Meet the Chef: An Interview with James Rigato of Mabel Gray

At D’Artagnan we are proud to work with chefs across the nation, providing them with quality ingredients to express their creativity in the kitchen. One of those chefs is James Rigato, who has created quite a buzz with his restaurant Mabel Gray. Since its 2015 opening, the Hazel Park, MI (a suburb of Detroit) restaurant has been much discussed, highly rated and critically acclaimed. Read on to learn more about this uniquely Michigan restaurant and get to know the chef – who you may recognize from his appearance on Top Chef. 

It’s easy to list accomplishments, but perhaps more difficult to express what a fine restaurant like Mabel Gray means in the quiet suburb of Detroit. The eclectic 43-seat restaurant with a new menu each day has been attracting flocks of food lovers since it opened. It’s common for reviews to mention the “unlikely” location and the international influences of the chef that still remain Michigan rooted.

Mabel Gray was named one of James Beard’s “Best New Restaurant” semi-finalists, Eater’s “21 Best New Restaurants in America,” and the Detroit Free Press “Restaurant of the Year” in 2017.  Chef Rigato himself was twice a James Beard “Best Chef: Great Lakes” semi-finalist; a Top Chef season 12 contestant; and was named “The People’s Best New Chef: Great Lakes Region” by Food & Wine. Mabel Gray has even turned the head of the NY Times with a write-up.

Chef James has also made a name as a dog lover, as he supports Detroit Dog Rescue, and adopted one of his two dogs from them. His story made the local news.

What was the first kitchen job you held?

I was a dishwasher at a local 24-hour diner. I got hired on my 14th birthday. I was desperate to get to work and make money and be independent. Once I saw the intensity and adrenaline of restaurant work and got paid for it, I was hooked. Don’t get me wrong, the diner was a real piece of work. The owners never reported my taxes but still had money taken out of my check as well as the servers never told me I was supposed to be tipped out. So for months, I made less than $5 an hour. But it was there that I saw my first real kitchen and felt the gratification of dirty work.

Has any crazy stuff happened during your time in the kitchen? What takes the gold medal?

Oh yeah. The real crazy stuff is hopefully behind me. But I was a pizza cook at a restaurant when I was 16. The grill cook strangled the saute cook one night and stormed off his station. That was pretty much my first day on the grill and eventually got me to a top position in the kitchen by the time I was a senior in high school. I was able to move into my own apartment and pay for college off that job. Pretty fortunate strangling on my behalf.


Favorite music to work to in the kitchen?

Music is almost as important to me as food. It’s essential. We’re named after a song by the band Brown Bird. Brown Bird gets tons of spin time but the mood needs to be right. We love hosting events that incorporate musicians whenever possible. The kitchen and dining room are a shared space at Mabel so we have music on almost 15 hours a day. So I really listen to everything.

Jazz is a mainstay and really can last for hours. Quantic Soul Orchestra is the best Pandora station to play. I love Illa J and Kero One for instrumental albums. But once it’s late enough at night 90s hip-hop hits the spot. Tupac, Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Outkast. Big Krit is great too. If the crowd is tame or if we’re not a full restaurant I’ll keep it chill with Amos Lee or Thievery Corporation. If it picks up, Springsteen, Mellencamp, Creedence. I also end almost every shift with Sade. Sade is unparalleled in this universe. She is a source. I like to wind down to her music like a post-shift drink. They pair amazingly together.

What’s your favorite post-shift snack? OR Favorite meal to cook at home?

I almost never cook at home. I live a couple blocks from the restaurant so there’s really no need. I like to visit my friends’ restaurants or hide at an unassuming place on my days off. My girl and I like to go to Texas Roadhouse and crush beers and margaritas and marvel at how a bunch of teenagers can run a 5 million dollar machine. The structure in corporate restaurants sometimes is incredible. I don’t necessarily want to work there, nor do I love the food but it’s fun and impressive. But after work in the Detroit area, it’s coney territory. The coney is king. If you want to be a little classier, the late night burger at Grey Ghost is dynamite.

Buttermilk fried duck confit sandwich, challah, duck fat mayo, House hot sauce, pickles Mabel Gray.JPG
Buttermilk fried duck confit sandwich, challah, duck fat mayo, house hot sauce, pickles

What is your favorite D’Artagnan product?

The Colorado co-op lamb is absolutely phenomenal. It’s the best lamb in the country. It’s a crowd pleaser and incredibly diverse. The leg makes a great tartare, the necks can be used for pastrami, the racks are brilliant. It doesn’t end. Fantastic product. I love the ducks too. And the Berkshire ham is not to be overlooked. The nebrodini mushrooms are also a stunner. Very underutilized but on the plancha, they cook and eat like giant succulent scallops.

Berkshire ham, buttons & pearls, Madeira, pork jus, spiced butter Mabel Gray
Berkshire ham, buttons & pearls, Madeira, pork jus, spiced butter

Name one ingredient you can’t live without … or one you’d be glad to never work with again?

I really love the cider movement. It’s inspiring to cook with, pair to and drink. My staff and I do trips out to Walden, NY to work with Ryan Burk at Angry Orchard. We all received our CCPs (Certified Cider Professional) this past September. Ryan and I even did a cider dinner at the Beard House 2 years ago. Both at their cider house, for many dinners in Walden and at the Beard House, we sourced from D’artagnan and had product shipped to us. But apples, in general, are fantastic and diverse. Cider is another life cycle for them and continually inspiring for me.

Weirdest or most interesting ingredient you’ve ever cooked with?

The leftover soy mash at Bourbon Barrel Foods in Louisville is pretty amazing. It looks rough but is delicious. We’ve used it to cure sides of salmon and bacon. It’s pretty much like miso but with more texture and not something I would eat straight up. But it’s magical.

Best meal of your life so far?

I am blessed to travel and eat all over the world. Sometimes noodles on the streets of Saigon are more meaningful and delicious than 3-star Michelin meals in France. But I would say that in recent memory Vespertine in LA and Smyth in Chicago really shook me. Profound and brilliant meals. Awakening. Charlie Trotter’s when I was 21 also changed my life.

If you could share a meal with anyone, who would it be? What would you eat?

My Nonno (grandpa) died when I was 14. My interest in food was just beginning and he really missed out on the opportunity to enjoy and participate in what I’m doing now. He was clutch in my exposure to food as a child and I am tortured as an adult to not have him here. I’d love to cook for him myself.

Lamb bolognese, Michigan rye fettuccine, greens, parmigiana reggiano, House lamb neck pastrami. Mabel Gray
Lamb bolognese, Michigan rye fettuccine, greens, housemade lamb neck pastrami, Parmigiana Reggiano

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?

Cooking really saved my life and has given me so much … but I wanted to be a firefighter when I was a kid. I always joke that I’ll retire in the dish tank, so maybe I’d be a dishwasher. Yeah, that sounds more like it.

Thanks, Chef James for sharing your story with us!

Hungry for more? Head to the Mabel Gray website, follow Mabel Gray on Instagram or on Facebook.

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