Friday, August 12, 2011

[EID Feature] The Root: Back to Basics

Pan-seared scallops. All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

Earlier this week we gave you "The Best of Waterford," but there's one place we did not include. (a) Because it's not actually in Waterford; it's in White Lake (next door), and (b) save the best for last, right?

The Root Restaurant and Bar in White Lake has only been open two and a half months, but greater metro Detroit is already taking notice. They've got over 100 reviews on Open Table, more than 900 fans on their Facebook page, 16 glowing reviews on Yelp, and have also caught the attention of the Freep's Sylvia Rector and Crain's Nathan Skid. On weeknights they'll have anywhere from 70-150 covers (that's HUGE); on weekends they're booked solid for the night. You may find yourself asking, "What's a place like this doing in White Lake?" Newsflash: White Lake is not full of poors, and sometimes people who live here get sick of having to drive to Birmingham or Clarkston or West Bloomfield every time they want to have a fine(r) dining experience. "The food scene up here is a little insulting to the demographic," says 26-year-old Executive Chef James Rigato, who is so passionate about his food ethos you'll want to build a restaurant just for him to head ... not totally unlike how it actually happened, really.

Enter the Root, the BRAND-spanking new contemporary American restaurant located in a shopping plaza just off M-59/Highland Rd. The emphasis is on seasonal and regional cuisine, working with local farmers, growers and butchers on an ever-evolving menu in which everything - right down to the breads, pastries and ice creams - is made from scratch. "We smoke our own bacon, brine our own's an all from-scratch menu. I'm very passionate; I'll fight over my food."

In the kitchen with James Rigato.

Four and a half years ago, James was a part-time personal chef for owner Ed Mamou while also working as a line cook at the Townsend. "I needed a creative outlet," he says. "They were telling me what to make at first and after a couple of months I said, 'Stop, just let me cook for you, don’t tell me what to make,' and they've never told me what to make since." The family was hosting a lot of parties which James was catering; this spun out into a catering company called Ripe, which gave them the opportunity to test recipes and see what they could do in the public once people had to start attaching value to the food. "It was our launch pad for the Root, our little test lab restaurant," James jokes. "It gave us good momentum."

James eventually told Ed that he was looking for something else besides the Townsend, so Ed said, "Come on full time." James told him that he would want to go back to restaurants; Ed said that he'd always wanted to own a restaurant. The two of them toured all over the States - Chicago, Las Vegas, Vermont - checking out the noteworthy restaurants and the chefs James most respects. Ed even sent James to an organic farm in France for three weeks to work and stage (a brief culinary apprenticeship) at various restaurants. This learning-by-observation helped James to understand what it means to cook versus communicate.

"My biggest learning curve came from the dining room – stop cooking senselessly and start communicating through food," he explains. "When I go somewhere and get a course-out from one of Robuchon’s chefs, there’s a communication there. That’s where I started picking up on the language of food; that’s what I try to teach my cooks - don’t just cook something because it sounds cool or you read about it, say something with it: what’s growing right now, what do people want to eat, what do people not know they want to eat?"

Everything you see on the menu is James's creation done the way James wants it done. "Ed really gave me freedom [here]; he knows I'm policed by my own career," James says. Good chefs, like good artists, know they're good and play to their strengths. Great chefs are constantly obsessed with how to be better. "I want good things. I want to be relevant in Michigan. Ed knows the more freedom he gives me the further I can take the whole restaurant. A lot of restaurants put up a glass ceiling; there is no creative restriction here."

James is a ferocious believer in quality and integrity. "There is no bait-and-switch here, no gouging," he says. "We’re set up to make less than Applebee’s. I charge what I pay for; it’s all about quality products. I love Michigan products. We're in the best part of the globe, surrounded by the freshwater - water is the key of life! Here’s Michigan sandwiched in all this fresh water, our natural resources are so beautiful ... there are plenty of chefs doing great things but this little pocket has been sort of forgotten."

He is referring specifically to White Lake here, a 37.2 sq. mile township with 21 lakes bordered by the equally serene townships of Waterford, Clarkston, Commerce and Milford with hundreds of thousands of total combined residents who are woefully underserved by their local food scene. "I looked at the houses, the local orchards and growers, the roadside food stands - people care about food up here but there's no venue for them to find it. I'd rather be the only restaurant in a needy market than another restaurant in a saturated market ... it's all supply and demand; people will never demand what they don't know about."

In the national "food scene," the hottest trend right now is sourcing locally. "A lot of people call local food a trend," James points out. "I’m doing what’s been done since the beginning of time. In the past 50 years with globalization all these things became available, but when gas prices are so high that New Zealand lamb chops are more expensive than Michigan lamb chops you won’t see them anymore; it will be necessary."  James gets all of his meat from C. Roy in Yale, spending what will be tens of thousands of dollars with this Michigan meatpacking company in a single year. "Now imagine there's a hundred of me." ...then ask why any self-respecting chef would continue to order meat from Sysco.

"Our grass-fed burger is really different; it's just as eccentric as rest of the menu. We're using as many local products as possible. Our concept is transparent all the way to our burger - it’s a cow in its normal state. I think it's a better way of doing things."

This concept even extends to the bar. "We make our own sour mix, simple syrup, we squeeze the lemonade, I make the raspberry syrup. There's no blender, no corn syrup, no mixes; if you taste mint it came from MINT. We make things from scratch or we don’t do it. If I can’t do it right I don’t do it at all." He speaks of some well-known, buzzed-about places that use products made everywhere but in their own kitchen: "If you eat a jam, I made it. From fruit!"

And he's just as passionate about their beer. "I’ll never not do Michigan draft. If I wanted to make money I will have all Bud and Bud Light; that’s how you make money," he says. "Michigan craft beer is doing more for the food industry here than the food industry." They are the first establishment in lower Michigan to carry Keweenaw Brewing Company handles (like the lusciously creamy Widow Maker Black Ale).  "I'm really proud of these handles; no one else is selling Widow Maker. The local markets around here are starting to order more Keweenaw because they’re selling more now; that’s exciting to me because that’s a small change." A change he helped initiate.

The name "the Root" signifies the culture he is trying to create in his kitchen. "I kind of put my foot down. I wanted a singular name - it's metaphorical, lyrical, it sounds like destination – it’s the root of fine dining, stripped down to basics. There is no 'Oz' man behind the curtain, no dress code, no white linen.  We’re very transparent here: here’s my kitchen, my back door, you can hear my dishwashers running. We are who we are here."

James talks a lot of pretension in the restaurant industry and the intimidation factor involved in most fine dining. "It’s the one carnal pleasure everyone can afford that people do three times a day," he explains. "It can be an experience that will take you out of body. I’ll wear clothes from high school and won’t hold back on food; too many people treat their bodies like gas tanks." He recounts drastically different experiences he had at two of Chicago's top restaurants: one which wallowed in its own pretension, the other which celebrated "come one, come all." "I don't mind spending money for the right place. Our top restaurants [here] are mediocre but also alienate people. I wanted the fine dining experience in a casual environment; I don’t want you to be punished for wanting good food."

The fact that it’s in a strip mall further undermines the pretentious mentality of fine dining. As much as he loves local products he hates pretension, and so he quite conscientiously stripped away all those contrived trappings of "fine dining," focusing instead entirely on the food and the people ... and that is really what's at the root of cooking. 

“Intense” is the word almost every single person at the Root uses to describe him. We have a whirlwind conversation for over an hour about pretension in the restaurant industry, baiting-and-switching by top-tier restaurants, the unnecessary intimidation factor of white linen and the "man behind the curtain" mentality, the so-called local food "trend," our shared disdain for salmon and IPAs, our shared love of Michigan craft beer and McClure’s Bloody Mary Mix, our shared opinions on Michigan’s sorely lacking food scene and a few choice places that get a lot of buzz but aren’t worth the time or money. At one point his wife Jen comes over to tell him about a Patrick Swayze documentary she caught just before leaving for work (James loves Patrick Swayze).

"Intense, YES," Jen says when I repeat the oft-repeated epithet. "He'll jump out of bed in the middle of the night because he had an idea he has to write down; he'll be over there writing menus at 4 a.m.!"

Hearing him talk about food made a believer out of me all over again. It’s easy for me to get disheartened by the “fashionability” of the media-fueled food scene. I don’t work in a kitchen. I’m not surrounded by people every day who share the same beliefs in food democracy as me, who offer that little bit of us-against-the-world solace and solidarity. Instead, I spend my days fielding emails from over-eager PR reps and trolling Facebook and Twitter for the latest and greatest from people who think Slows is the only restaurant in Detroit, or who complain that Whole Foods is opening in the city because they are receiving a tax credit to do so, or who claim the title “foodie” as though everyone else who eats food is not. I schlup exhaustively for publications who cater to their advertisers (don't fool yourself: they all do) and I still don’t make enough money to eat at most of the places I’d like to, making me feel like a fraud in my own field most of the time. (Sylvia Rector has been to the Root five times. She also has an expense account and a 401k. And health insurance.) Yeah ... it can be pretty disheartening. But talking to James - seeing, feeling his excitement - reawakened my own passion for food and for this industry and made me remember why I loved it in the first place: because of people like him.

He tells me, "I love my vendors, they know I’m no bullshit. They're not trying to sell me stuff; they're trying to find me stuff." He describes Tom Justice from Eastern Market's R. Hirt as "the man." He refers to well-known Detroit bartender gypsy Lola Gegovic (who wrote their cocktail menu) as his "culinary sister." He calls Doug Hewitt, Executive Chef of Terry B's in Dexter, his "co-chef." He enthusiastically introduces his "protege" Jessi and excitedly tells me about how she's starting a culinary program and is one to watch out for. She beams. He does not place himself above anyone or separate himself from anyone - he sees himself as just one cog in a much bigger machine.

"I want to be the people’s chef," he says. "It's like going to the doctor and not seeing the doctor. You go to a restaurant, you should see the chef. I want to gain relationships, not customers." He calls his vendors his "life blood" and describes a trip he took to the Chef's Garden in Huron, Ohio where some of the country's most high-profile chefs source their microgreens (the photos in the dining room [above] were all taken here): "It's so cool," he says, explaining that his mom worked in greenhouses when he was a kid and the overwhelming sense of nostalgia he felt walking in. "This is the source of food. You smell the soil, you feel the moist heat - that's where food comes from. As a chef it's a tear-jerking moment."

Want to see more? View the Flickr set here.

The Root Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon