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How I Got My Job: Running Noma’s Fermentation Lab

How David Zilber found his niche in the culinary world

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In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: David Zilber.

Young cooks — or, really, young people in any field — have much to learn from David Zilber’s career. As head of the Fermentation Lab at Noma, Zilber is in charge of experimenting with and creating the unique ingredients like pea miso or rose kombucha that have come to define Renė Redzepi’s world-renowned restaurant. Zilber regularly shares his discoveries on the Fermentation Lab’s Instagram account and, last year, he and Redzepi co-wrote a book about their work, The Noma Guide to Fermentation.

It’s one of the most interesting (and prestigious) jobs in the culinary world — and one that Zilber earned not just through the classic combination of hard work, experience, and talent, but by constantly teaching himself new things, taking risks, and embracing the sciences. “It can sometimes feel like all there is is gastronomy,” he says. “But the world is so much bigger than that. So much of gastronomy is informed by mechanisms, sciences, and natural laws that sit just beyond the horizon of recipes and cultures that make up the world of food. Some of the biggest insights into my job have come from the fields of economics or cognitive science.”

In the following Q&A, Zilber traces the arc of his career path from a cooking apprenticeship he took on as a high schooler in Toronto to his decision to leave Canada to see if he could make it in Copenhagen. He also shares the wisdom he’s gleaned through experiences like dropping out of culinary school, dealing with the criminally low pay of restaurant jobs, and becoming an omnivorous reader.

Eater: What does your job involve?

David Zilber: My job involves a lot, I guess. Technically my title is Director of Fermentation, and that means I’m in charge of Noma’s scientifically oriented research and development kitchen.

Noma has two R&D kitchens: the Test Kitchen, which invents the actual dishes our guests eat, and the Fermentation Lab, which supplies the Test Kitchen with novel ingredients to make those dishes with. Within that scope, my team and I look to all areas of food science to find new and interesting things for the chefs in the Test Kitchen to work with. That could be a new vinegar or kombucha using a microbe we’ve never encountered before, or a new way of holding an emulsion together using technology; we work within pretty nebulous boundaries.

Beyond that, I run the Noma Ferments Instagram account, publishing our successes and failures as way of informing the public about what we do. I’m also responsible for writing all of the recipes at Noma and standardizing them, serving as a sort of in-between for the Service Kitchen’s cooks and the Test Kitchen’s stack of handwritten notebooks. And, of course, [I’m in charge of] everything that went into and continues to go into the production of The Noma Guide to Fermentation; fielding questions; doing workshops and speaking events (spreading the gospel so to speak); as well as putting together the next book… whatever that may be.

What did you originally want to do when you started your career?

When I started cooking at the age of 18 in Toronto, I was surrounded by passionate young chefs who’d cooked for the likes of Ferran Adrià or Nobu Matsuhisa. I thought I was going to be running my own restaurant by the age of 27, doing my own version of fine dining food and expressing my own ideas. I’d set this sort of arbitrary goal for myself. Ironically, I didn’t even know how to cook back then, so while it was great to have dreams they were maybe a tad ill-informed.

Where I actually ended up at 27 was probably a much healthier place career-wise than venturing out on my own unprepared. I was the sous chef of Canada’s best restaurant, Hawksworth in Vancouver, helping to run dinner service, create menus, and be part of an amazing team. I don’t know if I’ll ever have my own restaurant anymore — my life has definitely deviated from the original plan — but you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Did you go to culinary school or college? If so, would you recommend it?

The program that got me into cooking in my last year of high school was an apprenticeship program that provided a crash course in cooking and then lots of on-the-job training in a high-end restaurant. I had the opportunity to continue on that path and get my Red Seal [a prestigious Canadian certification program endorsing a person’s skills and experience in their trade so they can work anywhere in the country without further examinations], but opted to keep working.

Still, my parents, Baby Boomers that they are, thought a piece of paper was valuable no matter where you went, so I enrolled in the culinary diploma program at a Toronto college. I didn’t want to give up my job, though, as the restaurant where I’d done my placement had hired me as a commis. So I did both and ended up working 90 hours a week between the two and getting really sick because of it after just a couple months. I had to make a tough decision, but opted to stay in the kitchen, which I think was the right choice. I was cooking circles around all my peers in school and, whenever we’d see new hires in the restaurant who’d been in school longer than I’d been cooking, I’d be cooking circles around them too.

Cooking can be theoretical, sure, anything can. But in practice, it is far more an example of the expert rule: Give me two hypothetical candidates, one with 10,000 hours in a kitchen and one with 10,000 hours spent reading cookbooks, and I can plainly tell you which one will succeed.

On top of that, I’ve met a lot of cooks who are crippled by the debt of expensive schools and come out the gates only to make minimum wage. Why pay for an education when you could be paid for it? The choice is clear for me.

That said — COMMIT. You won’t learn anything by hopping around restaurants every six months. You will by coming up the ranks of a solid establishment and learning what it means to depend on your peers, build something together. You’ll also learn the importance of teamwork doing everything from covering a sick dishwasher to calculating food cost.

What would you have done differently at school or paid more attention to?

Not attended in the first place!

Student loans are such a part of the conversation around higher education right now. Has your career trajectory been impacted by debt in any way?

Mine, no, because I opted to stay in the workplace instead of striving for a diploma. I did pay for that one semester of school I attended, but it wasn’t a significant amount. But I have seen a lot of young cooks accrue debt while slaving away in expensive cities they basically can’t afford to live in. While I’m sure cooking schools have improved greatly since I attended one in 2004 — and there are many passionate and well-intentioned instructors out there — there is no replacement for on-the-job experience. Make your mistakes on someone else’s dime. What is being a kitchen apprentice if not that?

What was your first job? What did it involve?

I was a commis at Rain Restaurant in Toronto. It was one of Canada’s best, and the Rubino brothers who ran it were painfully cool back in the early aughts. They had their own show about the restaurant on the Food Network! It was all very posh, pan-Asian cuisine. The food was very tall. There were a LOT of garnishes. I was effectively a commis, running one of two garde manger sections that plated all the cold accoutrements for the cooks on the hot line — lots of deep-fried crispy spindles, baskets made of julienned taro root, simple sauces like togarashi sabayon and the like.

I was 18 and had never had a job before in my life, let alone set foot in a fine dining restaurant. But my first sous chef, Luigi Encarnacion, a Filipino hip-hop nerd with a lot of style, took me under his wing. We’re still friends to this day, and he really did look out for me, teaching me how to act in a kitchen, what to care about, and how to do a good job. But most importantly, he taught me how to teach, which is something I’ve paid forward many times over. It’s the only way this industry propels itself: good cooks teaching promising apprentices how to become good cooks.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?

Pay. When I started cooking, I earned $564 Canadian every two weeks. My rent was $600. Looking back, even though I was young, my income was for sure below the poverty line. It was a struggle to save any money or even have food in the apartment, which I shared with three other guys. It’s a bit unjust how little we value the work that goes into producing food, whether that’s a young chef or a farm hand. We could all live without Facebook. We couldn’t live without food.

When was the first time you felt successful?

I think when I nailed my first medium rare steak after I’d been moved to the grill. There’s something powerful about realizing that you understand something ineffable about the world of cuisine — that someone’s taken the time to demonstrate to you how all of the minute pieces of experience fit together to do something tangible. I was on the new section for not even a week and the chef had asked to cook up a veal chop to try it with some new accoutrement. He sliced into it on the pass, and it really was a perfectly cooked medium rare. Not bad for a 19-year-old. And he told me as much.

Did you have any setbacks? What were they?

In my career? Not huge ones. There were instances where I felt as though I wasn’t working for a chef I truly wanted to learn from, or that things at a job felt as if they were stagnating. But overall, if I was ever in a less-than-ideal situation, I’d try to bounce back and not dwell on it or in it for too long. You always have the power to change your situation. It may feel uncomfortable at times, but that’s the point of moving forward.

What was the turning point that led to where you are now?

Taking the leap and applying to Noma. The winter before I sent off my application, I hunkered down and saved up enough cash to be able to afford making the jump overseas. Getting out of Canada —which, don’t get me wrong, has tons of great food but just isn’t on the same level internationally as places like Denmark, France, or the United States even — was the best thing I ever did in my career. It’s frightening to leave your whole support group behind, but if you trust in your own development, it always ends up working out.

What were the most important skills that got you there?

Reading. Self education. Determination. I can’t emphasize enough how valuable it is to teach yourself things no one else in your immediate surroundings will. And branch out — don’t only read about ONE topic. Be a generalist. Read about a lot of different things. We’re omnivores in our diets; we should all be in our learning, too.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

My ability to play, create, and explore. I feel so fortunate that Renė truly believes that R&D is worth its expense. Noma, I’m sure, could make it much further into the black each year if we didn’t have three salaries in a lab full of the restaurant’s most expensive equipment. BUT, Noma wouldn’t be Noma if that was the case, and everybody knows that. Everything we make for the restaurant — from pantry staples like pea miso or rose kombucha, to bespoke experiments like meadowsweet extract or white currant juice emulsions — always starts as an idea, an experiment in the mind of a chef. And that’s the most important (and favorite!) part of my job, coming up with an endless mental list of things to try out in the hopes of striking gold.

What’s one of the coolest things you’ve gotten to do?

In 2015, the lab’s team got to head down to Zimbabwe to assist Chido Govera, who runs a home for young girls and a mushroom farm, with the launch of her Future of Hope Foundation. It was 10 days of taking in the African landscape and foodscape, working with the most amazing children, togetherness, and the exchange of ideas. My job is always surprising me with interesting opportunities, but this trip will stick with me for years to come.

How are you making change in your industry?

There are so many people out there who achieve fame or notoriety for being in the right place at the right time, or are famous for being famous and have nothing of value to add to the wider conversation. Imagine if our rockstars were all scientists instead of vapid performers.

So if I’m getting any attention for my work, you can be damn sure I’m going to say exactly what I mean, and inform myself, at a deep level, about the issues at hand. If I’m inspiring cooks or amateurs to not just ferment, but to see the natural world through a grander lens of interconnected parts, then I’m doing all I could hope for.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?

“You are your own business.” It’s absolutely true. No one out there will go the extra mile for you. No one will put in the extra work on your behalf to propel you further in the field. That’s something you can only do yourself. And the dividends do pay off eventually if you’re smart about it.

What advice would you give someone who wants your job?

My job is one of kind. My advice? Be one of a kind as well.

Amy McKeever is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
Photo of David Zilber: Asmund Sollihøgda
llustrations from the Noun Project: camera by Dhika Hernandita; covered dish by Made by Made; wine by Made by Made; lightbulb by Maxim Kulikov; hand writing by Pongsakorn.