Food awakens the senses and becomes the touchstone of memory especially at Wasabi, where marvelling at the evocative parade of modern Japanese food is de rigeur and emulating the flavours is a distinct possibility, writes Helen Flanagan.
Admire celebrated chefs and wish you had half their skills? Just chop-chop to Noosa and turn those dreams into reality at an impressive hands-on cooking class in the purpose-built, high-end feel-at-home kitchen under the tutelage of talented Zeb Gilbert.
He’s a proud patient family man whose innate understanding of ingredients is second-to-none, ditto using the fermented flavours of Japan with proteins such as beef. And his technical skills are incomparable.
“The small class size is structured so instead of everyone assigned different recipes, two are responsible for an entire dish,” says Zeb, who when queried about egg whites, points to a basket of brown beauties laid by his daughter’s seven chickens, all named Jemima.
“I’ll stop everyone when there a pressure point so tips and techniques are shared. Similarly queries about spices and herbs, with 70% of the latter coming from Wasabi’s Honeysuckle Hill farm in Pomona where Japanese ingredients, which would otherwise not be available, are grown.”
The Japanese Bokashi system is used with organic matter from the restaurant, mixed with micro-organism-activated rice bran to nourish the soil, thus completing the paddock to plate circle.
“Some of my favourites herbs are Kinome, a Japanese prickly ash with a unique citrus flavour for fish dishes and a bamboo salad; Hakkanou is Japanese menthol for flavouring ice cream, jellies and infusing shoshu, a distilled spirit; and Shishito, a Japanese sweet chilli. Pickle it, use fresh dried or stuff with fish mousse and fry in tempura batter.”
The class alacrity was palpable. Seven spice chilli was pounded; daikon, carrots, kale and shallots pickled; ponzu stirred; ginger made into chips; and a beef fillet seared for the tataki salad was dressed with dry seasoning, toasted bonito, crisp onions and edible flowers.
Across the bench dashi simmered; a dumpling mix formed into balls was ready for the seafood hot pot; buckwheat noodles created from scratch using buckwheat kernels were kneaded; and kneaded again; myriad vegetables were meticulously cut and trimmed for the bincho-tan charcoal barbecue; tamari, chives, shiso leaves and mirin stirred into red miso, dressed blanched local greens and shelled edamame beans; and a garnish of katsuobushi was masterfully shaved. This dried, smoked bonito is imported from Japan with small packets of pre-shaved flakes available from good Asian grocers.
Meanwhile, ice-cream made with Maleny milk and cream also sancho pepper churned, in readiness for the freezer; yuzu curd simmered; meringues with mandarin powder baked slowly in the oven; hulled strawberries were ready for slurps of sake; and in the fridge, sake was setting. As a jelly should.
About half way though the 5.5 hour class, the first fruits of the class’ labours were enjoyed with gusto and a glass of Tamanhikara sake. It proved the perfect match with beef tataki.
Back at the work benches the remainder of the 23 recipes and components were completed for presentation, plating and sharing. Zeb looks around the kitchen and in Wasabi where the final two courses are enjoyed. He notes some stand-out moments: “They’re proud, surprised by what’s been ‘created’, have a sense of accomplishment, astounded at the ease of new-found tasks, also using top quality equipment such as hand crafted Japanese knives. They’re all confident enough to reproduce any dish from the recipe book.”
Zeb had his first serious love affair with Asian food at the Spirit House, and after working for Kate (who later became his wife) at her Brisbane bistro, their year-long food adventure took them through SE Asia.
Wasabi beckoned and most recently the executive chef’s excitement levels reached a new high, being announced co-owner of the Wasabi Group, which is helmed by the high achieving dynamo Danielle Gjestland. It has three businesses including The Cooking School Noosa and Ibento Boutique Event Space.
Danielle who grew up in Sunshine Beach opened Wasabi in 2003when she was 24. After 6 years she relocated it from Sunshine Beach to the quintessentially Noosa location on the river. National accolades followed including The Australian’s Hottest Queensland Restaurant in its annual Hot 50 List for 2014, 2015 and 2016.
“I’m not a big picture person,” comments Danielle. “I did not set out to achieve any great goals or receive awards, but every day I feel we are slightly improving or tweaking details. From its humble beginnings, when a large number of our guests did not eat raw fish to now serving an omakase-driven menu where the clients trust the chef, it has been an education for us all.”
Aside from contemporary Japanese, classes this year include classic French, Noosa regional and modern South-East Asian. Look out for dumpling experiences, artisanal bread making, masterclasses with Italian maestros Giovanni Pilu and Alessandro Pavoni, and chefs’ table dinners at Ibento when Zeb will be joined by some of Australia’s leading chefs such as James Viles from Biota.
Zeb who doesn’t read novels, only cookbooks and fishing magazines says he is looking forward to the Noosa Food & Wine Festival and cooking with some of Australia’s best chefs. “After the festival I’m heading to Japan. I often get inspiration from a certain ingredient, the environment, where the ingredient comes from or even ceramics that ‘tell’ a story”.