Janet Zuccarini knows good food. Not only is she a resident judge on Top Chef Canada, she also owns a roster of restaurants that have become the go-to spots for the famous and famished. Ahead of the April 13 premiere of Top Chef Canada’s eighth season (and before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of restaurants across North America) we caught up with Janet to chat about her success, her career trajectory and making her way as a woman in a mostly male-dominated business.
How did you get involved in the restaurant business?
Although growing up I never aspired to be a restauranteur, the foundation was always there whether I consciously realized it or not. My father immigrated from Italy the 50s, bringing with him the first espresso machine. He started his own importing business and from an early age with him I’d help him sell espresso machines to restaurants and cafes across the city. That entrepreneurial attitude is something that was engrained in me from day one, thanks to my father. I spent a handful of years studying business in Rome, and further falling in love with food and travel. I happened to come back to Toronto for a friend’s wedding when I stumbled into what was then a soon-to-open Trattoria Nervosa. I remember I had sold an espresso machine to the previous owners and was curious what was happening with the place. I quickly spoke with the owners who mentioned they were looking for another partner and it suddenly clicked that this is what I was meant to do. A few days later I called up the owners and said I wanted in. Nearly 25 years and a handful of restaurants later, I’m still as passionate about the business as ever before.
You have several restaurants on the go right now, people may not be aware of just how many or what they are – Can you name them all for us?
Trattoria Nervosa – Toronto (Yorkville)
Gusto 101 – Toronto (King West)
Pai Northern Thai Kitchen – Toronto (Financial District)
Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen – Toronto (King West)
Kiin – Toronto (Entertainment District)
Felix – Los Angeles (Venice)
Gusto 501 – Toronto (Corktown)
Gusto 54 Catering – Toronto
Azhar – Toronto (Ossington)
Alta – Los Angeles (Downtown)
Stella – Los Angeles (Beverly Hills)
The restaurant industry is a volatile one, restaurants come and go all the time, even restaurants that appear to be successful go out of business – why do you think you’ve been so successful in a tough industry?
I always say the restaurant industry is not one for the faint of heart. One of the best decisions I made early on was creating a strong foundation with Trattoria Nervosa and Gusto 101 – purchasing the real estate, recouping the costs, and then reinvesting any profits into expansion of Gusto 54. I continue to purchase real estate wherever I can, adding to security and longevity of our restaurants by avoiding variable rent. Something to remember is that when you’re in the restaurant industry, you’re in the business of people. We hire for attitude and train for skill, hiring awesome people to bring our brand to life. On a management level, I always aim to hire people smarter than me who I’ll trust to treat the business as their own. Inside our restaurants it boils down to three main things: transporting design, delicious, relevant food, and soulful hospitality. Almost a quarter of a decade in this business under my belt and we’re still as busy as when we first opened the doors at Trattoria Nervosa.
The restaurant industry, like many industries, is male-dominated, how have you navigated that as businesswoman?
While Gusto 54 is a female-led company, I don’t hire women on purpose. I don’t really think about gender, simply hiring the best person for the job. I’ve been leaning in my whole life and want to empower people – regardless of gender – to do the same.
What is your advice to other women wanting to get into the restaurant industry?
Regardless of industry, make sure it’s your passion. If your passion happens to be the restaurant industry, make sure you know every angle of the business. When I first opened Trattoria Nervosa I worked around the clock in every role – bartender, bookeeper, busser, host, janitor. While working 20-hour days for the first years of being open was at times soul-crushing, it was one of the best foundations I could have had. I’ve now been lucky enough to step back and take on more of a visionary role as we grow our business but having that deep understanding of each aspect of the business has been worth its weight in gold.
You branched out of Toronto with Felix which opened in Los Angeles in 2017 and it quickly become one of the hottest restaurants (and hardest reservation to score!) What made you want to expand into LA?
Early on, I had set a goal to expand beyond Canadian borders to the US. Combined with my lifestyle choice to avoid Canadian winters, Los Angeles was an easy choice. Cutting my teeth in the US food scene with a successful spot on Abbot Kinney allowed me to lay a solid foundation on the West Coast – two new restaurants to open in the coming year!
Time for some name-dropping – who are some of the famous faces who have dined at Felix?
We’ve had famous faces at many of our restaurants. With Felix, being one of the “hot” restaurants in Los Angeles, we’ve seen much of Hollywood. Some of my faves who have joined us – Al Pacino, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeff Bezos, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert DiNiro, and Drake. Our Toronto restaurants have received their fair share of celebrity visits too – Beyonce & Jay-Z, Michelle Obama, and DJ Khaled.
How do you divide your time now between Toronto and LA?
I’ve been lucky enough to have places to call home on both coasts. Like a true snowbird I tend to spend the winter months in Los Angeles, returning back to Toronto between May and October… avoiding negative temperatures when at all possible.
You joined Top Chef Canada as a judge in season 5 – what made you want to be part of the show?
I’ve always been a fan of the show and it felt like a natural fit. As a restauranteur, I think I have a unique perspective on food that is different than a chef. It’s been such a cool experience to witness some of the best culinary talent in the country.
What is your favourite part of being on Top Chef Canada?
After a few seasons of the show, the Top Chef Canada squadra has become extended family. It’s been awesome spending time with the team, travelling across Canada and meeting the country’s rising culinary stars… did I mention I get paid to eat?
Part of your judging position requires you to be critical of the competing chefs – what is that like? Is it difficult to critique them?
From day one I told myself, “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to be a judge.” Sure it can be hard to critique, but sometimes tough love is the best way to go. One of my favourite things is seeing a chef do a complete 180 after receiving some less-than-positive feedback.
The competing chefs obviously learn a lot on Top Chef Canada but what has been your takeaway from your time on the show?
The breadth of talent all across Canada is staggering. I think Canada can often get a reputation of being second tier to the US and that’s far from the case. We have an impressive well of culinary talent in Canada and I only see it growing from here.
What can we expect from this upcoming eighth season of Top Chef Canada?
We have new challenges and some exciting twists… it’s a great season but you’ll have to watch to find out!
What’s next for you?
To say my next year will be busy is an understatement – with five more concepts to open in the next year, it will be my most ambitious year of expansion yet.
I am opening 5 more concepts in 2020. My newest baby is Gusto 501 in Toronto’s East End, which opened in February. Gusto 501 will be followed by Azhar, a Middle Eastern concept on Ossington, and Alta, a plant-forward offering in Downtown Los Angeles, and also Stella, Italian in Beverly Hills. Plus two more Thai concepts in partnership with Jeff and Nuit Regular!
*All photos courtesy of the Food Network Canada