written by Dominic Rolfe
A couple of years ago, Danielle Gjestland stood watching her father and husband argue about how the trench on their new farm should be dug. When they reached the point of refusing to talk to each other, the sinewy blonde hitched a trailer to the car, hired a trench-digger having never used heavy machinery before and returned to rip up the soil herself under the stunned gaze of her family.
But while her determination had finally got some dirt moving for the farm they were using to grow produce for her Noosa-based restaurant, Wasabi, Gjestland then encountered a second, more intractable problem – her pale skin was being scorched by the Queensland sun. Unable to hop off the machine mid-dig to grab some sunscreen, she was forced to improvise. “With the water in my bottle,” says Gjestland, “I made a puddle of mud and then covered myself in mud to stop myself getting sunburnt. When I came in from the paddock, I was covered neck-to-toe in red clay. But it worked beautifully!”
Gjestland’s story is one of doggedness married with an occasionally unconventional approach. “I might get myself into some strange situations,” she says, “but I’m determined to get out of them myself. And you need a little bit of madness to make it work. Last night I was planting by the light of three moon lanterns. It’s a brilliant idea. For my next big project, no way am I doing it in the middle of the day!”
From humble beginnings in 2003, Wasabi, where Gjestland still works six days a week in addition to her time at the farm, has now earned two chefs hats in the Queensland Good Food Guide for two years running and was named best regional restaurant in that guide in 2014. It was also the number one restaurant in Queensland on The Australian’s Hot 50 List where the judges wrote that it was “Surely Australia’s best Japanese food.” She has also had finalists in both the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence young waiter and young chef of the year.
Gjestland wasn’t a restaurateur when she started the restaurant, and she wasn’t a farmer when she started the farm. This is, however, a story of following one’s passion. “If you love doing it enough, it’ll work out,” she says before adding with a laugh, “well, that’s what’s meant to happen right? Even when people are looking at you with one eyebrow raised!”
At school, where she met two Japanese exchange students, Gjestland developed an interest in Japan and Japanese food culture, and began studying Japanese externally. After school, she studied hospitality and tourism management, landed a job on the front desk of luxury Mayfair hotel, Claridges and returned to Sunshine Beach with an idea to open a Japanese restaurant.
So, at just 24 years of age, she dove headlong into the deep end. “It might be the arrogance of youth but I did think I could open a restaurant focusing solely on a culture that not’s my own! It worked out in the end but without the combination of a lot of hard work, grit, determination and luck, it could so easily not have. I am a little bit of the mind that I’m going to do this and that’s what’s going to happen.”
That determination was tested early on when they’d taken the lease on an abandoned restaurant. Enlisting her family and friends, they scrubbed the place from top to toe, wire racks, cool rooms, the lot. Then tradies arrived to sand back the terracotta tiles. “I came back to find the entire place, every crack, every corner, coated with terracotta dust,” she says. “I only had a week and a half till opening. It was an awful moment. If someone had filled my head with everything I know now and then said, ‘Now decide if you want to open up a restaurant’, I’d just say, ‘really, is it going to be that hard’? But it’s all been totally worth it.”
In over a decade they’ve gone from having to explain what wasabi is and that sashimi shouldn’t be sent back to the kitchen for searing, to clients asking where the tuna belly comes from. And now the kitchen is able to use produce grown at the farm to give new experiences to diners, from species of ginger where the stem is eaten before it emerges to fresh daikon radishes. “You couldn’t buy the leaves here so we planted them,” says Gjestland, “And the flavour that you get from this really dainty little purple daikon flower are really peppery and pack a really big punch, almost a wasabi heat. So then I pick them all and take it into the kitchen and say try that.”
And while the farm has caused Gjestland to wonder more than once what the hell she’s undertaken, it is at least a place where she can continue to express her determination and personal touch of madness. “Recently, I squeezed myself down through the top of an old tank that needed repairing in the middle to the day,” she says, “The patching stuff that Dad gave me, I’m sure made me high. Then as I’m climbing out, my husband took a photo where all you can see is an arm emerging covered in green slime with a diamond ring glinting in the sunshine. He reckons that sums me up perfectly!”
There have been opportunities to expand, to translate Wasabi into the big city scene. But Gjestland is mostly unmoved. “I’m the kind of person who likes to chip away and refine something,” she says. “I’ve had offers to do something bigger and it’s really exciting when you’re looking at sites but at the end of it all, what do I want? I want a 12-seater restaurant. I want to get smaller not bigger. I don’t have ambitions of grandeur, with more stuff and more people. I just want to make what we do a bit better each day.”