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An Expression of Taste
Kent Rigsby: Pioneer of Fine Dining in the Short North

May 2003
by Cindy Bent

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Photos © Gus Brunsman III

Kent and Tasi Rigsby, 2003.

When you walk in the door to Rigsby's Cuisine Volatile, the first thing you most often see is Kent Rigsby – expressing himself.

The line in most restaurants is backstage: the sizzling grills, clattering knives, hurried preparations made out of sight. The stage is set behind the curtains. But the stage is open for all to see at Rigsby's. Four or five cooks mill around in a smooth ballet behind the white-tiled counter. Wait staff float up to the line and back out to the dining floor quickly, but not hurriedly.

There are parts of the dining room where you can't see the line at work, quieter corners behind the painting-lined half-walls, where the huge striking portraits on the raw brick wall command your attention instead. But the best seats in the house are those from which you can see Rigsby and his crew at work.

Despite the impressive display, the line's presence in the dining space relaxes the atmosphere, gives the entire place a warm feeling of inclusiveness. It's like being invited for dinner over to your friend's place, classier than yours, but so casual at the same time that you feel at home.

Besides, with the line out front, Rigsby can keep an eye on the dining room as well as the kitchen, to make sure everything's conforming to the Rigsby standard of excellence. Judging by the popularity, and the longevity (almost 18 years), of the North High Street restaurant, everything almost always is.

"I think Rigsby's would be a great thing in any city, including any city in France, frankly. It's a very high quality restaurant. People who have done a lot of traveling and know food will all agree that Rigsby's would be outstanding no matter where you put it," says Dispatch food writer Jon Christensen.

"He's a pioneer, all right," says Doral Chenoweth, longtime Dispatch dining columnist known to most as the Grumpy Gourmet. Chenoweth has been a supporter since Rigsby's stint as head chef at Lindey's in German Village, before he had his own establishment. "He's about six steps ahead of everyone else. He's the most innovative chef in the city and has held that for fifteen years. Rigsby is up there experimenting for himself, and if you want to eat with him, so be it."

Diners at Rigsby's note that experimen-tation and change play a vital role on the restaurant's menus, which have varied over the years as Rigsby has dabbled in various Mediterranean cuisines from southern French and Italian to even Greek on occasion. Currently, Rigsby says, the focus is on pure Italian cooking from a variety of regions.

"That's reflected in dishes like the risotto and polenta, say, foods from two different areas. In the south they don't do risotto, and in the north, they don't do polenta. We're fusing those things, but really all Italian cooking is a lot lighter and fresher than what you tend to get at so-called Italian restaurants here," says Rigsby. "We're trying to embrace a more definitive theme, and the direction helps me get focused on what I want to present and offer."

Dedication to purpose, exploration of theme and a sense of the bigger picture are the hallmarks of almost any great artistic endeavor. Rigsby's devotion to those core ideals for almost twenty years is the key to his success.

"I think it's a restaurant that's managed to stay on top, which is very difficult because you're having to reinvent the wheel every day," says Christensen, "especially in a place like his, that makes virtually everything in-house. There's a tremendous effort required, it's kind of relentless."

Rigsby's Cuisine Volatile first opened its doors in 1985, a couple of years after Rigsby returned to Columbus from San Francisco to put in a stint at Lindey's as head chef, grow familiar with his hometown market, and lay plans of his own.

Kent Rigsby was born here in Columbus in 1951, and grew up in Upper Arlington. He says he always did appreciate, from the time he went to college at Ohio Wesleyan forward, going out and enjoying a nice meal with friends, but that being a restaurateur was never part of his master plan.

He graduated in 1975 with a degree in theatre at Wesleyan, looking for a way to express himself, and moved on to New York right after in search of a place under the stage lights there. He also found his first restaurant job in New York - waiting tables, he says, "for gainful employment."

Rigsby moved from New York to San Francisco, still chasing a career in theatre, but ever more unsure of his path in life. He got himself another job in San Francisco as a waiter.

The first place he worked in the Bay area was the Alta Mira Hotel. From there, he waited tables at the Washington Square Bar, a well-known haunt, and then helped open a restaurant called Prego.

"During all this time, I was kind of frustrated, wondering, when am I going to figure out what to do with my life. I guess I felt like people on the other side of the line, the chefs, had sort of more skill or knowledge with which they expressed themselves," he says now.

"By coincidence a local culinary school was just opening, and I thought to apply and see what it was about.

I was still just dabbling even when I started. It was just a way to make me a better cook, a way to entertain. It was not until I really got going that I really got excited."

The school was the California Culinary Academy. Rigsby says he was drawn to the way the Academy chefs combined discipline and skill with fluent self-expression. He began to see the way his artistic bent could play out on the dining table.

"They were exciting, dynamic instructors and inspirational. They were mostly European, and I guess it was kind of romantic and titillating at the same time ... and though cooking is regimented, there are rules, it's still magical and creative to work with raw food and transform it into something else. It really clarified my artistic leaning," says Rigsby.

Even while at the school, Rigsby began working in the kitchen of a tiny French restaurant, Maurice et Charles, in San Raphael. There, he says, he became more sure of his vocation than ever and began to grow attached to the Mediterranean style of cooking - direct, fresh, and vibrant food.

When asked, he says he can't tell when he moved from student to chef. In fact, he thinks it's vital for anyone who cooks for a living to discard their attachment to such a title, for fear of becoming rigid. A feeling of having arrived, he says, often means you've quit growing.

"For the sake of organization there has to be a chef in the kitchen, but really, it's just a French term that means chief," says Rigsby. "I was traveling in France one year, and my car broke down out in the country. The mechanic in the garage kept calling me chef this, chef that, and I thought, how could he possibly know? Then it dawned on me that he just calling me chief. On one hand it's not that fancy a term, but on other, the chef really is the general or leader."

Andres Neira, line cook.

By all accounts, Rigsby takes his chiefdom in the kitchen very seriously. Rigsby, says Christensen, is his own toughest critic.

"I don't know of anyone as hard on Kent or as demanding as he is on himself, and I suppose that's part of his success. I mean, you can tell him 'I really like the halibut today,' and he says 'Well, we're looking for a better way to cook that, I'm getting so tired of that.' It's a revelation."

"Ultimately for me, it's more about care and the love of the product first," says Rigsby. "I think that what makes good food is buying good produce, only what's available fresh and in season, and everything else filters down from that."

And he means everything: the tableware, the manner in which the waiter approaches the table, and more. Christensen notes that thought is put into even the way a glass of wine is poured – halfway up a large glass, not to the brim of a small one, so that the bouquet of the wine develops correctly.

Jon O'Carroll, chef de cuisine

"The fact that he's willing to spend what it takes and put in the effort to make the bread and put it on the table for free, I think says lot about the attitude - that they care a lot about food, wine, the whole meal," he says. "And it's not just a matter of how many things they make, but also how well they make them."

The critics aren't the only ones who note the dedication to the customer at Rigsby's. It's a core part of the restaurant's city-wide reputation that patrons appreciate as well.

"There's just care on every plate delivered to the table, an artist's care. Kent's an artist and showman in his own right," says Sandy Wood, Rigsby's landlord and frequent customer. "Through his wait staff, and the kitchen, and everyone involved he tries to make his customers feel as if they are his personal guests in the nicest establishment that he can make, and that shows. I guess that's about the highest compliment I can give."

One of the first things that you notice - after the kitchen - is indeed the warm attention of the staff. Service at Rigsby's has a city-wide reputation of being smooth and personal and not overly intrusive. It's clear that everyone is glad to see that you have chosen to come in. Staff turnover, it is said, is among the lowest in the city.

And, so, over the years, Rigsby's Cuisine Volatile has become possibly the most respected restaurant in all of Columbus. The restaurant also became a key draw to the Short North, one of the earliest pioneers to take a chance on the neighborhood when it was still a pretty rough place. Chenoweth recalls ribbing Rigsby about his choice of location - in what has now become known as the Carriage House, but was then only the brick and timber shell of a building.

"When he announced he was going to the Short North, I had a bunch of stuff that had been confiscated by the police - numchuks, a starter pistol, a switchblade - and I gave them to him as a starter kit for moving into that neighborhood. The thing is, Kent Rigsby took a chance on the place. And I want to tell you, the Short North was in decrepit condition. It was all hillbilly bars and hustlers walking the street. In the '50s and '60s, it was the whorehouse district. What he did, he went into this briar patch and planted a rose, really."

Sandy Wood explains that though redevelopment efforts then were only in the beginning stages, as a developer he realized how critical having a good restaurant in the area would be as an entertainment draw.

"He came out and saw the vision with us and joined us to lease that space even before the renovations made it look pretty. I consider Kent Rigsby a partner in the renovation work and redevelopment ... I think his vision is part of what's helped make the Short North what it is today - which is personal service and excellence and doing the best we can for people who come to our places."

The restaurant business is one of the trickiest, and things don't always go swimmingly in Rigsby's world. Two attempts at the bar or nightclub business along High Street have closed. One, Indigo 88, had a brief life as a jazz club in the space next to Rigsby's where R.J. Snapper's now resides.

Kent Rigsby and Lulu.

K2U seems to have been a bridge casualty - the small bar lived for more than eleven years at 614 North High Street before the softening economy and construction in front of its doorstep at I-670 dealt the bar twin body blows.

Café Rigsby, an upscale French restaurant in New Albany, lasted a little more than a year, despite highly favorable reviews. Rigsby says that venture was somewhat miscalculated or perhaps premature, fine-dining in a very young community still mainly populated by two-teen families more likely to stop by Chipotle for takeout.

And plans for a new restaurant in the grand old Hartman building downtown may be on hold, again until the clouds on the economy lighten up enough for a new restaurant, always one of the most risky gambles in business.

But the Flatiron Grill, an Arena District barbecue that's a partnership between Rigsby and developer friends Steve and Jeff Whittman still thrives.

Rigsby is also justifiably proud of Eleni Christina, Rigsby's spin-off bakery just up the street, which produces that artisan sourdough bread that makes such a grand first impression for the restaurant. The bread was once baked on the premises, but Rigsby's needed to expand and it was a natural progression to move the bakery to its own little home and begin producing not only fantastic artisan French and Italian breads but cakes and pastries as well.

And, of course, Rigsby's Cuisine Volatile continues to thrive. The spring menu is just out and follows Rigsby's philosophy of offering the best of the season to a T. This spring, for instance, Rigsby has added a special which has long been a favorite of his to the regular lineup: asparagus Milanese with poached egg and shaved parmigiano reggiano.

The dish represents what Rigsby most desires of his restaurant: expertly prepared food that showcases both the freshness of the ingredients and a sum that is more than the parts, not too heavy but with lots of flavor - an expression of his taste.

"It's a better value than 99 percent of all the other restaurants. Truly one of the better values in the city. We're lucky to have it here," says Christensen.

RIGSBY'S KITCHEN, 698 N High St, 614-461-7888.
Hours: Lunch, M-Sat 11a-3p; Dinner M-Th 5:30-10, F-Sat 5:30-11p Closed Sunday

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