[Interview] Real Talk – The Chef Series, part 1

Quite some time ago, I approached some of the chefs in the industry to ask them questions that I think the general public should know, whether you are in a white-clothed, fine-dining establishment or a casual mom & pop diner.  After coming across the lost tapes and combing through the hundreds of pages of transcript, we’re finally ready present Real Talk – The Chef Series, here at The Hungry Dudes, starting with, part 1.

Our panel of experts, interviewed by VATO,  include Chef James Rigato who is the Executive Chef at The Root Restaurant & Bar in White Lake, MI, and a contestant on Bravo TV’s Top Chef, Season 12 in Boston, MA.  In 2012, Chef Rigato was nominated for the Food & Wine “The People’s Best New Chef: Great Lakes” and took home the Restaurant of the Year Award, for the Root, by The Detroit Free Press. He was voted as Best Chef by Hour Detroit in 2013 and again in 2014. Chef Rigato is also known for his “Young Guns” collaborative dinner series, which has been brought together six times.

Also on the panel is Chef Jeremy Kalmus, the owner/chef of the new event and catering company Rock ‘N Roll + Caviar, formerly Executive Chef at Local Kitchen and Bar in Ferndale, MI, and NOVI Chop House in NOVI, MI.

The third panelist is Chef Douglas Hewitt, formerly the Executive Chef at Terry B’s Restaurant and Bar in Dexter, MI.  Chef Hewitt will now taking over the kitchen at the upcoming (much anticipated) Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails in Detroit, MI.

Finally, our last panelist is Chef Brennan Calnin, the Executive Chef at Imperial Mexican Restaurant & Bar and at the Public House, both in Ferndale, MI.


THD: So let’s begin with the number one question that I think most people have that they don’t know what to do with is, you order something–now, there’s two ways to look at this, I’m going to go with the first way–you order something, you think that you’re getting one thing and you end up getting something that’s completely not what you thought was based upon the menu description or anything like that. All right. So do you suck it up and do you eat it, or do you tell the server, “Hey, this isn’t what I thought it was?”

CHEF JEREMY KALMUS: Tell the server.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: Yeah, right. You know, I mean, I guess–like what I do–

CHEF BRENNAN CALNIN: The dining perspective, or is it from the chef’s perspective?

THD: Well, like, what should the diner feel? Should the diner feel like you should…

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: I think, you know, you always communicate. Again, when something’s not what you expect it to be, tell–I think it’s okay to always tell your server. But from a–when I eat out, I fucking eat, you know what I’m saying.  Like, whatever gets in front of me, I eat it, and if it sucks, I mean, that’s the–

CHEF BRENNAN CALNIN: Part of the adventure of being out.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: Sorry–yeah. Sorry for the chef because I’m just going to tell my friend’s it sucked.


CHEF JAMES RIGATO: So, I mean, anything coming out of your kitchen should be quality. If I expected it to be, like, crispy and braised and it ends up being, like, moist and, you know, –more firm or whatever, it’s your problem. I’m going to eat whatever’s put in front of me. And if the server misspoke or if I misread, it should still be delicious, you know, So perception and reality are always going to be separate but delicious should be universal.

CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: And I think to balance that from a guest’s perspective, there’s a lot of terminology that we use these days, and not everybody is familiar with, but there’s a lot of terminology that we use for the proper terminology of food, but our guests are like, “Oh, well, that’s duck, I’m sure I will love it.”

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: Yeah, exactly.

CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: Well, not–you might not love all preparation of duck.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: Is it duck confit? Is the duck braised? Is the duck sous vide? Is it crispy?

CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: So, at any point, if the guest is not comfortable with what they got, let us know, let’s get them something they want, let’s get something they’re more familiar with and let’s move on from that. But there are a lot, you know, we’re all doing older food and newer food at the same time, and I think there is a large part of that is unfamiliarity with like–they don’t know exactly what we’re trying to accomplish here.


CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: We are in Michigan.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: And, ultimately, whatever the guest wants, they’ll get.


CHEF JAMES RIGATO: I’ll do anything for you. I’ll comp. I’ll take back.


CHEF JAMES RIGATO: I’ll remake. I’ll remake it five times.

CHEF BRENNAN CALNIN: That’s what I was going to say, it’s about that–it’s about the guest. I mean, if they don’t like something or they didn’t get what they wanted, you should take care to make sure that they’re happy regardless.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: End of story.

CHEF BRENNAN CALNIN: Yeah. And the server shouldn’t take it personally either.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: No, not at all.

CHEF BRENNAN CALNIN: Sometimes they take it personally.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: Neither should the chef.

CHEF BRENNAN CALNIN: Neither should the chef. Either the server didn’t tell them exactly what they’re getting or the description on the menu maybe wasn’t clear and concise enough for the person. Like you said, sometimes there are words that people just don’t get, but at the end of the day it should be about the customer–

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: It’s guest satisfaction. But too, when I’m a guest, don’t be a pussy, try it.

CHEF BRENNAN CALNIN: And I eat–if I order something and it’s not what I expected, I’m not going to send it back.

CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: That’s so easy to say, though.



CHEF JAMES RIGATO: No, it’s true. I was going to say my advice to the guest is try everything. I mean, I’ll eat anything. We eat brains. We eat whole animals. I don’t care. But the winning phrase is “Whatever the guest wants, they’ll get.” End of story. I’ll kill myself. You come in and eat free.  Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes. Right? But if I’m a guest and you wanted to be like, “James, I’ve got something for you.” I’d be like, “Yeah, Brennan, make it. I don’t care. I don’t give a shit, I want to eat.” Delicious wins, end of story.

THD: So if the guest says, “Okay, this isn’t what I thought it was.”

CHEF JEREMY KALMUS: Yeah. You’re going to talk to them…

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: No, you say, “ okay, what did you imagine or what were you thinking?”


CHEF JAMES RIGATO: I believe in fine dining service whether you’re eating tacos at Imperial or whether you’re getting coursed out at Terry B’s. You need that fine dining service. Fine dining service is not about the style of food, it’s the style of service.

THD: Right.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: So if somebody doesn’t want something or, like, says this is better or crunchy or, like, soft or whatever or too expensive or too rich or–what are you looking for?

THD: So tangent to that question is another – if the server comes out and the customer says “Well this isn’t what I thought it would be, I want to try something else,” and the server doesn’t take the dish away, can someone else at the table eat it without charging–getting charged for it?

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: That’s a good question. I think it depends on where you’re at.

CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: In my restaurant if one of my guests doesn’t like their dish but their other guest loves that dish, both plates leave. Both of them. And we will serve them together at all times. We will never compromise their dining experience because one person was a little bit confused or didn’t order the right thing, but the other one loves the fillet, they will get a new plate.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: So you clear the plate?

CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: I will clear them both.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: And re-fire the whole dish new?

CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: Yes. I will. Absolutely

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: That’s fine dining service.

CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: I will make a whole new experience for them because there’s nothing worse, I think, that I’m sitting with my girl…


CHEF JAMES RIGATO: Waiting for her food.

CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: Some entrees take a long time to re-fire. I would rather take it away and do it right.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: And do it together.

CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: Put down a little small course–

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: Intermezzo, yeah.

CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: –and then wait for their experience to come back. It’s a must.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: You know, that’s aggressive too. I think that what you’re saying is extremely fine dining service, and I think it depends on where you’re at.

CHEF BRENNAN CALNIN: It’s very easy for me. If I send you shitty tacos, I could be out with new ones in no time. It’s way different.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: And that’s not always applicable. I think it’s great but in my restaurant I can get food out pretty fast so if I send out some crispy pork belly and you thought it was something different, but your girl’s going to nibble on it, I’ll just leave it.


CHEF JAMES RIGATO: Then I’ll fire whatever you wanted next.

CHEF BRENNAN CALNIN: And like you said, it’s about–

THD: But if you leave it does it get charged?

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: I guess that’s a good question. I think that it’s to be determined. You can’t say yes or no every time. If his girlfriend orders pork belly and she’s says, “Ew, this is too fatty, I didn’t expect this.” And he goes, “You’re nuts, I’m going to eat this whole bitch right now.” Yeah, hell, yeah. I’m going to charge them because he crushed it. The table enjoyed it, and she just didn’t realize what it was going to be. Fuck, yeah, I’m charging them. But, like, if she orders the scallop appetizer and slides it to the side and he takes a bite and then it sits there and then two of the scallops get thrown away. No, man, no way.


CHEF BRENNAN CALNIN: Yeah, you’re not going to charge them for that.

THD: I guess I’m figuring more of a situation where the server actually leaves it after you get it, you take a bite, hate it and then it sits untouched.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: That’s like a server problem.

CHEF BRENNAN CALNIN: That’s what I was just going to say. Sounds like you are talking about service…

CHEF JEREMY KALMUS: Yeah, that’s a server error. That shouldn’t happen.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: Yeah. If you’re a diner and the server sold you something you didn’t like and then left it and then charged you, then you need to basically ask for a manager or ask for the chef and say “ look, I got fucked and this is how.”


CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: I don’t know about you guys either but I watch the trash can more than I watch, like, my line. If I see a busser come back and drop a plate, and I’m like “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa…What was that??”

CHEF JEREMY KALMUS: You know they didn’t like it.

CHEF BRENNAN CALNIN: “What the hell happened there? Why did they”–I do that all the time.

CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: I watch the garbage. I need to know.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: You want to know “what happened?” especially with dishes that are on your menu regularly. Jeremy, you probably make béarnaise and hollandaise every single day.



CHEF JAMES RIGATO: So if you see that there’s ramekins coming back full, you’re going to go over and taste it. You probably don’t taste–I mean, not to insult you, but you probably don’t taste your béarnaise every single second, so you trust your guys to make it, so maybe he goes there and says, oh, my god, he was grabbing sugar instead of salt.


CHEF JAMES RIGATO: And, you know what–so sometimes it’s indicative of a mistake made somewhere.


CHEF JAMES RIGATO: So I think that you’re referencing a service problem and that’s definitely huge and important. I think all of us chefs watch our servers.

CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: I think that’s what it is too.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: But you’re talking about service versus the chefs

THD: I don’t think that either part of the house can work without each other so…


THD: everything is about the experience for the customer and I bring in you guys, the chefs, to ask because the chefs, to me, are running the ship.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: No, it’s a good point. But like I said, I mean, we would, like, comping that food is like a no-brainer and we would probably pull the server aside and, eat their skull.

CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: For a lot of kitchens, like I explained to my staff, “I’m not James, I don’t have an open kitchen.” I tell them, “You are my ambassador of the experience. You’re my liaison to everything. I don’t know–I can’t see um’s, I can’t see eyebrows, I can’t see anything. You must tell me at every point how this meal is going.”


CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: And they forget that. We’re on the fourth course, I’m like, “How they doing?” “Oh, they’re loving it, Chef.” “Really? Are you sure?” Because I can’t see them. So you better not be lying to me. I want to see them eating but I can’t.

CHEF BRENNAN CALNIN: I think a lot of times the servers will think that’s like an ego thing when you’re asking “Do they like the special?” and they’re like, “Yeah, they like it.” I’m not asking you that because I want you to pat me on the back.

THD: You want to make sure–

CHEF BRENNAN CALNIN: I want to know if people are liking it because maybe this special is not selling that much.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: How else do we know?

CHEF BRENNAN CALNIN: We can do 600 people on a Friday or Saturday night, so there’s a lot of people coming through the door and I have to know not everyone’s going to like it when you do that many people.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: But it’s impossible. Your shittiest food can sell well and your moments of brilliance can be a dog. It doesn’t mean that it’s good or bad food, it’s just like what’s popular with the public.


CHEF JEREMY KALMUS: That’s why we have to be businessmen.

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: So, like, you have to ask, consult and calibrate.

CHEF JEREMY KALMUS: It has nothing to do with your skill level, it’s just about what people like.


CHEF JEREMY KALMUS: It might be great. But if it’s not making money…

CHEF DOUGLAS HEWITT: Some of the best things I like are not fanfare.


CHEF JAMES RIGATO: Well, Brennan you’re a living example, dude, you’re crushing fucking tacos and crazy hotdogs, and they’re delicious, you know what I’m saying? And, like, that–and I’m sure you’re capable of much farther reaches in culinary and your career is going to live to tell but you’re smart enough to say like, “Hey, tacos…”

CHEF JEREMY KALMUS: “I’m making money.”

CHEF JAMES RIGATO: I just ate, like, six of your tacos, they’re fucking great.


CHEF JAMES RIGATO: But we were at two other restaurants, I’m not going to say where, and we didn’t order shit because it was like “this looks awful.”


CHEF JAMES RIGATO: Two nice restaurants in Birmingham and we didn’t order anything. So we got here a half-hour early so I could eat some tacos.


CHEF JAMES RIGATO: So that, to me, speaks volumes about food that is more pedestrian friendly than maybe any of our restaurants because I come here, I want fucking three beers and like six tacos.

CHEF JEREMY KALMUS: It’s still a handcrafted product.



Keep up with The Hungry Dudes for Real Talk – The Chef Series on the coming Mondays and Thursdays for parts 2 through 8.  Also, check out our Real Talk – The Bartender Series, starting tomorrow.  We hope you enjoy these Series, and appreciate your feedback. As always, please don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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