The Wizard of Noma
David Zilber grew up making matzo balls and salt fish with his mom in Scarborough. Now he runs the futuristic fermenting lab at Noma, the world’s best restaurant, concocting weird and wonderful ingredients from bacteria, mould and larvae. How a kid from Toronto is changing the future of food
The fermented squirrel sauce in the first course of Noma’s $500 game and forest menu last fall didn’t taste anywhere near as furry-woodland-rodent-forward as you might expect. Added drop by drop to a soup of sorts, it was more of a savoury background seasoning than something you’d recognize unannounced—a little like a high-end, very natural Mrs. Dash. At Noma, the Copenhagen spot widely considered the world’s best restaurant, the staff present the food simply, avoiding insider kitchen terms and long ingredient lists, no matter how uncommon some of those ingredients may be. So our server’s rundown of that soup was brief and, given its components, not entirely illuminating. The description he used was “warm mushroom tea.”
But my dining partner, David Zilber, knew all the kitchen’s secrets. A cool, black-turtlenecked presence in 1980s dad glasses and centre-parted braids, Zilber has one of the most exotic jobs in professional cooking: he’s Noma’s director of fermentation. As such, he is one of the key creative forces at the restaurant, with his own lab and R&D team and a growing international following. Where other kitchens might simply buy their ingredients, or forage them if they’re feeling ambitious, Noma’s chefs rely on Zilber and his crew to invent many of their dishes’ most critical elements, typically (but not always) through the magic of microbiology. A few of Zilber’s proudest creations include banana bread–based miso; fuzzy, mould-based crêpes that can be wrapped around ice cream; and “extract of petrichor,” a fancy term for the bottled smell of hot summer rain. Not to mention, of course, that fermented squirrel sauce. He’s the culinary-world equivalent to James Bond’s Q.
As Noma’s freaky-brilliant resident polymath, he’s the chef who throws around terms like telos and Gesamtkunstwerk in casual conversation, who reads quantum mechanics to relax. His tattoos include a tesseract, equations by Schrodinger and Maxwell, and a map of the Milky Way. He can—and is often called on to—break down the taxonomy of sea buckthorn berries or North Atlantic urchins on the fly.
And he looks nothing like your typical kitchen lifer. Zilber is the guy in the tetrahedron-spiked sweatshirt and designer Hammer pants. (As a high school friend of his put it, “He mostly dresses like he’s going to outer space.”) He moonlights from time to time as a fashion model as well as an art photographer; a few of his images are in the permanent collection at Foam Fotografiemuseum in Amsterdam. These are not, it should be emphasized, normal habits and hobbies among those who moil in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants. So maybe it isn’t surprising that his name is getting around.
In just the last six months, Zilber has variously been called “Noma’s Fermentation Genius” (Vice) and “One of the Food World’s Most Pioneering Figures” (New York magazine), while around the restaurant, his nicknames include “The Walking Wikipedia” and “The Zilbertron.” René Redzepi, Noma’s chef and co-owner, often introduces Zilber as “the second-most-famous black Jew from Toronto.”
This past October, Redzepi and Zilber released The Noma Guide to Fermentation, a surprisingly readable 500-page quasi-cookbook on the care and feeding of various moulds, yeasts and a few of the more tasty species of bacteria. By November, the book had climbed onto the New York Times’ bestseller list. Random readers routinely tag Zilber on Instagram to show off the strange vinegars and kombucha they’re brewing, or the persimmons they’ve coaxed into lacto-fermentation on their kitchen islands. The guide was one of the most zeitgeisty books of fall.
The first course that evening in the restaurant, that squirrel-spiked mushroom tea, was as fitting a display as any of the whack-job exquisiteness that pours from Zilber’s mind. The bowls were filled with piles of moss and deep green pine shoots. A pinecone sat half-buried in each bowl’s understory, as if it had landed in a storm. Wisps of steam rose up through the moss like morning mist. And yet it was all about as natural as a Swiss-engineered watch.
The moss, Zilber told me, had been spritzed with an ethanol-suspended substance that Noma’s cooks call “forest floor extract.” He whips it up in his supercritical fluid extractor, a $100,000 bit of gear on loan from an admirer in the pharmaceutical industry. He sends his foragers out after it rains to retrieve moss, earth, bark, twigs and leaves. Zilber then dehydrates and grinds all that up before feeding it to the machine. For a full day’s labour, the machine spits out a single, super-concentrated vial. To add a bit of oomph to the broth under the moss, his lab produced a substance called lacto cep water: a sparkling, tangy, wildly electric-tasting mushroom juice that forms when fresh porcini mushrooms, salt and lactobacillus bacteria hang out together in a jar.
The effect of the squirrel was also impossible to deny. Its genesis goes back a few years, when Noma’s fermentation lab began messing around at making fish sauce. They tried squid, oysters, herring and wild-gathered molluscs, salting them copiously before sealing them in jars and leaving them out, encouraging the seafood to slowly rot. The long, slow protein breakdown produces many of the same notes you get in roasted meat, as well plenty of all-natural MSG. The salt, meanwhile, prevents it all from going too far off. The technique dates back to the Carthaginians, if not earlier—the Romans called those sauces garums—and it’s more or less how Southeast Asian fish sauce is still made today. The lab soon began looking beyond fish and seafood, rotting such terrestrial proteins as wax moth larvae and reindeer haunch. And their greatest innovation was discovering that by adding a bit of aspergillus oryzae mould (it’s the same ingredient behind soy sauce and miso), you get all the roasted meat characteristics and natural, flavour-boosting MSG, with a far less putrefying stench.
That realization has transformed the way Noma’s chefs perform one of the most fundamental tasks in cooking: seasoning food. “Garums…don’t play a starring role, but they’re there under the surface, imbuing dishes with an intangible magic, focusing and enlivening natural flavours,” Zilber writes in The Noma Guide to Fermentation. Why add salt, in other words, to a fresh clam chowder when you can add shrimp and wild rose garum? Why wouldn’t you spike your warm mushroom broth with a touch of mould-inoculated squirrel rot?
In any case, when those bowls arrived, Zilber and I both stuck our noses into them. For a couple of seconds, I closed my eyes and breathed it in. The power of that bowl, of the moss, the forest concentrate and the squirrel juice, of that intangibly magical steaming mushroom soup, was of instantaneous dislocation; it smelled like an elfin picnic in a bosky hollow, quite possibly while tripping on LSD.
Zilber raised his bowl to his face and took a sip. “That is really fucking delicious broth,” he said.
If you were to sketch out a character to match the phrase “most Toronto upbringing ever,” David Zilber might be the result. His mother, Yvonne Bowen, was born in Curaçao and migrated to Canada in her early 20s, landing in the basement apartment of a triplex in Montreal. The building’s young superintendent, Harry Zilber, lived just upstairs. He showed an interest that exceeded strictly professional needs. The couple relocated to Toronto, and David Chaim Jacob Zilber was born in 1985. Years later, as the only black kid on a tour bus full of teenagers in Israel, he won the award for most Jewish name.
The Zilbers lived in Don Mills, in a two-bedroom apartment behind the Peanut Plaza complex—where to this day you can buy fresh Jamaican coco bread, Persian mixed nuts, and regional Chinese and Tamil takeout, then serve it all on fall-apart houseware from the Dollarama a few doors down. That sort of mixing, what other people might call hyper-multiculturalism, wasn’t anything special to Zilber. He didn’t see it as an advantage back then, as the sort of environment that might foster adaptability and openness to experience—that might provide a leg-up to a future chef. “That’s the best part of Toronto—everyone’s different. You’d go to someone’s house and eat something different every night,” he says.
Zilber’s home life, in Don Mills and later Scarborough, was nearly as varied. “Two cultures colliding,” he says. Yvonne had converted to Judaism, and her mother-in-law, Zofia, taught her to make matzo ball soup, latkes and gefilte fish. On Fridays, the family would eat a classically Ashkenazi Jewish shabbat dinner. Then, on Saturdays, they’d feast on salt fish and bake. Zilber, who was often found at his mother’s elbow in the kitchen, learned to fry both latkes and plantains, and how to caramelize a proper pilau.
He also developed a fixation with the MSG-laden seasoning his mother kept on hand. “I’d always reach for the yellow bottle and put it into my hands and just lick it, like a deer at a salt lick, every night when my mom was cooking dinner. It was like crack cocaine,” he says. “Now it’s my whole fucking job, making that stuff. Full circle, I guess.”
Yvonne, an early-childhood educator for special-needs kids, was a born nurturer. She provided her son with patience, personality and comfort in who he was. Even at a stage of life when many kids want nothing more than to be anonymous, Zilber used to revel in being both black and Jewish—in being, as one of his long-time friends put it, a “double minority.” He learned to get along anywhere. “If I’m gregarious or sociable or charming, I definitely get that from her,” he says. “And if I’m nerdy and technologically inclined, I definitely get that from my dad.” Harry, an aeronautical engineer, worked for De Havilland, near the Downsview Airport.
Zilber’s dream was to work in the sciences. His favourite books were the 20-volume Time-Life series Voyage Through the Universe. He arranged glow-in-the-dark stars into constellations on his bedroom ceiling and, with his mother’s help, made his own Anakin Skywalker costume to wear to Attack of the Clones. Zilber also wore a back brace—a rigid, fibreglass corset—to treat his scoliosis. He and his high school friends used to pretend that the brace was an indestructible shield. In their teenage imaginations, David was a superhero named Unbreakable.
Yet Zilber, who did 12 years of French immersion, didn’t quite fit the nerd bill. Despite his love of space and astronomy, his grades were not good. High school’s rote learning rarely made sense to him. He needs narrative and connections to understand things—he can’t do granular. At the end of his graduating year at York Mills Collegiate, Zilber watched his friends get into U of T and Ryerson. He had wanted to become a paleontologist. “Looking at my grades, I was like, ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ ” he says.
A sympathetic guidance counsellor remembered his interest in food and cooking and steered him toward an apprenticeship program. He completed three weeks of rudimentary kitchen training, then landed at a new restaurant called Rain, on Mercer Street. From the start, David Zilber was not quite like the other cooks.
Rain had a waterfall in its lobby and saketinis on its cocktail list. It was fussy and expensive, but with a modern vibe. The garde manger station made 128 garnishes daily, such as pea tendrils wrapped in popcorn shoots and tiny, deep-fried taro root baskets. That degree of “precious, flamboyant gastronomical derring-do,” as one reviewer called it, would not have been possible without low-wage kitchen help.
Zilber, who was 18 when he started, perpetually asked questions. “Most cooks at that age just feed off of the adrenaline of a busy service…all that kind of adrenaline-hormone craziness,” says Guy Rubino, the chef who co-owned the place. “And he was never like that.” Zilber had to know the why and how: what made flavours and processes work.
And he was strangely well-spoken. He read literary fiction in his downtime. He frequented art openings and galleries on his nights off and starred in videos his filmmaker friends made, choreographing and styling them himself. At that time, Zilber’s contemporaries often wondered why he was slumming it as a cook. Yet he was growing to love his new career choice. He found himself surrounded by some of the city’s most driven young chefs, and their enthusiasm was infectious. Plus, you could try things in that kitchen, make them up as you went. No one had to tell the customers that a teenager who’d never touched sushi rice until a few months earlier had been left in charge of their $35, six-bite nigiri course.
A Vancouver chef named David Hawksworth took Zilber on next, at his restaurant West. While the archetypal line cook of that era was Anthony Bourdain’s whiskey-guzzling, ass-slapping, hard-living kitchen cowboy, Zilber was the skinny, bookish aesthete. In his early days at West, Zilber’s overthinking made him prone to mistakes. “I knew that he was extremely intelligent,” Hawksworth recalls. “And that he could probably use his intellect in a different way, in a far less aggressive environment.” Over the next few years, he put in time at Claudio Aprile’s Colborne Lane, then at the Healthy Butcher, where he rose to second in command.
In early 2011, Zilber had one more go-round with David Hawksworth, who was assembling key kitchen staff for an eponymous, spare-no-effort new restaurant in Vancouver’s Rosewood Hotel. Finally, all the lessons Zilber had learned—all the questions he’d asked and the overthinking he’d done—started to pay off. His outlook had matured considerably since his time at West; he realized that his experience under Hawksworth had made him a better chef.
And Zilber had changed in other ways. For one thing, his reading habits had expanded well beyond fiction. He’d started gorging on linguistics and sociology, on astrophysics and international economics—on what can only be called Big Important Books. He read James Gleick and Stephen Hawking, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the linguist Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass. He had his mind blown open by Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity. When I emailed him for a list, he responded with the line often attributed to Emerson: “I can’t remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I’ve eaten, but either way, they have made me.” Yet he did remember what he’d read—all of it, typically.
Zilber had been hired at Hawksworth not as a line cook, but as a sous-chef. He began to develop a culinary style. His plating was far outside the bounds of Vancouver-normal for the time. He’d garnish his dishes with edible soils and cilantro ash. He toyed with negative space, arranging his cooking around the rim of a plate while leaving its centre bare. “It was his personality on a plate,” says Kristian Eligh, the restaurant’s chef-de-cuisine.
And Zilber had a way of putting his other talents to work. When a piece of kitchen equipment failed, a blender or a sous vide machine, he’d throw it in his backpack and take it home. Late at night, he’d unscrew the bolts and take the machine apart, piece by piece. Often, for kicks, he’d text Eligh a picture of the destruction in the middle of the night: 60 or 70 machine parts, spread around his bedroom floor. The next morning, Zilber would pull the machine from his backpack, functioning as new. “I didn’t pay for any small-wares maintenance for years at Hawksworth,” Eligh says.
Through those years, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list was gaining influence. Ideas you once had to travel to witness now spread via Instagram in microseconds. Zilber wanted to learn in the best kitchens on Earth. So in fall 2013, Hawksworth wrote him a glowing letter of reference. (“It comes with great pride that I may recommend my sous-chef and long-time protégé, David Zilber, to your establishment.”) Zilber drafted a cover letter, which he titled, at the top, in bold print, “A Cover Letter.”
“I’m the one in the kitchen going off during staff meal explaining how microwave radiation heats water, or the anthropological and evolutionary reasoning behind why a farmed strawberry tastes different from a wild one,” he wrote.
“I had a couple of my cooks read it,” Zilber says. “We were all out for drinks. I’m like, ‘Hey, guys, what do you think of this?’ And they’re like, ‘Do not send it out; you sound fucking crazy.’ ”
He sent it anyway, to Alinea in Chicago, to Saison in San Francisco and to Noma. “The first two, like absolutely silent. And then Noma got back to me within two weeks.” Zilber flew out to Copenhagen for a short trial, and the chef-de-cuisine, Dan Giusti, hired him on. For most of the following year, Zilber rarely slept.
Noma feels a little like a lakefront summer camp as reimagined by a Scandinavian starchitect. The complex is a cluster of 11 buildings, most of them linked by passageways built from concrete, oak and glass. Outside, there’s a trio of greenhouses and a boardwalk that leads through a windblown tall-grass prairie. It’s the first place I’ve ever eaten where you can watch wild ducks swim and nest just outside the windows while munching on their cousins on the other side of the glass.
When Zilber arrived in the spring of 2014, he found a kitchen filled with screaming, cursing, often panic-stricken chefs. Noma first appeared on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2007, at number 15. It made the 10th spot the following year, and by 2010, it had climbed to number one. Noma’s kitchen brigade was expected to perform the impossible with every plate.
Zilber’s role in his first year was as a production cook for the restaurant’s cold section—“the shittiest job at Noma,” as he calls it. He was responsible for producing 400 ravioli sheets daily from the leaves of wild ramsons, a type of leek; he had to cut 300 perfect squares from roasted beets every morning in time for Noma’s lunch service, then repeat the process for dinner later that day. He made stocks and sauces. He cooked, rested and portioned pumpkins. Some days he had help from a couple of stagiaires, while other days he didn’t. He rarely knew in advance. He was expected to work each service too, cooking on the line for lunch and dinner. He’d leave for work at 5:30 most mornings, well before sunrise, arrive home after 1 a.m. the next day, then wake up three or four hours later and do it all again.
Few of Zilber’s colleagues had time for niceties, much less for coddling a new hire. When Zilber’s prep was late, which it often was, the service chefs screamed at him. It didn’t matter if his interns had been reassigned for the day, or if, through no fault of his own, he was tasked with the work of five cooks.
Worse still, Noma’s recipes—for some of the most complex and original dishes anywhere—listed little more than measures and ingredients. As for method, the cooks were expected to either intuitively know, or to somehow figure it out. “There’s no excuse. There was never an excuse. You’re not allowed to have an excuse,” Zilber says. (The kitchen has, by most accounts, become far less brutal in recent years.)
Where Zilber did stand out was in his ability to communicate, particularly with the restaurant’s guests. His smarts and his good-natured humour—his ability to get along—made him a go-to for leading kitchen tours. He understood the bigger picture of how the restaurant worked and the nature of its mission. And his 12 years of French immersion came in handy. “We’d get the big-time French chefs who didn’t speak English, and they were slightly skeptical about Noma, this whole Nordic cuisine thing,” says Dan Giusti. “It was a lot of pressure on the restaurant. We would always give those tours to David.”
Another upside: nothing in Noma’s kitchen was ever permanent. In early 2015, the entire staff relocated to Tokyo for a two-month pop-up, and the kitchen got shuffled. Zilber’s workload shifted from impossible to merely ridiculous to the same sort of workload as the other chefs. After the daily hell Zilber had endured, Noma Japan was a piece of cake.
If Zilber had any other career-advancing attribute, it was his readiness to throw down: his sheer, unbridled moxie. He was happy being an outsider, if he ever stopped to consider his place in things at all. Once a week, a chef was chosen to present a dish of his or her own to the entire staff. Called Saturday Night Projects, those presentations were wildly stressful for Noma cooks. Some of them would blank, says Giusti, unable to speak. Zilber, on the other hand, never seemed nervous at all. It was the staff who were often speechless by the time he was done. One time, Zilber presented a huge bowl of pasta, but with the noodles removed so he could serve just the leftover sauce. Another of his projects was titled, “Ruminations on Solipsism Along a Mediterranean Coastline (De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum) Variations 1–4.”
When they returned to Denmark, Giusti put Zilber in charge of the restaurant’s barbecue section. This job was a major step up. “There’s a lot of smart people out there,” says Giusti. “But Dave’s not worried about failing. He’s not worried about what someone’s going to think of him, and that’s what allows him to achieve what he’s achieved.”
Early in 2009, Redzepi and a couple of his best chefs moored a wooden houseboat in Copenhagen harbour, in front of the restaurant. It was an open-source experimental space for developing new ideas and ingredients. Though fermentation was just one part of what the lab’s chefs studied, Redzepi saw its payoff early on. One of the chefs had sealed fresh gooseberries in a vacuum bag with a bit of salt to encourage bacteria that would use enzymes to break down sugars, producing flavourful new metabolites. “I tasted it, and I was completely shocked,” Redzepi has said. Fermentation, he realized, could vastly expand Noma’s local-focused larder, unleashing new textures and flavours in staple Nordic foods.
In 2014, he commissioned a dedicated fermentation lab, run by a long-time Noma chef named Lars Williams and the restaurant’s then–scientist in residence, a flavour chemist named Arielle Johnson. “People have always associated our restaurant closely with wild food and foraging,” Redzepi writes in the Noma Guide, “but the truth is that the defining pillar of Noma is fermentation.”
Zilber’s turn came in 2015, when Williams and Johnson decided to move on. “The job was, from day one, going to be an extreme amount of pressure,” says Giusti. “The whole restaurant leaned on that fermentation kitchen for inspiration, for ingredients and for production. They were creating a lot of products that were used throughout the menu. Those things need to get planned far in advance.”
Up until then, Zilber had never thought much about fermentation. Apart from making a bit of kimchi at Rain a decade earlier, he hadn’t really done much, either. But Zilber, whose life motto is “stay curious,” knew how to learn.
When I arrived at the lab one day in December, Zilber’s second-in-command, a former freelance fermentation consultant named Jason White, was cooking and straining test batches of lupin, an organic legume grown in Sweden, with an eye to turning the pulse’s protein-rich milk into vegan yogurt. The lab was also in a constant production cycle for Noma’s game and forest menu, mixing, prepping and fermenting dozens of only-at-Noma ingredients for daily service. Hugo Chaise, a cheery 30-year-old chef, was straining the lab’s smoked seaweed soy sauce into a 20-litre bucket. Zilber, meanwhile, was checking on one of his most time-consuming creations of the moment, a sort of mould-covered barley crisp that was key to a course called “truffled flatbread.”
Zilber had devised a way to grow aspergillus oryzae mould over one-millimetre-thick sheets of steamed, pressed barley. As he described the resulting product not long ago, “You have this fuzzy, velvety white carpet that tastes of honeysuckle and sweet apricot. But on your tongue it feels like you’re licking a suede bag.” Those sheets, which Zilber pulled from a rolling rack of trays, were the flatbread; Noma’s kitchen cut them each day into the shape of a mallard duck’s contour feathers, then meticulously covered each one with black truffle slivers for a near-perfect (and ridiculously tasty) trompe l’œil.
The lab put me in mind of a strange, old-fashioned apothecary, but with the sort of chemistry equipment that you might see on Breaking Bad. Off to either side of the stainless steel–countered space were walk-in fermenting rooms filled with shelf upon shelf of burbling, masking tape–labelled jars containing strange-sounding fruit juices, misos, kombucha, garums, shoyu sauces, vinegars and basic pickled fruits. Under a counter, at the back of the lab, a centrifuge of the sort that’s typically used in blood banks was spinning a batch of spruce tip oil for the restaurant’s test kitchen; next to it, a tall, rotary evaporation still glowed high-viz green from a spiral tube of antifreeze in its uppermost part. There were canisters of liquid nitrogen and an ultrasonic homogenizer—it uses sound waves, essentially, to emulsify stuff. Several jugs of lab-grade ethanol sat tucked on a shelf, for Zilber’s supercritical fluid extractor, which ran most of the length of one wall. Zilber and White were also awaiting the delivery of a cryogenic freezer to preserve their favourite bacteria at -100°C.
A few steps away, in Noma’s greenhouse test kitchen, the restaurant’s creative team was finalizing this spring’s seafood menu. Noma does three all-new menus each year: vegetables in the summer, game in fall, seafood from winter through spring. The core creative group, composed of Redzepi and six senior chefs, had been working on seafood for most of three months. There would be a fish pie and a cod bladder salad, ravioli made from sea lettuce, and mussel cheeks—just the cheeks, mind you—served in a pot of what Zilber called “secret broth.” Jun Takahashi, a chef from Japan, was shuttling in and out of the greenhouse from a Yakatori he’d set up on its leeward wall, where he was trying to figure out how to grill marinated blocks of aspergillus oryzae mould for a sea urchin dish.
Redzepi’s role in all this is largely as creative director; he’ll often provide some vague but inspired direction, and it’s up to creative to fill in the blanks. The dishes were mostly set by now; the week before, Zilber had done his tasting. Among his duties, Zilber is Noma’s designated taster, the first chef to eat each menu from start to finish. When his colleagues presented the game and forest menu to Zilber, one of the most interesting courses was a whole, feathers-on wild duck wing that had been turned into a sort of duck meat lollipop, with a tempura-fried drumette at its end. “I was like, ‘This is crazy-beyond; this is totally Noma!’ ” recalls Zilber. “And René’s like, ‘But is it better than fried chicken?’ ‘Absolutely not,’ ” Zilber answered. The meat was too chewy for guests. His point was taken. The kitchen butchered the wings differently, with bits of breast at their ends instead of drumettes.
At 12:20 one Tuesday, creative was due in the Noma grounds’ sauna for what Redzepi called meditation—apparently an integral part of the Noma creative process. The chef sounded adamant that his creative group shouldn’t miss it. Zilber didn’t move for the door. He’s a sauna-abstainer, he said. “René once asked me why I don’t join them: ‘How come you don’t come with us, clear your mind?’ ” Zilber smiled. “I told him, ‘Because I like all the voices in my head.’ ”
One of the hardest parts of inventing as much as Zilber and his lab do is that most of their work will never appear before diners. Redzepi wants only the best of the best; that’s why Noma is as celebrated as it is. Ingredients here have to fit within a dish and within a menu, too. One of Zilber’s pet ingredients lately is a lentil miso he developed. “It’s amazing,” he says. “It’s the best miso we’ve ever made. It’s extremely fruity and floral, with a slight note of black pepper.” He hasn’t been able to find a home for it yet. The fermentation lab’s roasted chicken wing garum languished for two full years until it made its public debut. Today, it’s one of the Noma kitchen’s most frequently reached-for cheats. “I can entertain myself until the cows come home, but at some point you feel like, a man needs telos: drive, a purpose, a goal,” Zilber says. “Sometimes in the lab you’re like, ‘Oh, look at this cool thing I made!’ And everyone’s like, ‘Wow, that’s interesting.’ And then that’s the end of it.”
Late this winter, Zilber is scheduled to undergo surgery for his scoliosis. The brace he wore through his teenage years didn’t do the trick. In the last few years, he’s shrunk three centimetres. The pain has been debilitating, and 15 years on his feet in restaurant kitchens hasn’t helped. The surgeons plan to install a steel rod into his spine to remake the detour along his vertebrae into a straightaway. “It’s apparently extremely painful,” he says. His recovery should take around three months, his doctors have told him. Zilber is looking forward to tapping out. “There’s a tiredness that rests in your soul after you work at Noma for five years,” he says.
He’s been trying on restaurant ideas since his days at Rain. One early thought of his was to open a fine-dining spot that would transform into a soup kitchen in its off-hours. “Robin,” he says. “It was called Robin. Like, I would take from the rich and give to the poor. And that was my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. Her name was Molly Robin.
“I also had an idea for a restaurant called ‘Slave’ that would be like Noma but for African-American food, and delve into the anthropological history of black food in the States and Canada,” he says.
Zilber has entertained thoughts of doing a neighbourhood breakfast spot like Trinity Bellwood’s Saving Grace, but at a five-star level. And his most involved idea was a tasting-menu restaurant that would, as he describes it, “use food as a medium to talk about philosophical ideas.” For now, though, Zilber has tabled all that. The thought of opening his own place just doesn’t do it anymore. Success has made his future far less clear. “It was the first time in my life, after this book was released, that I’m like, ‘I feel fucking lost.’ It’s super strange.”
Zilber got into cooking because he didn’t have the grades to follow his actual dreams—because he didn’t feel he had better options. Now, he has them. When you’re one of the food world’s most pioneering figures as well as a bestselling author, how you did in high school doesn’t particularly matter any more.
In the mid-term, Zilber has another book to write for Noma, a collection of skills and tips from the restaurant that ordinary readers can use at home. He also has a book of his own in mind: one that might seem far out of left field if you didn’t know him. It’s a big, important narrative on black holes and entropy, solar systems, evolution, capitalism and human drives. “Expound ideas through food, feed 100 people per night,” he says. “Expound ideas through writing and feed 100,000.”
Every evening at the all-staff meeting before Noma’s guests arrive, Zilber delivers a talk to the gathered troops. For opening night of the vegetable season menu last spring, he spoke about agriculture, linking such disparate phenomena and fields as human evolution and fertility, free will, blacksmithing, sociology’s luxury trap and biotechnology into a deeply illuminating four-minute narrative. For the most recent game and forest season, he spoke on the topic of duck sex. (Money line: “The Argentinian lake duck’s penis is actually longer than its body, and many ducks have dicks comparable to a human’s in length.”) Redzepi first asked him to do the talks early last year as a sort of staff-enrichment exercise. He calls them “The Podcast.” For the launch of seafood season this past January, Zilbert riffed on the evolutionary biology of whales.
Around 11 a.m. one day during my visit, Zilber got his topic for that evening: lab-grown meat. His face lit up when he heard it. “Ah, cellular agriculture!” He looked like a kid who’d been asked to name his favourite flavour of ice cream. Now, with a good 80-odd chefs and service staff gathered around Noma’s kitchen, he pulled out his phone and started to read.
“Love a good, mid-rare steak? A juicy burger? Of course you do!” he began. His talk weaved deftly from ecology to economics, from veganism to human health to the genetic modification of microbes and the vagaries of human taste. It was smart and fluid, promiscuously multidisciplinary and undeniably personable. The words seemed to pour straight out of his brain. When he was finished, he looked up from his screen. Dinner service was about to begin. “As always,” he said, “stay curious.”
This story originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.