Former Director of Fermentation at Noma Dreams Big to make Food more Delicious
When David Zilber was growing up in Toronto, Ontario, the dream was to be a paleontologist.
“It was the ‘90s,” the chef and one time Director of Fermentation at Noma in Copenhagen says with a chuckle. “Jurassic Park had just come out.”
Working with food wasn’t even on the table for the dinosaur obsessed Zilber, who started cooking at age 18. From his time spent working in Ontario kitchens he eventually made his way to Vancouver, where he found himself at one of the country’s best restaurants, Hawksworth, holding down the position of sous-chef running dinner service. It was the kind of job most young chefs would kill for, but Zilber had bigger plans.
“When I’d been there for three years I just knew it was time to move on. I knew I needed something bigger. There were offers to open a restaurant of my own, but I knew I wasn’t ready.”
Zilber decided that if he was going to dream, he was going to dream big. Noma, one of the most revered restaurants in the world, was on his radar, and he couldn’t be dissuaded from the insanity of thinking he would have a chance at a position there. A cover letter was composed and sent. But it wasn’t just any cover letter.
“It was quite ambitious,” Zilber laughs, “like three pages long. Lots of my colleagues told me that it would be crazy to send it but I said ‘crazy is exactly what it takes.’ Lo and behold, it worked. That letter has gone on to become a bit legendary. They said ‘this is the craziest cover letter anyone’s ever sent us. It’s like, your credentials were fine, but we just had to get you over here because we were like, Who is this guy?’”
Zilber was hired after a trial period in the spring of 2014, and began working in the kitchen.
“I got the shit kicked out of me,” he says matter-of-factly. “Just as a cook, you know, going from the guy being at the best restaurant in the country, most nights, to being a lackey, peeling beets and squash.”
It was eight months until Noma decided to give him a shot at more than grunt work. They stuck Zilber in one of their test kitchens, and that’s where he “caught his ride on the fermentation train.” As he acknowledges, it’s not a new thing, but his time at Noma did broaden his view on the matter.
“There’s a broader scope of fermentation that I think is coming into the collective gastronomic consciousness about just what it can do and how it can be applied,” says Zilber, who spent some time back in Canada earlier in 2022 as a judge on season 10 of Top Chef Canada. “Also that it’s not out of reach. You know, you might be weary of walking into a 40 seat bistro and seeing housemade wine on the menu and expecting it to be good. It probably won’t be. But that’s not to say that there aren’t other aspects of fermentation that are probably easier to control that can absolutely be made delicious in just a week or two. My very first job was Rain in Toronto under the Rubino brothers, and we would make kimchi. I didn’t even think about it. I recognized that that was fermentation. But it was delicious and I loved it.”
As Zilber points out, what Noma has done more so than any other restaurant in the field is show that fermentation isn’t out of reach, and that it isn’t something that has to be sourced from elsewhere.
“They lifted up the veil and said ‘no, this is something that’s absolutely within your power to create, just like you would create the rest of your menu. You can add your own identity into these flavors and then incorporate them into your dishes, and I really think that’s what resonated so much when the book (The Noma Guide To Fermentation,” by Zilber and Rene Redzepi) came out. That continues to be the legacy of fermentation from that restaurant. It’s even something I’ve carried with me after.”
Zilber left Noma in 2021, and is now what he calls “self employed.” For half the week, though, he pulls down a paycheque from a biotech company called Chr. Hansen as a semi-permanent consultant. There he gets to work in another test kitchen, clocking in as a recipe developer for one of the world’s largest food production companies that doesn’t make any food.
“They only deal with the production of bacteria that goes into food,” he explains, “for example, pizza. If you have cheese on a pizza, the lactic acid bacteria that fermented the cheese and the pepperoni might be sourced from Chr. Hansen. So I kind of get between the companies that actually purchase their bacteria for food production, be that huge companies like Coca-Cola or even small startups, and kind of provide my insight into how best to use orientation to basically improve food and make new and delicious things.”
Photo credit to Food Network Canada