Mo Zhou is consumed by food. “Besides cooking, I don’t really know much,” Zhou tells Broadsheet over coffee at Gaea, the 16-seat Gertrude Street restaurant he opened in 2019. “I always think about food.”
Gaea’s 10-course, $155 tasting menu changes monthly. But in Zhou’s perfect world – where training the restaurant’s two other chefs and sourcing ingredients aren’t part of the deal – he would update it far more frequently. He says he gets bored easily, has too many ideas, and enjoys challenging himself (and diners) too much to be satisfied cooking the same dish for any extended period.
Zhou’s food is loosely Japanese, and more generally Asian-inspired, with an ethos summed up by the restaurant’s name: Gaea is the name of Mother Earth in Greek myth. His experience at fine diners in Melbourne and Copenhagen was also a decisive influence.
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Some recent menu highlights include turnip with blackened vegetable granita; sea-snail broth infused with cacao husk; smoked oil with roasted hay ice-cream and charcoal cream; barbeque green pea with fresh pine needles; a pre-dessert sea urchin ice-cream with turnip stew; and chestnut madeleines served with a tangy, mint-coloured wood-sorrel drink. Diners are presented with a menu at the end of the meal, with only the key flavours and ingredients listed. “My cooking is, in a way, quite subtle,” Zhou says. “I don’t use much spice. I used fermented juice, flavoured oils and flavoured salt to season dishes.”
Then there are the ceramics. Everything down to the butter knives is custom-made and Zhou has a say in each design. “I’m very addicted to handicraft, and I appreciate everything made by hand and locally,” he says. The pieces mostly come from Melbourne’s Merrimu Studio, which has also made plates for Attica and Embla; Sydney ceramicist Daniel J Mulligan; Tasmania’s Ridgeline Pottery; and a friend of Zhou’s in Europe. Dishes are dramatically presented with an abundance of flowers, leaves, hay, wheat and even chestnut shells to remind diners of the land it comes from.
Sommelier Charles Duan matches the courses with wine, beer and sake. He also makes a number of non-alcoholic beverages himself. These include a light salad-dressing-inspired tomato drink, and a sweet-potato caramel and fermented kohlrabi creation which Duan warns “might be a little too out there” as he pours a glass during Broadsheet’s visit. But “out there” is encouraged at Gaea, where experimentation is key. The results are ambitious, intellectual and never boring.
It’s hard to believe Zhou had never cooked (professionally or at home) until he started studying at the William Angliss Institute 16 years ago. Originally from Zhengzhou in Henan, China, he moved to Melbourne with his family as a teenager. After high school, he embarked on a business degree. “I didn’t really know what I could do,” he says. “My score wasn’t high enough to be a doctor or do law, so it was business.”
He never finished the course. One year before he was due to graduate, Zhou spent six months travelling through London, Scotland, Edinburgh, France, Germany and Italy, and had the kind of revelatory experience gap years are meant to offer, but seldom do. “As a new immigrant, I didn’t actually know much about this city [Melbourne]. We still ate mostly Chinese at home … Going to Europe really opened my mind, and when I came back, I just never went back to uni. I thought, ‘Maybe I can try cooking.’”
After finishing the cookery course at William Angliss – where the discovery of Peter Gilmore’s Quay: Food Inspired by Nature in the school library opened his eyes to the world of Australian fine dining – Zhou staged and then took a job at Ripponlea fine diner Attica alongside now chef-owner Ben Shewry, and followed it up with stints at Vue de Monde and Press Club. He did several pop-ups around Melbourne, Sydney, Seoul, and China and spent three months in 2018 staging at celebrated Copenhagen restaurants Amass and Kadeau where he focused less on refining his kitchen skills than unpacking the restaurants’ food philosophy. By 2019 he was ready to open his own spot, and Gaea started service.
But the chef refuses to rest: last month he, along with Kantaro Okada of Leonie Upstairs and Hareruya Pantry and Alicia Feng of Calere, opened Chiaki, a Collingwood restaurant in the former Congress space specialising in ochazuke (rice bowls steeped in green tea). While the team is still in a soft-opening phase, word is spreading and Zhou says they’re “much busier than expected”.
Zhou’s work ethic, obsession with food and raw culinary talent makes him one of Melbourne’s most exciting chefs. While his food may look and feel like artwork, he doesn’t consider himself an artist. “At the end of the day, a chef is a cook and I cook,” Zhou says. “I don’t pretend I know everything, I just need to be me and be the best. That’s always been Gaea. We’re not chasing perfection, we’re chasing a great experience.”
1/166 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
0422 783 449
Tue & Wed 6pm–late
Fri & Sat 5.30pm–late
Last Sunday of every month 6pm–late