David Zilber
Chef, Fermenter, Author
Dojo Portrait

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Hannah Kuhlmann

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“Reading is the sole best way to advance in and through this world.”

WHAT’S THAT ONE PRACTICE THAT HAS CHANGED YOUR LIFE THAT YOU WANT TO SHARE WITH US? It was a piece of advice I didn’t quite understand at the age of 18, in cooking school. It was delivered by this absolute dinosaur of a chef, who no longer taught practical sessions, just lectured about his days working the potage section of haute French countryside chateaus in the ’60s and ’70s. One day he said, “READING is the best way to advance in this industry.” He was right. It didn’t even have to be cookbooks for me as a chef. And it doesn’t have to be industry related to whatever industry you’re in. Reading is the sole best way to advance in and through this world.

DO YOU WORK AND LIVE IN THE SAME PLACE, IF SO, HOW DOES THIS WORK FOR YOU? The cooking part? No. But I do sometimes write from home. That said, I much prefer writing in a busy café. White noise and din are the spinach to my Popeye.


WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE UNREALIZED PROJECT? I think one day when I’m full and content and have nothing left to prove. I’ll open a little breakfast spot. It’d be great. I’ll call it “Dave’s Apartment”. Until then…

WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU’VE BEEN GIVEN? Make your mistakes quickly.

HOW ARE YOU ABLE TO CREATE YOUR MOST AUTHENTIC QUALITY WORK? By collaborating and interfacing with my colleagues. Not to be arrogant, but there’s this old saying, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, find a different room”. At Noma, I came to be known as “the smart guy”, but that’s not to say I didn’t constantly learn tons from my knowledgeable colleagues. But maybe I was book-smart about things lots of cooks typically aren’t. At Chr. Hansen, the only time I’m the smartest person in the room is when I’m alone. My colleagues now are all former University professors, people with MBAs in food technology, doctors, and Ph.D. candidates. I RARELY need to resort to Google when I have questions about the niche things in my field anymore. That said, I also get to teach my colleagues tons about what I know inside out! Cooking is my forte; science is theirs. There’s this old Dilbert comic strip that makes jokes about incompetence in the workplace but then, in typical Dilbert style, delivers a profound observation “There’s so much knowledge in the world, you’ll never find someone smart about everything, so in that way, we’re all pretty dumb. What’s important to figure out is who’s smart about what.”

WHAT ARE YOU THE MOST PROUD OF IN YOUR SPACE? I would have to say the space itself. My test kitchen/laboratory at Chr. Hansen (the storied, 150-year-old Danish company) is truly unique. The company is laser-focused on doing one thing well; specializing in microbes for food fermentation. But if you look up Chr. On the stock exchange, Hansen is listed as a bioscience company, which is odd to me. That specialty means that selecting, breeding, and growing strains of bacteria and yeast for food fermentation is their main bag, but the microbiology of it all doesn’t negate the fact that the company ultimately employs living organisms in food production. Beyond the extraordinary ladies running the canteen, up until 2020, this massive food production company, employing over 3000 people worldwide, had no chef in their ranks. That’s where I came in. The test kitchen/lab I designed on their campus and built in 2021 is a virgin sandbox to explore the world of food fermentation not just primarily through science but now also from the starting point of recipes, culture, and flavor.

WHAT IS YOUR ESSENTIAL ARTIST’S TOOL? That’s got to be my 4-Star Henckel chef’s knife. I bought in advance of my first day in a professional kitchen at 18 with a student tools loan, have sharpened maybe 15% of its weight off, lost it twice, gotten it back as many times… It’s just indestructible. And while I’m not using it as much now as I did at 25, it can still carve up a mean cabbage when needed.

Petra Kleis