Having the opportunity to speak to Janet Zuccarini is a real pleasure. In our exclusive phone interview she opened up to us about the chance to be a judge on the relaunched Top Chef Canada: All-Stars, which premieres this Sunday, April 2nd at 10 pm on Food Network Canada. Here is an edited version of our savory conversation with first-time judge but long-time successful restauranteur, Janet Zuccarini.
Brief Take: Did the contestants on Top Chef Canada: All-Stars surprise you?
Janet Zuccarini: Yes, there’s lots of twists and turns this season. And of course, this is the first time that I’ve been a judge on the show, but we discuss and have our favourites, and think that certain chefs are in the lead, and then things just…someone has a bad day and someone who is your favourite is off, so definitely lots of surprises.
BT: Did you happen to know any of the contestants beforehand?
JZ: Andrea Nicholson, who was on Season One, was my chef at Nervosa, so yeah! I know her very well and worked very hard not to have any favouritism towards anyone. That show has an incredible level of integrity, and I definitely kept that in top of mind at all times to judge based on the dish that was in front of me, not based on past performance, not based on because they used to work for me, not based on maybe whether I like someone more than someone else. You know, it’s not a personality competition, you’re judging on the food and honestly, this show, huge level of integrity.
BT: You and head judge Mark McEwan have a similar background.
JZ: Yeah, and I think that is going to reflect in the show that we actually think alike. Because we own restaurants, and we also run the business side of things, and we actually feel that we have the same tastes and feelings about the chefs. I think that this is going to show. I don’t sugarcoat it, and I’m used to delivering feedback on food, but I get to the point pretty fast.
BT: What do you think of the makeup of the judges table, with food writers and food bloggers?
JZ: I think it’s incredibly “of the moment”. It is like to have a food blogger, and to have both Mijun (Pak) and Eden (Grinshpan) as our host, they’re young, they’re relevant, they have huge followings online, I think that is very modern. It is very much Mark’s show, he is the head judge, but then to fill the judges table this way, it’s fresh, and then to have Chris Nuttall-Smith, arguably one of the best food critics in Canada reveal his face, and then actually see how food critic live critiques food, I think it’s all really interesting.
BT: What’s your go-to dish?
JZ: My Nonna’s pasta. I make a great, really simple tomato sauce, which I think, the simpler the dish, the harder it is to make. But that’s the dish that I nailed when I was a teenager and that I like to do lots of, make a sauce, fresh parmigiana cheese, fresh basil, and that’s what all my friends ask me to make, so…
BT: You’ve really expanded beyond having a single restaurant.
JZ: Yes, I opened Nervosa in Yorkville twenty years ago, and then I was interested in owning real estate, so I had to save a lot of money from selling pizzas to buying that piece of real estate at the corner of Yorkville and Bellair. Then I opened up Gusto 101 in the Financial District, that is twice the size of Nervosa, and when that was successful and we had two-hour lineups to get in, I just felt confidence to open more. Pai is a partnership with Jeff and Nuit Regular, and from there I will have nine operations by 2018. So expanding and I’m opening in the U.S. in a few days a restaurant there called Felix, and a Jamaican restaurant called Chubby’s Jamaican kitchen.
BT: What do you enjoy eating?
JZ: Lately, because I’m opening a Jamaican restaurant next, I traveled all over Jamaica, drove a car around the island, went to find the best jerk chicken so I’m into spice right now, and finding the balance of flavours and heat and spice. Jerk chicken’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’m obsessed with jerk chicken.
Top Chef Canada: All Stars airs Sunday at 10 pm on Food Network Canada.