Hailing from Toronto, Canada, chef David Zilber has cooked in numerous venerable kitchens across North America, and most recently served as director of Copenhagen fine dining institution Noma’s fermentation lab. Taking on the role in 2016, following two years of having already worked at the restaurant, Zilber carved a unique and covetable position for himself in the industry, going onto co-author the bestselling volume The Noma Guide to Fermentation, published in 2018. A veritable polymath, he is also a burgeoning photographer, having exhibited his work internationally. In the wake of 2020’s pandemic and racial crises, Zilber is reassessing his priorities. To learn more about the chef’s thinking, his upbringing and professional trajectory, and what excites him today, Something Curated spoke with Zilber.
Something Curated: Can you tell us about your background and how you got into the food industry?
David Zilber: I was awfully bad in school as a teenager. Not like, a bad kid, just never applied myself. I know for a fact I pissed a lot of my teachers off. As such, by the time I was set to graduate, my grades were far too poor to get me into a university to study, so I had to consider less conventional options. Looking back, I guess it makes sense I ended up in kitchens. Now, being a mixed kid growing up in Toronto, with a Jewish father and a mum from the Caribbean, I guess you could say my upbringing was pretty varied, at least in terms of the foods we ate at home. As such, I’d often be at my mother’s side watching how she cooked her Dominican classics like pilau or bakes, and follow along. That rubbed off on me and I’d developed a definite interest in cooking in my youth that continued into my late teens. I’d often cook my friends BBQ when they came over after school or bake my classmates cakes for their birthdays in home form.
My guidance counsellor caught wind of that propensity and suggested, when it came down to the wire, that I enroll in a culinary co-op placement programme, where, instead of doing academic work and scraping by for my last semester of high school, I’d instead enroll in a 3 week crash cooking course and work in a kitchen to earn my credits after. So that’s exactly what I did, and it was there at my placement in a fancy pan-Asian fine dining joint—running around, mopping the floors, chopping like a mad man all day—that something clicked for me. I thrived in that environment. Daily deadlines, shouting and all. And I didn’t look back. I worked there for 2 years before moving across the country to find an even better restaurant to call home. I kept trying to find better and better restaurants to work in. That was basically the mode of progression that got me to Noma back in 2014. I transferred into the restaurant’s R&D facility, the fermentation lab, about a year in.
SC: How would you describe your approach to food — is there an overarching ethos of any kind that you abide by?
DZ: It has to be tasty! Everything else is secondary. Since I’ve worked with fermentation so closely over the past 5 years, I’ve gotten pretty adept at employing it to delicious effect in dishes. I mean, I’ve worked in so many different types of kitchens, I’ve traveled so many places, and seen so many cuisines… I don’t ever stick to any one realm of cooking. My tub of gochujang ends up in pot pies, there’s shoyu in my apple pie. Not to fuse cuisine like the trends of the early aughts, but because they’re straight up amazing contributory flavours. I think the way I cook is for sure framed by my time working in fine dining. But then again, I also think my real passion in food is to make common simple recipes extremely delicious through fermentation.
SC: What interests you in particular about fermentation?
DZ: “Transformation. The act of transformation. The ability to see something you willed into existence happen before your very eyes (albeit slowly, but then again, maybe that’s its draw.) Fermentation is transformation in the most beautiful sense, in the same way I love watching my niece grow up, learn to walk, learn to say Mama or Papa, it’s about cherishing something you’re a part of. And in taking part in the craft, the simple act of putting on a jar of vegetables to ferment, the craft takes part in you. The literal microbes you coax into joining you in an effort to preserve your food and simultaneously render it delicious, find life first in the product, and then inside you. In your gut, at the boundary of the outside and inside world (your G.I. tract after all, covers 100x more surface area than your skin). Fermentation is your voice speaking through flavours and food, magnified by billions of voiceless lifeforms that strive to work with you, so that both domains of life can thrive together. Once you understand what fermentation is, you simply can’t look at a jar of pickles the same way again, and you love it all the more for it.”
SC: Who has influenced your work, from your field or elsewhere?
DZ: Sandor Katz, in the field of fermentation… he laid the groundwork before I or Noma came along and did so much to revive the field as a craft and art and something to be taken up as a hobby and a passion if not a career. But beyond the field of food, I’m also super influenced in how I think about the food system by the works of economists like Nassim Taleb, and how I think about living systems by biologists like Lynn Margulis and Richard Dawkins. How I think about evolution directly impacts my practice of fermentation, which directly impacts my cooking.
SC: How has the pandemic affected the way you operate?
DZ: I mean, it got me to quit my job at Noma. It just felt like such a massive, tectonic shift in human life on earth that working in fine dining just didn’t make sense in its scope anymore. I spent my whole life working in restaurants, but now realise there’s so much more to it, to feeding people, than the final plate of perfectly arranged, hard to source ingredients. It goes beyond soul in the human sense, the soul of the artist, and bleeds out into the soul of nature, and our relationship to that. We’re living through a seismic shift in our collective understanding of our place in the world. The current health and racial crises are just the most palpably visible problems in our immediate view. But when the availability of foods, that have for generations been taken for granted, become an issue in front of us, and no longer on our horizon, the mitigating causes will feel far more pressing, and the consequences far more severe.
SC: What do you want to learn more about?