#carcelpeople - David Zilber
Carcel has a chat with, David Zilber, the director of fermentation at Noma. Photos by photographer and friend Petra Kleis.
How did you grow up?
I grew up in Toronto, Canada. I have an older sister and grew up with my mom and dad. My mother was an immigrant to Canada from the Caribbean, and my father, an Ashkenazi Jew. His parents arrived in Canada after fleeing the Nazis in Poland during the second world war, and gave birth to him in the first couple years they were there (in Montreal). My parents met in Montreal, got hitched and moved to Toronto, where they had me and my sister in the ’80s.
My mother is a natural cook, and while adopting many of my paternal grandmother’s traditional Jewish recipes, I also cooked the food of her childhood in the Caribbean. So in that respect, I grew up in a fantastically multicultural home, in a fantastically multicultural city. Toronto is great in that its a place that contains all manner of people. My core group of best friends growing up were all of different backgrounds. Myself, a black jew, Daniel was Romanian, Paul who was Taiwanese, and Justin, who was South Asian. I’d go over to my friends’ houses for dinner and be eating a different world cuisine every single night. It’s an amazing way to grow up, thinking every culture is just… well, culture.
How did you get to where you are today?
I was a terrible student in high school and had always received piss poor grades. I know I frustrated my teachers to no end because they could tell I was intelligent; I just was also very apathetic. I feel as though the structure of a standardized school system just wasn’t conducive to the way I absorb knowledge. I need to understand the “Why” not just the “What”. And as such, I was going to graduate high school with grades far too poor to make it into any university, so I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life. Luckily I had a guidance counselor who knew me well enough to know I had a passion for food and cooking. She suggested an apprenticeship program that would effectively pull me out of school for my last semester and place me into a crash course program to learn how to cook in three weeks before being thrown into a fine dining restaurant to just… well, learn.
The restaurant I had as a placement was one of the best and most avant-garde in Toronto, Rain, which was hypermodern Asian food way back in 2004. I worked there were a couple of years before making the jump to Vancouver which was the heart of Gastronomy back in the early 2000s. I went looking for the country’s best restaurant and demanded a job. I got it, and from there kept seeking better and better restaurants across North America for a decade, before sending a fateful cover letter to Noma. And with their reply, I made to hop over to Denmark to work at was at the time, the world’s best restaurant.
I worked through the main kitchen at Noma for about a year before I was sat down one day, and asked if I’d wanted to work in the fermentation lab. The team over there needed more hands, basically a sous chef, to oversee the production of all of the fermented foods they produced for the restaurant. So I made the move over and learned the ropes from Lars Williams and Arielle Johnson. Eventually, I took over from them and got to design the new lab in Noma’s second iteration when we moved into a custom-built structure on the outskirts of Christiania. Today I run a team of 5 chef/researchers, have written a New York Times bestselling cookbook, and get to produce new types of food for one of the world’s best restaurants, inspiring a whole generation of cooks with my work.
What's your most important turning point?
My biggest turning point was most likely the day I said yes to working in the Lab. It was one of those fork-in-the-road moments, where, even when it was happening, I knew the decision I was about to make would change my life forever. Working at noma had already had a huge impact on me, but in that instant, I knew I’d be afforded the opportunity to try things out, to work with food, to employ everything I’d learned through my own self-education, in a way few other people in my field ever get the chance to. I’ve been running with that opportunity ever since, only ever striving to make the most of it.
What's your relation to Carcel?
Actually, I first heard of Carcel because they had their atelier in the same location my girlfriend has hers! The carcel team was the previous tenant, and Matilda, who runs Venczel, a leather bag label made from a sustainable source, vegetable-tanned leather, set up shop after Carcel moved to a bigger location. Haha, I guess all designers in Copenhagen exist in a pretty tight-knit circle.
What are your hopes for the future?
My hope? That humans find a way to be more like ants, or bees. Harmonious, and selfless. With a deep-seated understanding that we are but a part of nature, and don’t hold dominance over her. That’s my hope. That we don’t just survive the next hundred years but thrive within a new, idealize definition of that word. That’s my hope.
Photography by Petra Kleis