Esther Lau Gilbert: 1957-2021 – The Independent of Santa Barbara

Esther Lau Gilbert lived on the sunny side of the street. Even during her final battle with cancer, she focused on her luck, how much she loved her doctors, treatment team, family, friends, colleagues and her husband, Willy. Willy was firmly anchored at the top of this 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, surprisingly, food.

At the age of 14, Esther moved to Santa Barbara to live with the family of her aunt and uncle, who were Louisa’s godparents, and to attend Dos Pueblos High School. She continued her major in French literature at UCSB with a minor in business administration. At this point, she was fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, English and French. Later, she would add “cooking” Spanish and a healthy dose of Korean to the mix.

Towards the end of her studies, 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, happy stories associated with the phrase “Willy and Esther” were often heard, leading many to a common misconception that “Willy Nestor” must be the best man on the planet. And they would be right.

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

Esther Gilbert | Credit: Courtesy

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

Having two jobs spread over seven days, Esther hasn’t had a full day off for many years. But she continued at Jimmy’s until it closed at the end of July 2006, because she was part of that “family” and many of her clients have become and will 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 – getting up when it was still dark to start her day. Esther adored Korean dramas, food shopping, Minions (hers is a copious 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 – because he knew they were only poseurs.

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

Generosity was a guiding principle in Esther’s life. She enjoyed shopping for gifts for family and friends – making us feel like we were all part of her extended family – as the gifts were offered based on clues she gathered during the conversation. Esther was a wise listener and generous donor.

This was especially true when it came to food, as Ms. G. was ranked among the best chefs this world has ever known. She would prepare a banquet every Sunday night – a sumptuous spread that rivaled “Babette’s feast” – and then pack a plethora of take-out containers to share with her coworkers, Willy’s cohorts and a myriad of friends.

We commoners would be proud to cook one of these amazing dishes, but Esther has never placed less than four photo-worthy food offerings on a table. His “dinner for four” usually fed 16.

There’s a cliché about a smile lighting up a room, and its genesis was Esther Gilbert. Always generous with her smile and her foolproof laughter, it is almost impossible to find a photo where Esther does not have her big smile that dazzles us.

Although we know she’s in a better place, Esther has left behind a stage of broken hearts. We’ll watch his tractor beam smile in pictures when our spirits falter and find solace. And we will honor her memory by trying to live a better life, based on the example she has set for us.

A memorial for a future date is planned, and instead of flowers, her family are asking for donations to be made in her honor at the Ridley-Tree Cancer Center, cfsb.org.


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