James Rigato: Why Getting Cut from 'Top Chef' Was a Great Thing
What was the best thing about being on “Top Chef” for you?
This sounds odd, but it was all the down time I had after I was cut from the show, because you’re still sequestered and can’t go back home. I was working at The Root Restaurant in White Lake at the time, but contemplating my restaurant, which is now Mabel Gray. As a chef, you don’t always have time to stop and think and reflect. It was actually a culture shock to have that much downtime. I have never taken three weeks to just walk around a city and read books. I was able to fully visualize what I wanted my restaurant to be during that time.
The networking was also amazing. I met 15 other talented and friendly chefs, and some of those meetings have turned into long-term friendships. I tend to have a very collaborative spirit, so I wasn’t as engaged in the competition aspect of the show, which probably didn’t help me then. But now I’ve done many dinners with former contestants.
How did it help your personal brand?
Bravo! and “Top Chef” were really supportive of my name and my brand. Once you get in the family of “Top Chefs,” it truly is an honor. A lot of people recognize me from the show, and it’s probably one of the most significant things on my résumé. It’s also helped the restaurant. Detroit is an exciting place right now, and there is a lot of growth. I would say “Top Chef” has helped the food scene. The winner of my season, Mei Lin, is from Detroit and lives in LA now.
What new skills did you learn from the show?
It pushes you to enter another realm of the culinary arts. I do what works at the restaurant for our customer base, but on the show you have to work with what’s thrown at you and have a lot of mental patience and a “marathon competition” mind. I fatigued of that type of competition on the show, and it showed. But I found it to be a much slower pace than my normal life—I work 15 hours a day and nothing is harder than my job right now—so it was a nice break at the time. Real life is stressful; the cooking show is just fun. But it’s a great barometer of who you are as a chef in your country. You never know how good you are until you go up against your peers.
Were there any “losses” from the show?
There’s really no loss at all. The branding potential is so good. I still talk to my initial recruiter and get a lot of support. I hope there is some forgiveness if you don’t do well on the show, because it’s just entertainment. But it’s all about how you project yourself; if you’re humble and sincere, then it doesn’t matter. But if you throw a fit or claim sabotage, people might be less interested in you. I’m happy to have people come here from other parts of the country and say they want to meet me. It’s very humbling.