With their first cookbook aimed at home chefs, Noma is taking things slow. Really slow. Coauthored by chef and co-owner René Redzepi and Noma’s fermentation lab director David Zilber, The Noma Guide to Fermentation shares recipes that take several months to complete. The Copenhagen eatery boasts two Michelin stars and many consider it one of the world’s best restaurants. We caught up with Zilber as he passed through Boston last week.
You’re the director of Noma’s fermentation lab. What are the best and worst parts of occupying that role? Even though we call ourselves a fermentation lab, we’re not just relegated to these ancient techniques and figuring those things out, [we’re] also a long term scientific research facility. There’s a quote that I love, that I often think about at work: “A blank piece of paper is God’s way of saying it’s not easy being God.” It’s a lofty philosophical proverb, but you know the act of being charged with creating something that’s never been made before, there isn’t necessarily path we have the luxury to follow. It can be daunting sometimes. What do I spend my time on? What do I spend my energy on? And then how do you come up with new things to keep impressing one of the world’s best chefs who’s been doing what he’s been doing for 15 years?
Over the last decade, Noma has often been called “the world’s best restaurant.” How did you go about writing a cookbook that showcases Noma’s techniques without intimidating home cooks? Uh, good editors? [Laughs] The first draft of this book was much more ambitious. The first time my publisher laid eyes on it, she was like, “I am just…impressed with how much work you’ve done.” And I was like, “Wait, is that a compliment? I don’t think that was a compliment.” Even though [Redzepi] might not have been the one to tend to the details of what’s happening with each ferment and things like that, his contribution to the more technical parts of the book was him honing in, so to speak. His ability to communicate ideas clearly and understanding who this intended audience is really helped to streamline my editing process.
What’s the most unusual ferment recipe in The Noma Guide to Fermentation, and why should people venture out of their comfort zones to try it? I would say possibly grasshopper garum. Asking people to eat insects in the West is already like, “Eeeuggh!” But there’s a pet store in every major city, and they all carry grasshoppers, so you can get them. And if you make it, that’s probably as accessible as grasshoppers will ever be, when you have them in this fermented paste that tastes of chocolate, mole, shellfish and soy sauce all at once. It’s probably the best tasting way you could eat an insect. It might seem freaky, but lobsters used to be the wretch of the ocean. [Eating lobster] a hundred years ago was punishment. It’s like, “Oh, eat this dredged from the bottom of the sea!” and now they’re a delicacy. It’s interesting how food taboos and people’s perceptions of strange things, especially when it comes to the sanctity or purity of the things that you consume, change over time.
Every day, one in three Americans eat fast food. Some of the ferments in your book take months to create. What role do you envision fermentation playing in American kitchens against that larger cultural backdrop? Fermentation is probably [against] the spirit of the modern day. There’s no alert and notification button that’s gonna pop up on your news page. It would take three months for the “bing!” But it’s fine. People kinda freak out. They’re like, “Oh, I don’t know if I can invest the time,” as if making this thing somehow requires your complete attention for weeks on end, and that’s not the case. Maybe it’s the last analog thing in an extremely digital world. And great, I guess this is becoming trendy — and I hate to talk about it in those terms — it’s becoming popularized or having a moment. Good! Maybe it’ll get us back to, like, actually getting our hands in the dirt and remembering where we came from.