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February 25, 2010

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Secret garden with lots of Gusto

RESTAURATEUR Richard Gelber approaches his dining mission with Gusto. And Gusto is the name of his food supply and sourcing business for fresh, unusual organic food and products for top hotels - and soon the public. Sam Riley reports.

One could quickly pass by a nondescript office block on Fahuazhen Road and never guess the secret within. A wander down the driveway reveals the entrance to the restaurant Le Jardin Secret, and like its name, it is a secret little hideaway, removed from the bustling street outside.

The Mediterranean-style eatery is the brainchild of Richard Gelber and his partner Yan Ling, both experienced in Shanghai's food and beverage industry.

Yan designed the interior to look like a quaint old rustic French home.

It is Yan's second unique restaurant concept. The Shanghai interior designer is also behind Le Petite Jardin on Kangping Road.

Gelber has a particular interest in what appears on the plate at his newest restaurant because he is one of the city's most experienced suppliers of hard-to-get items to many top chefs.

His food supply and sourcing business, Gusto, supplies most of the city's five-star hotels and well-known eateries with organic and boutique products.

"A chef is an artist, and artist needs the best quality paints and brushes in order to produce a masterpiece. That's the way we look at it," he says.

"It is up to me to give them what they need. I am not in the vegetable business, I am in the service business."

From little-known micro-greens and edible flowers used as garnishes to unusual or exotic vegetables, Gelber and his Gusto business partner Jo Jo Hu have developed a network of growers and organic farms to provide produce few others grow in China.

After arriving in Shanghai from Canada in 1995, Gelber began in real estate.

He still keeps his hand in, doing high-end renovations of old historic homes, but he moved into the food and beverage industry, gearing up Gusto a year ago.

His clients are a who's who of the city's best chefs and eateries, including M on the Bund as well as the Peninsula, Park Hyatt and Puli hotels.

Hu and Gelber use growers in Shandong and Yunnan provinces to produce organic tomatoes, baby vegetables, beetroot, Pontiac potatoes and other veggies.

Gelber typically handles the chefs and the supply-side, while Hu coordinates Gusto's network of growers and farms.


"Jo Jo is my right-hand. Without her I am nothing and she works with the supply and growing side of the business - this is a 200 product business," he says.

Some of their more unusual produce includes kohlrabi, a wild cabbage with a crispy texture similar to broccoli stems or the heart of a conventional cabbage. It is a household vegetable in parts of Kashmir and can be eaten raw, tossed in a salad or fried.

Gusto is also supplying Belgian endive, a vegetable grown from the cuttings of a root in darkness at 21 degrees Celsius. It typically takes six months to grow an endive and it can be used in salads or soups. It's highly prized for its delicate white texture and taste.

Micro-greens such as basil and arugula arrive still growing in soil and chefs delicately prune off what they need.

Tastes range from common herbs to spicy radishes and some add a final dash of color to a dish.

Gusto aims to serve the public as well and in the next six weeks plans to offer fresh organic fruits and vegetables and other hard-to-get prepared products.

"We want to create a service that people need," he says, saying on offer are likely to be five types of hummus, tzatziki (Greek-style dip), babaganoush (Arabic-style eggplant dip) and other foods that people miss from home.

He also wants to offer semi-prepared foods, such as pasta sauce with chicken and vegetables - "all set to go. All you do is boil pasta."

Along with Le Secret Jardine and Gusto, Gelber also runs Oh Mama Mia, a cheap and cheerful Italian restaurant on Yan'an Road W. near Donghua University.

Describing it as a pet project, Gelber and Hu are using it to develop recipes and a concept aimed at the Chinese market. Then they want to spin it off into a line of restaurants.

Noting the increasing demand for affordable, quality Western dining, Gelber also wants to use Gusto expertise to capture a slice of this market.

"Because I have Gusto, I can bring in salads and other products at a fraction of the cost of others in the city," he says.

"It is about good quality products, not necessarily the bottom line, and we want to do something of really good quality at reasonable prices."


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