Columbus, Ohio USA
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Kent Rigsby: Master of Makeovers
For 25 years, he's reinvented menus, his restaurant, old buildings, the Short North – and himself
By Karen Edwards
February 2011 Issue
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Kent Rigsby, happy with what he's created.
In the beginning…1986
The last place you would expect to find an upscale restaurant, serving fresh, seasonal food in 1986 was the Short North. The commercial area was maybe a step or two above squalor at that point – still urban, still gritty – no boutiques or fine art galleries in sight.
Yet it was here, at 698 N. High Street, that Kent Rigsby decided to open his brand-new bistro.
“I wanted an urban location,” Rigsby says now.
After all, the young Rigsby, who grew up in Columbus, had worked for a time in San Francisco – waiting tables, then, after earning a degree at the California Culinary Academy, working in the kitchens of a variety of urban California restaurants. Even when he returned to Columbus, Rigsby was not out there working in the ‘burbs. He was a chef at the respected Lindey’s in German Village. So, when it came to choosing a location for his restaurant, downtown Columbus was a natural choice.
But the Short North? In 1986? Really?
“There might have been some naiveté on my part,” he says now with a smile.
Nevertheless, on one of Columbus’s typically gray and bleak February days, Kent Rigsby opened the doors to his new restaurant – Rigsby’s Cuisine Volatile.
“I chose the name because I wanted the menu to change frequently, to take advantage of what was in season. I never saw the point of putting asparagus on a winter menu,” he says. That’s not to say you can’t get asparagus in winter. You can, but it’s flown in from Peru or South America. “How many people do you want to handle your food before you eat it?” he asks.
Still – local, seasonal, sustainable – these were new concepts for Columbus. So was Rigsby’s ambiance. “Open kitchens, where the cooking is part of the entertainment, had not yet caught on in Columbus,” says Nancy Haitz, co-owner of the Short North’s Cookware Sorcerer. “Nor, had (Rigsby’s) style of adding a ‘California twist’ to classic Mediterranean cooking.”
So, if Rigsby looked a little nervous as he opened the door to his new restaurant that gray February day, who could blame him? Probably not a soul around the Short North that day would venture to guess if the new Columbus dining spot would last out the year – let alone 25.
Great food and glitterati – 1986 to 1996
Yet, from the moment Kent Rigsby opened the doors to Rigsby’s Cuisine Volatile, there was little doubt that the place would have staying power. Excited by Rigsby’s passionate vision, food lovers from around the city flocked to the Short North location – and news of the food soon brought others.
“Even from the beginning, we never marketed ourselves much,” says Rigsby. “Our business is largely word-of-mouth.”
The “volatile” menus those first 10 years focused on “fresh” with a Mediterranean flair – the best dishes from Italy, Greece, Spain and the south of France. An Apple-Endive-Roquefort salad quickly became a Rigsby mainstay and can still be found on the menu today. Then there was Shrimp Diablo – jumbo shrimp bathed in a mustard wine sauce, flecked with pepper. Capellini Natasha was another crowd favorite – pasta with smoked salmon in a vodka sauce. “A dish I had in Toronto inspired that creation,” says Rigsby. And there was Gnocchi Bouillabaisse – soft, pillowy cushions of dough bathing in the classic fish stew of France. The food had buzz.
But so did the restaurant. Rigsby’s was the place to go if you were out to impress business clients or out-of-town guests.
“I remember those early years when Rigsby’s first opened,” says William Goldsmith, artistic director of Columbus Children’s Theatre. “It was ‘the’ place to go, not only for the excellent food, but for the fine service and unique atmosphere. When I was asked by newcomers to Columbus where to dine, Rigsby’s was always one of the tops on my list – and still is.”
The arts community also began to show up in droves – not just visual artists but local and out-of-town performing artists as well.
“I had the men’s room door at Rigsby’s slammed in my face by Michael Douglas,” says Christopher Steele, an architectural model builder and frequent Rigsby’s diner. Douglas – in town to shoot the movie Traffic – apologized to Steele as soon as it happened. “I didn’t know it was him until I got back to my table and people said ‘you were in the men’s room with Michael Douglas.’”
Steele also recalls sitting at a table beside Hal Holbrook and once seeing Mikhail Baryshnikov across the room. Baryshnikov had been brought to Columbus by John McFall, then artistic director at Ballet Met. McFall was another Rigsby regular. In fact, just one or two weeks after Rigsby opened his restaurant, McFall was there with a ballerina from the Pennsylvania Ballet he was hoping to woo to his company. McFall introduced Rigsby to his guest, Anastasia, or Tasi, and the two chatted a while. There may even have been an attraction between them, but she was married, and he was married – with children, two boys, Forbes (now a Rigsby chef) and Robert, so the two parted ways that night. McFall, at least, was successful. Tasi came to dance with Ballet Met.
By the late ‘80s, the restaurant was humming along so Rigsby made time for a few outside activities, including a stint on Steele’s committee, Citizens for a Better Skyline. Steele had an idea to paint a mural inspired by DaVinci’s Mona Lisa on a building in the Short North, and Citizens for a Better Skyline was there to help bring the idea from drawing board to reality. There was only one problem. The Italian Village Council wanted no such thing.
“We couldn’t get them to sign off,” says Steele. But Rigsby had his own idea for moving the project ahead. The next time the group was scheduled to make their plea before the Italian Village Council, Rigsby showed up at the meeting with a stack of pizzas from his restaurant (“It must have been two-feet tall,” says Steele) as well as a large bottle of Chianti. “That did it,” Steele recalls now. The council signed off on what is now the Short North’s iconic mural. It was completed by artist Brian Clemons in 1990.
By now, Kent and Tasi had reunited – and were happily married. Daughter Eleni-Christina was born. And so was the Eleni-Christina bakery, which came on the Short North scene in 1994. “Fresh, baked bread has always been an important part of the restaurant,” says Rigsby. It only made sense that a bakery should be added to the business.
It wouldn’t be the last enterprise for Rigsby, though.
The entrepreneurial years – 1996 to 2006
Christopher Steele and Kent Rigsby revisit a historic moment in the Short North when they plied the Italian Village Council with pizza and Chianti, thereby influencing the council’s decision on the creation of the Mona Lisa mural.
If the first 10 years seemed to fly by for Rigsby, it was nothing compared to the next 10. The restaurant had settled into a comfortable groove. The food served was still fresh, still innovative, still Mediterranean. The Rigsbys had a new daughter – Zoe. And Rigsby had new enterprises to manage.
There was Eleni-Christina bakery, of course – now baking bread not only for Rigsby but also for wholesale accounts and city residents who stopped by for a loaf of bread or a cookie or two. Next came K2U, a bar and grille that sprang up not far from Rigsby’s flagship restaurant. The place quickly gained a following, then floundered and closed. By then, however, Rigsby had moved on to the Flatiron Bar & Lounge, the wedge-shaped building in the up and coming Arena district. The Flatiron has a Cajun/Creole theme and has become the area’s go-to place with a following of its own.
Meanwhile, says Cookware Sorcerer’s Haitz, “Many Kent Rigsby wannabes have come and gone” – both in the Short North and in the city. “Imitation might be the highest form of flattery, but it rarely works in the restaurant business,” she says. “You can’t just throw a box of pasta in a pot of boiling water, top it with a canned sauce and expect it to taste like the house-made pasta dishes you find at Rigsby’s.”
By this time, Rigsby says, he was cooking with more confidence – though even now he fine tunes his menu, creating new dishes that reflect the season. It’s more challenging in winter, of course, when root vegetables are all that’s available locally – but his creativity wins the battle handily.
And of course, by now, the formerly blighted commercial strip along High Street was booming. The Short North had become an arts community as well as a thriving business district, drawing visitors from not only all over the city, but the country as well. Rigsby’s vision of an urban eatery had lifted the area around him.
In 2005, however, Rigsby took another look at his flagship restaurant and decided it needed a change. He shut its doors for three weeks, gutted the place, and reopened it as Rigsby’s Kitchen. “Nobody ever used the restaurant’s full name,” says Rigsby. “No one ever called it Cuisine Volatile.” He says he thought about taking his name out of it entirely, but was persuaded otherwise. He settled on Rigsby’s Kitchen” – because it was simple, and evoked the kind of casual atmosphere he says he’s always strived to create.
“There has been this perception that the place is formal or fancy,” says Rigsby. But Rigsby’s has never had a dress code – and certainly, he can’t be blamed if his restaurant attracts a clientele that frequently show up in suits. He wants his place to remain warm, friendly, and comfortable, whether you’re wearing a suit or you’re dressing casually.
A year after the renovation, the Rigsbys took a vacation to Italy. In the past, they had traveled together to Greece, where Tasi’s family owns a hotel. “We were married there, and that’s where our oldest daughter was christened,” says Rigsby. But this time, they wanted to tour Tuscany. Together, the two studied cooking with several women in the region’s small villages, and they dined at restaurants and cafes throughout Italy. Kent Rigsby fell in love with the country all over again. By the time he and Tasi returned to Columbus, Rigsby’s mind was made up. Rigsby’s Kitchen was about to receive another makeover.
The Next Generation – 2006 to 2011
“I decided to focus the menu more toward the Italian side,” says Rigsby. Italian dishes had always been a part of Rigsby’s fare, and he is proud of the fact that the restaurant has garnered several “best Italian restaurant” titles over its history. Now, however, he would turn it up a notch. Instead of jumping around the Mediterranean, Rigsby decided to focus his cooking on Italy.
Look at a Rigsby menu today and you’ll immediately see the Italian influence. The dinner menu even comes with an Italian glossary.
“We only offer Italian wines now,” says Rigsby. Prior to the refocusing, Rigsby’s Kitchen offered French and Alsatian wines in addition to Italian. But wine storage has always been problematic for the restaurant. Narrowing the selection to Italian wines (and a few California bottles) has virtually solved the problem. “There is such variety in Italian wines, and Italian wine goes so well with food. In fact, in narrowing our selection, we’ve actually expanded what we offer,” Rigsby says.
While Rigsby was busy working on his menu, his wife Tasi came up with her own idea. Since retiring from the ballet world in 1995, she has worked with her husband at the restaurant, serving as its general manager and its catering director. But inspired by the small cafes of Italy, she thought a small Short North café might be a good idea – and as it happened, Pistachio (now Pistacia Vera) was moving to German Village. The location couldn’t be more convenient – the dessert shop had been located almost directly behind Rigsby’s Kitchen. “The infrastructure was there,” says Rigsby – so there was no need to build up a space from scratch. It simply needed a makeover. In 2007, Tasi Café opened its doors, serving breakfast and lunch made from the same locally sourced, fresh, seasonal ingredients as Rigsby’s flagship restaurant. Already, the café has gained a following – and may be attracting some of the city glitterati as well.
Short North resident Pat Lewis recalls the time, a few months ago, when she was eating at Tasi’s. “Our group was dining at a large table,” she says – when a well-dressed man, the strong, silent type, walked in, stood at the front of the restaurant and slowly scanned the dining room. “I was getting nervous,” says Lewis, when the man turned toward the door and nodded. Then-Governor Ted Strickland walked in and had breakfast with a couple of friends. “I assume the guy at the door was secret service or a body guard.”
Of course, you don’t have to be a politico – or a celebrity – to eat at Tasi’s or at Rigsby’s Kitchen.
Diesha Condon, the 30-something director of the Short North Business Association says young professionals are finding out about Rigsby’s.
“When I first came to the area, everyone would say, ‘You have to try Rigsby’s’” says Condon. “But I had this impression it was a fine dining restaurant. I don’t know why.”
Nevertheless, she tried it, and now eats there often. “I’ll go there for lunch, and for their Oyster Mondays,” she says. Oysters are served in the bar area, $1 an oyster. Condon also spent New Year’s Eve there with a group of 10 friends. “Everyone gave it rave reviews.”
Rigsby is aware that the Short North is seeing more and more young professionals move into the area, and he’s out to capture some of their business. That’s one of the reasons for the structural makeover in 2005. He wanted to add a more significant bar and create a café atmosphere.
Condon, for one, is glad he did. ”The happy hour is great, the food is great, the people are super,” says Condon. And younger people are finding their way there. It’s that word-of-mouth thing again.
Rigsby’s newest creation is a gallery space he’s named “Ray’s Living Room” – for his friend and Rigsby regular Ray Hanley, former president of the Greater Columbus Arts Council. Since the new place is located on Brickel Street, not far from Tasi’s, the Rigsbys use it as a private dining space for customers – as well as an art gallery which fits perfectly into the Short North arts scene.
Don’t think the Rigsbys are entirely out of their element as gallery owners, by the way. They have always been art lovers, and when they’re not at the restaurant or traveling, Rigsby says one of his and Tasi’s favorite pastimes is attending theater, concerts, operas, galleries – and the ballet, of course.
And yes, the Rigsbys have a home life – much like the home life of any American couple with two young daughters actively involved in their own activities.
“Tasi is a great cook,” says Rigsby, but he’s usually the one to put the food on the table. “It depends on schedules,” he says. His daughters are involved in ballet and gymnastics, and practices can go late. “But we always sit down together as a family to eat,” says Rigsby. That might mean 9:30 p.m. – but that’s the earliest the family can finally gather around the table. No wonder, then, that Rigsby, like other dads faced with grueling schedules, will, on occasion, resort to take-out food. Of course, in his case, the food comes from Rigsby’s Kitchen.
The Next 25 Years
Rigsby is happy with what he’s created. It shows when he talks about the food, his businesses, his family and the Short North. He’s not eager to make any drastic change in the near future.
“I think we’ll hold steady for awhile,” he says.
But that spirit of the entrepreneur is just below the surface – the waiter, turned chef, turned restaurant owner turned gallery owner. He acknowledges there is a certain appeal to re-inventing yourself, to creating new and different concepts. He is, after all, the master of the makeover – changing not only his restaurant’s décor, its name and its focus, but, through his vision, the nature of the Short North itself.
Kent Rigsby will never be a restaurateur who rests on his laurels.
And Columbus diners will always be glad that’s the case.
Rigsby’s Kitchen, located in the Short North at 698 N. High St., is open for lunch and dinner every day except Sunday - brunch is available on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Visit their Web site at www.rigsbyskitchen.com to make reservations or call 614-461-7888.
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