Toronto restaurateur is front-of-house in her Rosedale home

While her restaurants Gusto 101 and Cafe Nervosa are top of mind among Toronto's foodies, Janet Zuccarini, who recently hosted a Thai-themed staff party at her Rosedale home, has a buzzy spot in L.A. and a new Jamaican restaurant in the works. She is also a judge on the Food Network's Top Chef Canada and spots trends like no other (you know that outstanding kale salad at Nervosa?). (Photos courtesy of Gusto 54)
While her restaurants Gusto 101 and Cafe Nervosa are top of mind among Toronto’s foodies, Janet Zuccarini, who recently hosted a Thai-themed staff party at her Rosedale home, has a buzzy spot in L.A. and a new Jamaican restaurant in the works. She is also a judge on Food Network’s Top Chef Canada and spots trends like no other (you know that outstanding kale salad at Nervosa?). (Photos courtesy of Gusto 54)

Last month, she fed Cameron Diaz and Gwyneth Paltrow. Now, it was time to serve the servers.

“It” restaurateur Janet Zuccarini, who now has happening spots on both sides of the border — her buzzy new Los Angeles eatery, Felix, is what drew Cam and Gywn — brought it home the other night when she hosted a supper in her elegant home in Rosedale.

The cause? A biannual celebration to commend a small group of staff from her mounting empire of Toronto establishments, including Cafe Nervosa and Gusto 101. The spread? A lavish, not-ordinary Thai banquet (no Pad Thai in sight!).

The table's all set at Zuccarini's Rosedale home for the biannual celebration bestowing "Awesome Awards" on some of her standout staff. (Tablescape and design created by Gusto 54 Catering)
The table’s all set at Zuccarini’s Rosedale home for the biannual celebration bestowing “Awesome Awards” on some of her standout staff. (Tablescape and design created by Gusto 54 Catering)

“It was unbelievable … the food looked like art,” Zuccarini told me. Prepared by Chef Nuit and her team from Kiin (the spiffy new Thai restaurant on Adelaide which Zuccarini also is behind), the menu started regally enough: enter a Royal Thai platter consisting of delectables like Mha Hor (pickled turnip carved into a pineapple flower and stuffed with coconut and peanut paste), Chor Ladda (a flower-shaped dumpling made from butterfly-pea-dyed jasmine rice and topped with crispy Thai garlic), and Rhoom (an egg net parcel filled with chicken).

Dinner moved on to a traditional Khao Yum (Jasmine rice with white turmeric, long beans, lemongrass, sawtooth, kaffir lime leaves, cucumber, toasted coconut, fried chili and tamarind, to name a few of the ingredients), slinked through a series of dishes that included a “peanut curry with chicken and Morning Glory” as well as Thai-style short ribs, eventually culminating with a giant, summer-fresh Royal Thai fruit platter.

Go Asian, or go home: the name of this dinner game.

The choice to entertain at Zuccarini’s own house was a deliberate one, explained the restauranteur with the yoga-honed limbs and the model-ready hair.

“I don’t do day-to-day operation,” she elaborated, “so it’s a chance for the staff to get to know me, see where I live … for us to update them on what’s going on in the company, and various milestones from the last year.”

She added: “I get to be front-of-the-house — for one night!”

Oh that kale salad

Business savvy is something that has long served Zuccarini well. After all, she had the instinct to pick up a mechanic’s shop on Portland Avenue for a song following the 2008 crash (it now anchors the never-not-busy Gusto 101). And she was the first to bring kale salad (yes!) to Toronto when she debuted it at Yorkville anchor Cafe Nervosa (which turned 20 years old not long ago — a huge milestone in Toronto restaurant-land).

Zuccarini explains the latter adventure this way: “I started the kale salad at Cafe Nervosa, seven, eight years ago. It was so early on that my staff took it off the menu … they said no one’s ordering it. I said, ‘Guys, guys, guys, put it back on the menu! People are going to learn about kale.’”

Now that kale salad has become a restaurant mainstay, it’s something she actually can’t take off.

Top Chef Canada renewed

Something that has certainly taken off, in the last year? Well, that would be Zuccarini herself. She’s been putting in the time, growing slowly, for years, and now is the cliche of an “overnight success” — she cinched broader national attention upon being plucked to be a judge on the latest season of Top Chef Canada. A new season has been renewed, and she confirms she’ll be a part of it.

Moreover, there is also the aforementioned restaurant in L.A. Situated in Venice, Felix has had remarkable word-of-mouth out of the gate. Eater, the influential food site, called it “definitive” in its Italian execution, while L.A. Weekly positively drooled, going so far as to say that “many dishes at Felix will be the best goddamned version of that thing you’ve ever had.”

Most of the raves go to the chef Zuccarini snagged for her debut in America — the buzz-worthy Evan Funke — but it also highlighted positive coverage of the whole scene, including the service and the cocktails.

Janet, flanked by Gusto 54 President, Juanita Dickson, and Gusto 54 Chief Operating Officer, Demetrio Bianco. (Photo by Jake Rosendberg)
Zuccarini, flanked by Gusto 54 President Juanita Dickson and Chief Operating Officer Demetrio Bianco. (Photo by Jake Rosenberg)

“I couldn’t have dreamed for a better review,” she said. More than anything, though, “I had a lot of naysayers when I said I was going to do this, so it just makes me proud … as a Canadian woman working on my own.”

And, obviously, she’s not done yet. Breaking ground soon is another large-sized Gusto on the east side of Toronto. And opening soon, soon, soon, too, is Chubby’s — an exciting, next-level Jamaican restaurant, not far from the original Gusto. “We’re taste-testing now,” she reports.

Meanwhile, if you’re lucky — super, super lucky — Zuccarini might also feed you at her home.

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