat Mabel Gray restaurant in Detroit’s Hazel Park, Chef James Rigato is now a semifinalist for the prestigious award in the category of Best New Restaurant.
 

For me, I really want to see Michigan cuisine be nationally recognized and understood. So really, the James Beard nod ... is like a mile marker. It's saying, you're on the right path, we are listening.

“It’s one of those things that’s amazing when it happens but you can’t really work toward [a James Beard Award],” said Rigato, who grew up in the Detroit area. “It should be a byproduct of a bigger agenda. For me, I really want to see Michigan cuisine be nationally recognized and understood. So really, the James Beard nod … is like a mile marker. It’s saying, you’re on the right path, we are listening.”

Rigato, who has yet to win a James Beard Award, made a name for himself after opening The Root Restaurant & Bar in White Lake and later competing on Season 12 of Top Chef.  

He describes Mabel Gray as showing up to his home for a dinner party with a small menu that changes every day.

“For us, 10 to 12 items per day, hand-written [menu]. We buy whole animals, whole fish. It’s what I want to eat. It’s what I believe in,” said Rigato. “It’s locally-sourced. It’s natural. It’s sustainable. It’s delicious. I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants where the food is an afterthought.” 

Chef James Rigato
Credit Joe Vaughn

According to Rigato, his personal touch is what makes hsi second restaurant Mabel Gray stand out from The Root.

“I often tell people to  go to The Root if you want a really accommodating menu, if you want vegan, or if you just want a burger and a beer, The Root is still one of the best restaurants in Michigan,” said Rigato. “But Mabel is much more my voice and my personality on a day-to-day basis.”

With multiple James Beard nominations and wins by Michigan-based chefs in recent years, Rigato feels like the rest of the country is starting to take notice of what's happening in the Great Lakes State.  

“For the longest time … [Michigan has] this indigenous style,” said Rigato. “We have the blue collar, ethnic crossroads that is Detroit, and then we have the four seasons of the state, we have the largest concentration of fresh water on the planet … we have this Midwestern hospitality that does not exist outside [the region].

"So we have all these things, and we don’t really have this platform or this voice," he added. "We’re not coordinating our efforts, so it’s kind of pockets … now we all kind of have the same idea of what Detroit food is or what Michigan food is, really. I think there’s more of a singular voice now in Michigan food.”

Listen to the full interview below to hear why he chose Hazel Park for the location of Mabel Gray and some of the interesting dishes that have been on the menu.