Zeb Gilbert at Wasabi – photo supplied
By Vivienne Pearson
Zeb Gilbert is co-head chef and co-owner of Wasabi Restaurant & Bar in Noosa. Zeb is his full first name, not just a sample of a longer name. ‘I think my parents were going to call me Zebakyah,’ he says. He describes his parents as alternative in their lifestyle, but for his dad this name was going a bit far. ‘He said, “That’s not going to happen,” so I became simply Zeb.’
His parents’ alternative views led to a childhood that Zeb now hugely appreciates. ‘My mum is a nurse and my dad a panel beater but they took a break and we went out to a friend’s sheep station,’ Zeb recalls. ‘Mum became the shearer’s cook and Dad and I did rouseabout work.’
Zeb and his brother Jeff (any alternative name-giving stopped after Zeb) were homeschooled and they spent their teen years helping the family grow animals and vegetables for food and being surrounded by baby kangaroos and sugar gliders thanks to his parents’ dedication to wildlife rescue. ‘We weren’t totally off the grid but it was a different life experience,’ Zeb says.
Zeb is one of the guest chefs coming to Bangalow for this year’s Sample Food Festival. ‘I haven’t been to Sample before but I’ve heard from other chefs how good it is,’ he says, speaking by phone from Noosa. ‘I love the Byron area from holidays from when I lived in Brisbane. We’d always stay at Brunswick in the motel looking over the river and visit Bangalow from there.’
The connections between the Byron and Noosa areas is clear in Zeb’s mind, in terms of lifestyle and food. ‘Both have the ocean and the hinterland. Both love food that showcases the area, and that’s really important,’ he says.
Local food sourcing is Zeb’s connection to the Japanese food that Wasabi is famous for. ‘Japanese food is very regional,’ says Zeb.
At Sample, Zeb will team up with TAFE students for a mystery-box cooking challenge. ‘It should be a bit of fun,’ says Zeb, who is looking forward to the event both as a chance to contribute to the nurturing of young chefs as well as to meet his rival (in this competition anyway), Shannon Bennet. ‘He’s one of Australia’s best chefs,’ says Zeb.
Zeb will also be judging the food from great local chefs in his role on the panel selecting Sample’s coveted Golden Fork awards.
Before I can ask him whether he has any favourite foods outside his beloved Asian cuisines, Zeb tells me that he celebrated his 39th birthday in style the night before our interview. ‘I had a fried chicken burger with coleslaw, chips and champagne out of a paper cup,’ he says of his meal with his wife and two daughters, aged three and six.
With that down-to-earth style combined with his cooking pedigree, I think Zeb will fit in to the Sample Food Festival extremely well.
Sample Food Festival, Saturday 1 September 8am–4pm, Bangalow Showgrounds, $5 entry