Cultivating farm-to-table country Italian cuisine at Rifugio’s with chef Richard Balogh
Written by Annabelle Stefanoff
During a family trip to Europe at 16 years old, Richard Balogh, head chef, and owner of Rifugio’s, experienced his first calling to food.
“I remember eating my first fresh fig from the tree. The only experience I had was Fig Newtons, a far cry to fresh figs,” Richard said. “Did I mention the lemons? Sweet and tart. It was a wake-up call for food.”
Richard is a passionate man, immersing himself in whatever he sets his mind to.
“I’m like a spinning top,” he told me as I sat across from him at Cafe Adagio in downtown Bellingham. “And you are the walls of a box that must keep me and my thoughts contained.”
While I understood his statement, without a diverse set of interests and trust to pursue what catches his attention, Richard would not be where he is today.
Richard’s path to Rifugio’s was far from linear. He first moved from his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio to attend the University of Cincinnati as an interior design student. Drawn to physical forms of art, Richard had a difficult time grappling with the many directions his life could take.
One defining moment during Richard’s time at college was a walk with his professor through downtown Cleveland. His professor stopped him in front of an abandoned department store with torn-up floors. It was late at night and dark shadows cut across the jagged ground.
“Look at that. Look at how beautiful that is,” his professor said. “Do you see the beauty in that?”
And he did.
Upon reflection of this moment 30 years later, Richard told me that finding beauty in that dilapidated scene made sense for him at the time. Finding beauty within the chaos provided comfort.
“That’s when I knew I wanted to work with physical items that could support my senses,” Richard said.
As he approached graduation, Richard’s mother Donna Maria Scimone was diagnosed with cancer. This prompted him to move back home and finish up his degree at Kent State University. Soon after, his mother died.
This led to a whirlwind of change involving a marriage, joining the Navy, moving to Connecticut, and taking up vegetarianism. This stage of life only lasted a few years, including vegetarianism.
“It was a gyro that did me in,” Richard admitted. “All of these negative things happened. I just wanted to get on a train and go.”
He decided to head to Europe.
Traveling from France to Germany to Spain, Richard ended up in Figueres, the hometown of one of his main artistic inspirations: Salvador Dali. One evening, after exploring the Salvador Dali museum, he faced a pivotal predicament.
“I had very little money and I had to make the decision to stay in a pensione or to have dinner,” Richard said. “So, I had dinner. And I slept in the cement doorway of a church.”
When I relayed this story to Richard’s wife, Candice Balogh, her eyes widened and she let out a surprised laugh.
“I can see that,” Candice said. “Even now, he will always spend money on a very good meal.”
When Richard returned home from his trip, he began his first restaurant job in a Jewish deli. After serving food for work all day, Richard came home and served food for pleasure while hosting parties to show off the art he created in his free time.
When guests attended the parties at Richard’s art studio, they entered a unique environment that he worked hard to create. Richard said many people were caught off guard at first.
“I remember a lot of people feeling uncomfortable coming into the space,” Richard said. “They felt like they were coming into a darkly lit, romantic, intimate atmosphere.”
It was during this time that Richard began to discover the joy of hosting.
Later, Richard left his job at the Jewish deli and began a more serious position at a French restaurant in Lakewood, Ohio.
While the inspiration and impact of food surrounded Richard, his time had not come yet. Richard took a job as an airline distress passenger liaison for Nationwide Hospitality. In this position, he assisted passengers when their flights were delayed or canceled unexpectedly.
Eventually, after becoming the operational manager of the west coast, Richard met his wife Candice and they found themselves moving to Washington. Here, Richard finally knew that he wanted to open up a restaurant.
The culmination of his family’s rich history in food and art, his exposure to different cuisines through travel, and his experience with food powerfully connecting him to his surroundings pushed Richard to create a space to share his values with others.
As he searched for a location to set up his restaurant, Richard recalled the memory of a family ski trip to Vermont in his teenage years.
When Richard and his parents returned from the mountain at the end of a long day, he remembered the “meal of the day,” where all skiers at the lodge ate together at an expansive table.
“That warmth and being able to be with those people; I created relationships with them,” Richard said. “I keep beckoning back to this experience to tell customers why I created Rifugio’s. The food was the medium that brought people together. It gave people something to talk about.”
Richard’s original vision for Rifugio’s was to have a meal of the day with coffee, tea and good wine. One main course that connected a variety of guests from different backgrounds. To him, food was important but connection was the focus.
“The food becomes part of the story that draws people in,” Richard said. “Food is the connector.”
Now, 14 years later, Richard’s vision of connecting people through food is fulfilled. I spent an afternoon and evening at Rifugio’s, doing my best to stay out of the way in the quaint, homey kitchen of the restaurant.
Rifugio’s is located off of Highway 542, 20 minutes outside of Bellingham. It presents itself as a game of “peekaboo,” unexpectedly popping into view as you meander along the road.
The word “rifugio” means “shelter, refuge” in Italian. Richard strives to create a space of rest and appreciation for all who enter Rifugio’s.
Its exterior is rustic and inviting, with the backdrop of expansive meadows and evergreen hills. From the back patio, the smells of sweet grass and flowers mix with the sound of cars whizzing by on the highway.
Inside, long, narrow tables fill the intimate dining space. The kitchen lies beyond the bar, fully exposed. From dishes of spaghetti and meatballs and chicken and gnocchi come inviting scents of tomato, garlic and onion.
Between Friday and Sunday when Rifugio’s is open, Richard runs a beautiful production. As I sat at the bar and observed, it felt as if I was glimpsing into a different world where only Richard and his kitchen exist. Yet the moment a customer or friend comes in to visit, the bubble pops.
“Richard, I’ve got a present for ya!” Jeff Margolis, a longtime friend of Richard’s, exclaimed as he walked into the restaurant with a fistful of fresh-picked chives from his garden, still dusted with dirt. Less than an hour later, the same chives were cleaned, chopped and used as a garnish on a dish served that evening.
Spontaneous interactions and vegetable deliveries are commonplace at Rifugio’s. Kate and Andrew MacKenzie have known Richard for seven years, and dine at the restaurant often. They own a farm just ten minutes down the road and are working to transform it into a non-profit educational center for organic, farm-to-table living.
I visited their land on my way home from Rifugio’s. As the sun set, Kate directed my focus to a field of purple dead nettle. She explained her plan to harvest it for Richard to use in a tea, and spoke about the authenticity of Richard and his restaurant.
“It’s about the community there,” Kate said. “When we go, we sit at the bar and always end up having incredible conversations with Richard and whoever sits down next to us. We only spend a short time with them, but the connection feels deep.”
Kate’s description of Rifugio’s echoes the dream that Richard held onto for so long: using food to build relationships. Threaded within this, art still plays a fundamental role in Richard’s expression and also the customers’ experiences.
Andrew MacKenzie is a charismatic, passionate man. Throughout the few hours we spent together, he often got distracted and ended up sharing profound descriptions of art pieces from Rifugio’s that impacted him over the years, one being a piece by Gerry Stecca crafted entirely from clothespins.
“Richard is an artist who cooks,” Andrew said. “Rifugio’s is a feast for the eyes and the palette.”
Eye-catching, bold pieces of art are scattered across the outdoor lawn of Rifugio’s as well. These are pieces that Richard accumulated over a long period of time. There is even an original Frank Lloyd Wright statuette at the entry of the restaurant, acquired by Richard from an estate auction.
Each detail outside and within the restaurant reflects Richard’s rich history and relationship with art and food. One can sense this through the intoxicating atmosphere of Rifugio’s as they sit down to enjoy a meal personally made for them.
The menu changes frequently, depending on seasonal food and whatever inspires Richard at the time. When I visited the restaurant, two temporary dishes were the Easter lasagna and saltimbocca.
The Easter lasagna featured layers of fresh pasta, imported Mortadella, pecorino romano, peas, eggs, parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. With all fresh ingredients, this spring twist on a classic Italian dish sold out on Easter Sunday.
On the menu the Saltimbocca was defined as, “‘[jumping] in your mouth’ with flavor.” It was a thin piece of chicken breast with layers of prosciutto, provolone, sage and creamy chickpeas. The sage was hand-picked by Richard that day, using a reference app for wild herbs. The creamy chickpeas were another individual addition by Richard, not usually found in the classic dish.
As the dishes transform, so does the restaurant. In the future, Richard envisions Rifugio’s to be a “dynamic and engaging place” where he and his guests build relationships from education surrounding food and culture.
On the grounds, he is working on growing the sculpture collection and creating a fresh herb garden. Richard is also in the process of building a two-bedroom manufactured home to accompany guests who want to stay, explore the area and enjoy Rifugio’s for several days.
While I sat at the bar and immersed myself in Richard’s world, he cut a thin slice of lemon and twisted it over the saltimbocca. Garnishing a meal he envisioned and created with the citrus that beckoned him towards food decades ago.
Richard’s attitude towards garnishes mirrors the path he took in life. When adding dill to the top of his chicken gnocchi, instead of placing a sprig, he chopped it up into small pieces and sprinkled it over top. This way, it would not be wasted.
“We have to find ways of forcing people to eat the garnish,” Richard said. “If I put it as a sprig they will set it aside, even though it’s meant to be eaten with the dish.”
As his customers enjoy the meal, they likely will not recognize the intentionality behind each layer or chopped herb that builds it. Similarly, as he progressed through life, Richard did not know that each spontaneous trip and career change was another step towards fulfilling his dream of satisfying the senses and building community with food.
There is a handwritten note above Richard’s computer in a small corner of the restaurant that Richard uses as an office. It reads, “How does Rifugio’s bring me happiness and our customers’ joy and contentment?”
The answer to this can be found in the very fact that Richard is asking at all.