By Chris Mohney
Janet Zuccarini is founder and CEO of Gusto 54 Restaurant Group, which has venues in Los Angeles and Toronto. Recently they opened Gusto Green restaurant in LA’s cannabis-focused Green Street development. The new spot is among the first restaurants federally licensed to serve food made with hemp, provided by Ziese Farms—the first farm licensed to produce food-grade hemp.
Gusto Green, as an idea, has been in the works for quite a few years as I was trying to figure out the right home to bring the idea to life. I had this incredible dining experience in Singapore where you would go visit a traditional Chinese medicine doctor at a counter, then go sit at the restaurant with the food that he would basically prescribe for you to eat. That was 27 years ago. And I thought, while I was having that meal, that this is the future of food—where food is medicine.
Since then, I’ve opened a variety of different concepts. I started with an Italian restaurant 25 years ago. Now we have Thai restaurants, a Jamaican restaurant, a Middle Eastern restaurant, et cetera. But I have to have a connection to the food. I lived in Italy for eight years. I lived in Southeast Asia, which is why I have an affinity for Thai food. I’m also just a food lover. I love eating. I love cooking. I love restaurants.
In Europe, in France and Italy, you eat well and you enjoy life. I want to bring about something like that. My diet has been altered a bit over the years, influenced by the environment and what’s happening on our planet. How I want to eat—and I think there are quite a few people leaning this way, especially in Los Angeles—is putting plants forward. I eat everything, so this restaurant is omnivore-friendly. But we’re ensuring that if it’s meat, it’s grass-fed. If it’s fresh, it’s sustainable.
Seven years ago, the Green Street developer, Sean Beddoe, first approached me and showed me the space. He explained that Green Street was going to be all cannabis-related companies. He wanted to know if I would be okay with that. But I look at cannabis as another plant. We weren’t even talking about CBD yet. At the time, I said eventually we will be allowed to legally infuse with CBD, so let’s get this brand going, and when it’s legal, we’ll be ready.
We’re always looking for ways to incorporate hemp into the menu. We made a hemp za’atar spice. We have a gluten-free cookie that has some hemp leaves in it. We also take the whole hemp leaf and put it in a batter until it almost becomes like a kale chip, and it’s got nice flavors to it. What the farmers have done is cultivate different hemp leaves with different flavor profiles. So you might have one that’s more lemony, one that’s a little more peppery. It’s interesting for a chef as you start working with these leaves.
There will come a day where you can infuse with both THC and CBD. I’m looking at it more through the lens of health benefits. People are moving away from smoking, so they want to have THC and CBD in different ways. But that might be 10 years from now. That’s why we’re not waiting.
Still, hemp isn’t the crux of the whole Gusto Green business. I don’t want it to be. It can look borderline gimmicky. We’re just serious about looking at food as medicine. I’m a big proponent on eating whole foods. We’re looking at the farmers market and changing the menu to go along with that, being hyper seasonal, hyper hyper local.
We call ourselves omnivore-friendly, but we try to lean into the plants. We have a lot of different plant-based food items. If you want a gaucho steak, you can get that. But it’s grass-fed, and it’s going to be the best that we can source for good quality meat. After all, you could have a group of friends, and one friend isn’t vegetarian, or isn’t vegan. Or maybe that person is pescatarian. We don’t want anyone to say, “Well, I don’t want to go there because I don’t eat that way.” We want to have food for everyone.