Janet Zuccarini lives to eat. “I thought everyone was passionate about food, but it’s not [true]. Some people find it an absolute job to eat, and when I meet them they’re alien to me,” says the CEO and owner of Gusto 54 Restaurant Group. Born and raised in Toronto, Zuccarini’s Italian father taught her German mother the recipes of his matriarch and passed his own passion for food on to his family. “My father could have been a chef. I grew up with every meal being an important part of the day: a hot breakfast, lunch and dinner. In grade school, I had kids begging to come over and have lunch at my house because we had beautiful Italian food every day,” she says.
At 18 years old, Zuccarini moved to Italy to pursue her education, and graduated with an MBA from Boston University in Rome. As a student, Zuccarini’s love for food blossomed. “On my walk home, I’d pick up a few ingredients from the farmer’s market every single day. It was really farm-to-table back then because that’s how all Italians eat,” she says, “I started cooking my nonna’s recipes, and my family recipes. I’d cook for my friends, and they’d say, ‘You need to open up a restaurant.’”
The peer pressure worked. In 1996, she opened celeb-magnet Trattoria Nervosa in Toronto’s Yorkville area, and has since gone on to launch additional Italian restos, as well as eateries that offer Thai and Jamaican cuisine. Marrying her passions for business and cuisine, Zuccarini has been triumphant in an incredibly challenging industry.
“Many people in the restaurant business do not have a business background. I think that’s why I’m here decades later and why I haven’t closed a restaurant. And why all my restaurants have grown every year, year after year. I understand running something by the numbers and looking at the numbers every day.”
Buying the real estate and buildings of her establishments is one of Zuccarini’s many savvy business moves. “I’ve worked hard, but it’s never felt like a job. I wish it upon everyone to connect with their passion, or passions.”
Restaurants are notoriously risky business, and male-dominated, too.
Where few survive, Zuccarini has managed to thrive. Whether long-time establishments or new ventures, her Toronto-based locations have earned accolades, but she’s found the most fulfillment through her cross-border achievement. “I’ve built this company by myself and, being a Canadian woman restaurateur landing in L.A., my biggest highlight is opening in another country,” she says.
Led by a vision to set up shop on her favourite street, the iconic Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Zuccarini considers timing, luck and networking as key ingredients to the success of Felix Trattoria. “It was finding this incredibly talented chef, Evan Funke, whose food is the best Italian cooking I’ve ever had in my life, bar none. It was hitting the road and trying to meet with as many people as I could here in this amazing foodie town,” she says. All the hard work has paid off. Since opening in April 2017, Felix Trattoria has been named best restaurant in the United States by Esquire magazine, and was the number two ranked best new restaurant of 2017 by Los Angeles Magazine. Earlier this year it was also a finalist for the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. “We’re on everybody’s lists. It feels a little bit surreal right now, and it makes me very proud to have this impact in L.A.”
Behind the scenes, it’s a long road from culinary aha moment to actually opening the doors to customers.
Despite being a seasoned traveller, Zuccarini doesn’t find the ride any less bumpy. “Once you open the restaurant it’s so great, but being under construction feels like you’re not in control, and other people keep telling you ‘Oh, hey Janet, bad news, we need more time and more money.’ That’s all I hear every day,” she says, “I finance everything myself with cash. I’m selling pizzas at one restaurant, accumulating cash so I can pour it into the next project. There isn’t a point when it isn’t stressful because every project, no matter what job I’m building, it’s always double the time, and double the budget.” Acquiring financial investors has never been in Zuccarini’s playbook, but as the cost of launching a chic eatery soars into multi-million-dollar territory that could change. “I’ve spent 21 years financing my own projects, not many people do that. I’m going to see if there’s another model out there,” she says.
Splitting her time between Toronto and L.A., Zuccarini is always on the go both professionally and personally.
“I suffer from getting bored quite easily, so I’m always wanting to try new sports. I’ll do anything where I’m moving my body,” she says. As a certified yoga teacher, who has been practicing for more than two decades, she rounds out her physical fitness with skiing, biking, surfing and —wait for it — skateboarding. And five mornings a week she can be found pursuing her latest obsession: tennis. What started as a novel form of activity quickly turned into something serious. “I find it so satisfying because I have to forget everything except hitting that ball. It’s strategic, it’s athletic, you’re outside in the sunshine. Everything about it became this extreme passion,” she says. Stepping on to the courts also lead Zuccarini to a deeper discovery. “I really never had a sport. I’ve always done yoga and I meditate, ride my bike, I do things by myself. All of a sudden, I was playing a lot of doubles matches, playing against other people, and it appeals to my competitive side,” she says “It ticks so many boxes, and I’m so happy to have found a sport a bit later…I thought I know what I do, and what I don’t do. But I was like wow: this is amazing.”
While tennis keeps Zuccarini on her toes, meditation keeps her grounded. (New to meditation? Here’s your beginner’s guide.) She recalls attending Vipassana Meditation, a 10-day silent retreat, as one of the hardest things she’s ever done. It also delivered a significant reward. “It brought me deep into meditation, and showed me that it is, I think, the key to life,” she says, “If you have a strong meditation practice you will process the garbage that is happening inside of you and inside your mind, instead of it swirling around and landing in you at a cellular level. You process, and you release things, so that you’re clear and actually happy.”
Zuccarini finds her daily dose of clarity through a 20-minute morning session. “If I have other things going on in my life I’ll use meditation as a way to process that. Feeling peaceful and loved, and feeling the feeling of love towards myself and everyone else is my barometer. If I start to feel cranky I think, ‘Uh-oh, you better meditate, girl.’”
Today, Zuccarini is intent on sharing her passion for food in many ways.
You can catch her as a judge on Top Chef Canada (on Food Network Canada). Zuccarini and her team have also developed a charity, Gusto Gives Back, and launched a program called Mini Chefs. “We teach kids about nutrition and how to cook. In our schools, kids are not being taught how to eat well — is there anything more important than that? To prevent disease and to live a life where you’re thriving, it’s your fuel,” she says.
At home, Zuccarini energizes by starting the day with healthy fats, organic greens and nitrate-free meat — plus a dose of caffeine. “I’m a big breakfast person, but the first thing I do is hit my espresso machine. I’ll have fried eggs, bacon and avocado, or sometimes sautéed spinach. Fat is my friend. It fuels me for hours, and I don’t think about food or have any cravings.” In need of a quick breakfast? Try this five-minute Almond, Date and Espresso Shake.
With her company set on a path of steady growth, Zuccarini is focused on building an empire that reflects her values. “I have a deep commitment to people within my company, to create amazing lives for them, and to develop them. I have a commitment to our customers to give them the best hospitality and to offer soulful experiences that transport them. And I have a commitment to the environment to be sustainable, and to giving back.”
Having done plenty of her own heavy lifting, Zuccarini is also quick to credit success to her team. “Surround yourself with the most incredible people you possibly can. That’s what I’ve gotten better at and my life has become easy. I’m in the flow! Why? Because everyone on my team is a superstar.” And the fearless leader has big plans for their future. You could soon be dining at a Felix Trattoria outpost in Toronto or New York City — if you can score a table. Next, learn the signs that’ll help determine whether or not you’re working in an unhealthy environment.