The Torontonian Transforming Eating at the World’s Number Two Restaurant

Part philosopher, part artist (and part–time model), David Zilber is the mastermind behind the “bespoke ingredient lab” at Noma, a two–Michelin–starred restaurant in Copenhagen that ranked number one on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for four consecutive years. (It claimed the second spot in 2019.) Zilber and his team in Noma’s fermentation lab use mould, bacteria and an array of high–tech equipment to create ingredients and flavours that push the boundaries of food. “There’s no limit to our creativity,” says the Toronto native, who co–authored The Noma Guide to Fermentation with the restaurant’s founder, René Redzepi, letting the world in on their recipes for garums, kombuchas and beyond.

October 25, 2019
A piece of duck breast held between tweezers
"Ingredients: 1 wild duck breast, 2 parts Icelandic sea salt, 1 part muscovado sugar, 10% arctic thyme by weight."   Photo: David Zilber

enRoute What role does the fermentation lab play at Noma?

David Zilber We create the ingredients and the foundations for the test kitchen to build the menu around. The test kitchen can come to us and say, “How do we achieve this flavour?” Maybe they tried it traditionally and it didn’t work, but we can look at it through our scientific lens and see if there are microbes, or even machinery, that can help us with that project.

ER Fermentation is an age–old process. Why do you think it’s having a moment in the culinary world now?

DZ Fermentation isn’t undergoing a trend, it’s undergoing an understanding. We didn’t invent fermentation, but we come up with clever ways of pushing the boundaries and recombining things – just like Beethoven didn’t invent the notes on a piano keyboard, but he knew how to put them together. Before the advent of refrigeration, fermentation was a necessity. Now we use fermentation to make cheese, alcohol or pickled goods because they taste good. People are understanding the power of fermentation to produce things that have never been eaten before that can be delicious in different ways. It’s no longer a necessity – it’s exciting.

A microscopic view of a grain of rice
"The whole world in a grain of rice. (Aspergillus oryzae growing on Oryza sativa sp. japonica)."   Photo: David Zilber

ER People say you’re changing the future of food. What do you think of that?

DZ Noma has changed the course of food – I’m just the guy at the mic stand. You see the impact in places like Copenhagen, Stockholm and even London. You couldn’t buy skyr in a grocery store 15 years ago, and now there are skyr breakfast dishes in Copenhagen. Sea buckthorn juice was not a soda you could buy at a coffee shop, and it is now. These are things that have come about through Noma’s influence and its power of inspiration.

ER You’re interested in cellular agriculture. Do you think we’ll see more of this in the future?

DZ I was always fascinated with the possibilities of it. It’s an interesting answer to humanity’s overconsumption of animal protein, and it also raises interesting philosophical questions, like why do we need technological solutions to act as our deus ex machina? I think it’s a possible future of food if enough people like it and it becomes cheap enough that people will switch over to it. Do I think it is the most morally just or virtuous option? I think that’s up for debate. Should we spend the vast amount of resources it would take to invent a new technology for it that would amount to a change in attitude?

Multiple containers on a table at the fermentation lab at Noma
A tasting with the Noma Test Kitchen.   Photo: David Zibler

ER What is the craziest thing that you have fermented that surprisingly was a success?

DZ We made a fermented meat sauce from a beaver we got from Sweden. My team said, “Dude, we’ve tried grilling beaver and it tastes like dead rat. Don’t do it.” It stank to high hell, but we fermented it with koji and it actually came out pretty delicious.

ER What is one item that you would love to ferment with but haven’t yet?

DZ Cordyceps militaris. It’s a fungus that parasitizes insects. They are used as traditional Chinese medicine, but technically this fungus is also an agent of fermentation. There are chefs that cook with it, but I would love to work with it in a non–traditional way. Yes, working with body snatchers is on the to–do list.

The deep pink of salted pines
"We salt brine the impressive pine cones of the nobilis pine tree (also known as silver pine) at the restaurant to gently ferment them and keep for seasons yet to come."   Photo: David Zilber

ER If your best friend were to visit you in Copenhagen, where would you take them?

DZ I would take him to Iluka, where chef–owner and former Noma sous–chef Beau Clugston serves fresh, simple Nordic seafood, like raw langoustine tail with a dipping sauce or uni on grilled sourdough bread. You couldn’t ask for more. It has the most unpretentious setting, but it is very refined. For a drink, I would take him to Pompette, which is my favourite natural–wine bar in the city. They have great wines starting at 50 kroner a glass. It’s on a quiet street in Nørrebro where you can sit on the patio and watch the world go by.

ER You grew up in Toronto. Is there a place you always go to when you’re back home?

DZ Mr. Jerk at Peanut Plaza. What I wouldn’t do for a styro container of Mr. Jerk right now. I also like Golden Patty (formerly Patty King) in Kensington Market, and Terroni for a bowl of the truffle pasta. That’s where I learned to sit down and read a book with my dinner: You just sit at the bar, bring a book and nourish your body and mind.

See what David packs in his carry–on here.