We’ve partnered with MINI to bring you our Close Encounters series—a glimpse into the lives and inspirations behind some of Australia’s leading creative influencers.
Our second installment has us going coastal, meeting renowned restaurateur, Danielle Gjestland of Noosa’s famed Japanese restaurant, Wasabi at her stunning Noosa home and restaurant, and her farm in Pomona.
Since opening Wasabi at the tender age of 24, Danielle has created a venue that’s become synonymous with a cutting edge, paddock-to-plate mentality. Clearly not afraid to get her hands dirty, the Japanese produce used in the restaurant is grown on the farm and hand-picked by Danielle and her team before appearing on the plate.
One of the few regional Queensland restaurants we consider well worth the road trip, Wasabi’s reputation has elevated Noosa’s dining scene and cemented Danielle as one of the hottest young Australian restaurateurs of her generation.
We caught up with Danielle to find out what inspires her, how she measures a great dining experience, and where she finds the time to grow the produce for a busy restaurant (we can barely squeeze in breakfast).
What does a typical day look like for you?
My days usually involve picking vegetables all day, wine tasting in the late afternoon before service (while still wearing my farm clothes) then home for a quick shower, access to a hairbrush, and back to the restaurant for dinner service until close. The other days are spent physically running the business from my office and getting ready for service that night. Unfortunately I have not yet escaped the mundane tasks of staff rosters and payroll. Small business equals many hats!
My farm is in Pomona, about 30 minutes from Wasabi. It’s 7 acres of terraced paddocks with a spring fed dam at the bottom. We pump the water up into holding tanks where it is then gravity fed down to the irrigation.
We grow all of the Japanese ingredients used at Wasabi. It’s fantastic because we can decide exactly when and at what stage in a plant’s life we want to pick it. It heavily influences the food at the restaurant particularly on the ‘omakase’ degustation. Sometimes the team needs to get pretty creative if I plant too much of something—we always like to make the most out of everything we have. Nothing we grow goes to waste. We use a method called Bokashi that utilises the scraps from the restaurant. It retains all nutrients and microbes and we make a kind of compost tea out of it.
My family moved to Noosa when I was six months old. Other than the obligatory Brisbane study time and the time I spent travelling, I have always lived in Sunshine Beach. If I am in Australia, this is home.
I love that Noosa’s hilly, windy and salty. I have the National park at my back door and the ocean air blowing at my front door. As I get older, I have come to realise that there is something about the salt air that, for me, is very relaxing. I can breathe deeper when I am by the sea.
There are so many great spots around—I love Costa Noosa on Duke Street in Sunshine Beach for breakfast and The Hot Bread Shop on Sunshine Beach Road is perfect for brunch on the weekend. I grab my daily coffee from Bean Drop in Noosaville when I’m on the way to the Farm.
My idea of retail therapy involves strolling around the Noosa Farmers market on Sundays. I love a long lunch at Sails and then champagne on the picnic benches at the end of Hastings Street at Sunset.
I don’t have a lot of spare time, so catching up with friends is hard, but when we do it, the roof deck at home overlooking Sunshine Beach is hard to beat. If we do venture out it’s for a cold beer and a great view at the Noosa Heads Surf Club or to The Village Bicycle. It’s a great locals bar, where it’s easy to relax and Trevor (one of the owners) always has a smile on his face, which is so refreshing. I always run into people I haven’t seen in years there.
One of my favourite places is Paradise Cove in the National Park. You’ll have to find the path yourself. Rewards are sweeter when they are earned.
When do you feel at your most creative?
I see creativity as an expression of one’s self. We are all creative in some way—of course everyone expresses themselves differently and applies their creativity in many and varied ways.
Our collective creativity has such a positive influence on society and on our culture. I admire people who put their creative selves out there for all to see. I think it takes guts to do that. For me it’s all about food and the dining experience. Every night, chefs and restaurateurs put their creative beliefs about dining on a plate and serve them, hoping that it will make their guests happy and contribute something positive to their clients day.
I feel the most creative when I’m brainstorming new dish ideas and researching new ingredients to plant at the farm. Ingredients and their possible combinations are limitless. I am always scribbling notes down on scraps of paper which eventually get organised and worked into a legible note book of ideas. At the farm, it is unbelievably exciting to have grown a certain variety of vegetable or herb you have only ever researched and then, after months and months, be able to pick and taste it for the first time. Asking yourself ‘what effect did our climate or our soil have on its flavour or texture and how could we improve on that?’—it’s thrilling.
I also love Japanese ceramics and the idea of plating something new, and seeing the finished product on a newly purchased piece is so exciting. The effect a certain ceramic piece can have on our perception of food and vice versa can be profound.
Who inspires you?
I’m inspired by anyone who is using a paddock-to-table approach at their restaurant or taking the extra time to find special people producing special things. Particularly, Dan Barber of Blue Hill Stone Barns in New York, who has taken on so much responsibility to connect ethical science, farming, and cooking. Cynthia Sandberg from Love Apple Farms in California who supplies David Kinch from the beautiful, Manresa restaurant all his ingredients. This is her business; it is not propped up a stream of funding by an indulgent chef or restaurateur. She has to make the numbers add up. And Chef, Shinobu Namae who works with a forager, rediscovering forgotten native Japanese edibles for his Tokyo restaurant, L’Effervescense.
In terms of mentors in my life… I have received a lot of great financial advice from the man who is now my husband, Ptor. In the beginning, 12 years ago, when I opened Wasabi, his advice probably saved my skin. When you’re starting out, what you WANT to do and what you CAN afford to do can be very different! You can be the most creative person in the world but if you’re running your own small business, if you don’t have your house in order and the numbers don’t add up then it’s going to end badly.
There are so many people I admire in the industry. In Australia, I think the approach Martin Benn (from Sepia in Sydney) applies to using Japanese ingredients is so inventive. Also I don’t think he ever loses sight of the point—for his guests to enjoy what they are eating and to feel that they are special when they dine with him and his team. He is never clever for clever’s sake.
If I had any advice for aspiring chefs it would be, first, decide if being a chef is really what you want to be. Being a chef can take you all over the world and open doors to all kinds of opportunities but usually life is not like an episode of MasterChef. Secondly, do not be in a hurry to become the Head Chef. Leave your ego at the door and take the time to work in restaurants that serve food that inspires you. Surround yourself with people that inspire you. Accept and enjoy that you may spend the rest of your life learning and honing your craft. Everyday your ingredients will differ somehow. And, finally, respect, communicate, and learn to inspire your front of house team. They will be your best representative to the public.
Where does your love of food come from?
I have always been interested in good food. My favourite restaurant when I was a little kid was a French restaurant in Sunshine Beach called Café Des Amis because they served the best lamb’s brains with parsley sauce. My mother is a great country cook and we grew up eating things like crumbed lamb’s brains on Sunday mornings or dinners of steak and kidney pie.
I love texture in food; I think it is one of the reasons I was so interested in Japanese food from such a young age. ALL textures are celebrated in Japanese cuisine. Foods descriptors like chewy or slimy are not negative terms. Great flavour equals great happiness for me. I recently had a sea urchin dish at Saison, a restaurant in San Francisco that was so good I nearly cried. Even writing about it now makes me emotional!
If we were able to make someone dining at Wasabi as happy as I was at that moment in Saison eating sea urchin then I think that would be a pretty big achievement.
The thing I love most about my job is that in some small way we get to play a supporting role in people’s happy moments in life. When people go out for a special occasion, the restaurant becomes part of their memory of that moment. We become part of their lives, in a way. Making people happy is what makes me happy and when a customer comes up to me and says that one of my team has made their evening feel special that’s the best compliment I can get.
I think it’s really important to ask yourself… ‘Is this how I would like to be treated?’ or, ‘If I was sitting at this table would I enjoy this experience’. I mean really enjoy it. These questions work at all levels of dining, not just fine dining or degustation restaurants. There is a place for excellence at all levels.
What makes a dish successful?
For a dish to make it onto the plate at Wasabi (and for it to be a success), first and foremost it needs to be delicious, then there needs to be something about it that is unexpected; something that makes the dish unique. That might be an ingredient we have grown especially, it might be a textural element, or it might be a flourish when the dish is served at the table. Then it needs to fit in with and complement all the other dishes. It needs to play its part; it has to feel like it belongs.
The quality of the produce I use at Wasabi is extremely important. There is nowhere to hide in Japanese cuisine. It’s all about allowing great produce to shine.
If I wasn’t a restaurateur, maybe I could be a full-time farmer and grow nice things for other restaurants. Though it breaks my heart when, through no fault of your own, something like too much rain at the wrong time makes the heirloom melons you’ve been watching grow for months split before they are ripe, so I’m not sure I have the thick skin for it. Last year we had a hail storm and I ended up with bruises on my hands, knuckles, and wrists from running out into the hail to cover the beds and protect them. It’s probably a safer bet to stay a restaurateur and part-time farmer.
What does style mean to you?
For me, style is all about confidence and a sense of certainty—knowing who you are and having the intelligence to express it. I think if you are stylish you are comfortable with your own sense of self. Style is not fashion.
I think food fashions will come and go but stylish food can be found in the hands of chefs who have put in the hard yards, who haven’t cut corners, and who are confident in the knowledge that they can communicate and express themselves through flavour. In saying that, I do think there is validity in the school of thought that if it looks good it will taste better.
Anyone who can take something they are passionate about, wear it on their sleeve confidently, and make it seem easy is stylish in my eyes.
My MINI is the 1st new car I have ever bought and it’s the 1st major purchase I made after I effectively moved the restaurant from Sunshine Beach to its current location in Noosa Heads. It was a mark of success for me—that I had taken a risk but made the right decision to move. Up until that point every penny I ever had went back into the restaurant. So, it’s more than just a car for me. I love it.
I am down at the farm nearly every day and I use the MINI to transport the produce I harvest. It’s nice to have something that’s really practical but that looks great as well. I also love that it’s so responsive and really hugs the road. We have a lot of roundabouts in Noosa and I am always short on time! My MINI really suits my lifestyle up here.