The art of edible bacteria: Noma’s David Zilber on the slow magic of fermentation
The self-taught specialist in the breakdown of food by micro-organisms is as much at home in the lab as the kitchen
Chef David Zilber reads books about the makeup of genetic material during staff meal. He calls quantum physics his jam, and is a self-taught specialist in the chemical breakdown of food substances by micro-organisms.
As the head of fermentation at Noma, Zilber, 33, coaxes new flavors out of jars whose contents are bubbling, rotting and pickling away to introduce at the cult-status Danish establishment (the restaurant was named best restaurant in the world four times, and was re-awarded two Michelin stars last week). Hints of a saffron kombucha hes working with waft out of the hot chamber, infusing the fermentation lab with south Asian fragrances.
Fermentation may currently be enjoying a phase of fascination that cycles through popular culture every few years, but the way Zilber sees it, the practice isnt making a comeback it never went away. Its always been there. It kept people alive. It served civilization, he says, sitting in one of the Copenhagen restaurants three greenhouses. I think fermentation is undergoing an understanding.
Hes probably sort of responsible for that, because what comes from Noma is devoured as the gospel. So when Nomas chef, Rene Redzepi, and Zilber published the Noma Guide to Fermentation last fall, it quickly became a modern edible bacteria bible. Across 100 recipes and nearly 500 pages, the guide covers Nomas best experiments with seven types of fermentation lactic acid, kombucha, vinegar, koji, miso, shoyu and garum all of which make appearances on every dish at the restaurant.
Rene felt a zeitgeist around fermentation and the literature supporting it was lacking, and if any restaurant on Earth was going to be able to speak to it, it was us, Zilber says.