Toronto restaurateur Janet Zuccarini is used to seeing A-list celebrities sashay through the doors of her eateries.
But she says every night at her L.A. hot spot Felix Trattoria, which has a prime spot on one of the city’s trendiest streets and has earned best new restaurant accolades, is like a busy night during the Toronto International Film Festival, “times 100.”
“People ask me who’s been in there and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s been every night so I don’t even know where to begin,’” says Zuccarini, one of the hosts of “Top Chef Canada,” which returns to Food Network Canada on Sunday.
“Leo DiCaprio is a regular. That’s pretty cool.”
Zuccarini admits she was awestruck when Frances McDormand celebrated her best actress Oscar win for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” with a party at Felix a couple of nights after the awards show.
A photo on Zuccarini’s Instagram account shows McDormand in the restaurant’s kitchen clutching her Oscar.
“She was like, ‘I’d like to come into your kitchen and I’d like to take a picture, for myself, of me with your dishwashers and my Oscar.’ Very specifically she wanted it with the dishwashers and nobody else,” says Zuccarini, noting the moment tied into the inclusion rider and diversity themes of McDormand’s buzzy acceptance speech.
“She’s awesome, she’s a person of the people. She’s a character and she’s amazing and she’s so much fun.”
After launching several restaurants in Toronto, Zuccarini looked to L.A. and targeted a property on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, which GQ magazine called “the coolest block in America” in 2012. She also recruited local star chef Evan Funke to ensure there would be immediate buzz when the Italian restaurant launched.
It went on to top Esquire magazine’s list of the best new restaurants in America last year, and is a best new restaurant finalist for the prestigious James Beard Awards.
“I wasn’t just going to open up a neighbourhood restaurant, it was going to be more of a destination restaurant,” Zuccarini says of planning her Felix launch.
“I needed a triple-A location. I needed a triple-A chef. (With Evan) pretty much everybody knows his name in L.A. There is, for me, not a better pasta maker in North America, who has studied all over Italy with the best masters on the fine art of making pasta by hand. It’s actually a lost art , it’s an absolute dying art.”
Zuccarini says Felix doesn’t have a strong Toronto influence when it comes to its food but the service does reflect her roots, including a “Toronto level of service.”
“I would just say 21 years of experience of operating in Toronto, I brought that to L.A. I brought everything that I do in Toronto to L.A.,” she says.
“L.A. has very good service. For me, it’s slightly more relaxed, and that’s suitable to California. But I brought in more like a New York attitude about service. So I’d call it East Coast and I’d call it Toronto (style). Like, we’re going to take care of you a little bit more urgently.”
After last year’s all-star edition of “Top Chef Canada,” the sixth season of the series will again focus on emerging chefs, with competitors from Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Saskatoon, Calgary, St. John’s, N.L. and Coquitlam, B.C.
“I really feel like this is the next generation of our superstars,” says Zuccarini. “I think most of them will have names in Canada in our future.”