Esther Lau Gilbert: 1957-2021

Esther Lau Gilbert lived on the sunny side of the street. Even during her final battle with cancer, she focused on how fortunate she was, how much she loved her doctors, her treatment team, her family, her friends, her coworkers, and her husband, Willy. Willy was firmly entrenched at the top of that list.

Esther Lau was born on April 18, 1957, in Hong Kong. She was the third of four children: Louisa, Lillian, Esther, and Luther. Their family of six lived in a 400-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment and shared a love of reading, music, and — big surprise — food.

At the ripe old age of 14, Esther moved to Santa Barbara to live with her aunt and uncle’s family, who were Louisa’s godparents, and attend Dos Pueblos High School. She went on to major in French Literature at UCSB with a minor in Business Administration. At this point, she spoke Cantonese, Mandarin, English, and French fluently. Later she would add “kitchen” Spanish and a healthy dose of Korean to the mix.

Near the end of college, she was introduced to Tommy Chung by her sister Louisa and began working as a waitress at Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens. Here she met William “Willy” Gilbert and the rest — as they say — is history. Before meeting the couple, one often heard happy stories associated with the phrase “Willy and Esther,” leading many to a common misconception that “Willy Nestor” must be the best darn human on the planet. And they would be right.

There are those who would depict Esther as a waitress and Willy as a bartender. But to reduce their impact to this description is akin to saying the Taj Mahal is a building. They were a universe unto themselves, and we all wanted to be in their orbit.

Esther Gilbert | Credit: Courtesy

The summer of 1989, Esther began work at Westmont College in the payroll department while continuing to work evenings at Jimmy’s. A common declaration at Westmont was: If you have a question, Esther has the answer. Although her work was often demanding, she excelled at every task and loved — and was loved in return by — her coworkers.

Having two jobs spread across seven days meant Esther didn’t have a full day off for many years. But she continued at Jimmy’s until it closed its doors in late July 2006 because she was part of that “family,” and many of her customers became, and would remain, her dear friends.

Esther’s life was guided by her faith, but she was also a woman of many passions. She walked every morning before work — rising when it was still dark to start her day. Esther adored Korean dramas, food shopping, the Minions (hers is a hearty collection of memorabilia), Cesar Milan, the color purple, dim sum, and her beloved cats. She had a series of schoolgirl “crushes” on Dennis Quaid, Harry Connick Jr., Robert Pattinson, and Cha Seung-won, her oppa. These were always sanctioned by Willy — for he knew they were merely poseurs.

Esther and Willy traveled extensively, including trips to Santa Anita racetrack, Monterey Park, K-Town for barbecue, Maine (she had lobster every single day), Vegas, Ohio, Atlanta, Alaskan cruises (twice), the Mexican Riviera, Hong Kong, Korea, Australia, and Disneyland.

Generosity was a guiding principle in Esther’s life. She loved buying gifts for family and friends — giving us a sense we were all part of her extended family — as presents were bestowed based on clues she picked up during conversation. Esther was an astute listener and magnanimous giver.

This was particularly true when it came to food, for Mrs. G. ranked among the finest chefs this world has ever known. She cooked a banquet every Sunday evening — a lavish spread that rivaled “Babette’s Feast” — and would then pack up a bevy of to-go containers to be shared with her coworkers, Willy’s cohorts, and a myriad of friends.

We commoners would be proud to pull off one of those amazing dishes, but Esther never placed less than four photo-worthy food offerings on a table. Her “dinner for four” would generally feed 16.

There’s a cliché about a smile lighting up a room, and its genesis was Esther Gilbert. Always generous with her smile and no-holds-barred laughter, it’s almost impossible to find a photo where Esther doesn’t have her high-beam grin dazzling us.

Although we know she’s in a better place, Esther has left behind a stadium of broken hearts. We will look at her tractor-beam smile in pictures when our spirits flag and find comfort. And we shall honor her memory by trying to live a better life, based on the example she set for us.

A memorial for a future date is being planned, and in lieu of flowers, her family asks that donations be made in her honor to the Ridley-Tree Cancer Center,


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