David Zilber on David Zilber

Words & Images: David Zilber

March 13 2016

How am I not myself. That was a line from I Heart Huckabees I’ve always appreciated. Sure, the scene is hilarious and Naomi Watts is trending right now, but it’s gripping because it removes the subject from the situation. It forces duality upon the asker. So I’m interviewing myself here. In this first paragraph, it’s a bit difficult to separate the questioner from the respondent. It feels like mitosis. How am I not myself?

Well for one, if you’re asking the questions, Imma be a bit dickish to you, because I feel like the part of myself that needs to posture, and make face and be polite to the guests at the table at Noma can stay way the fuck over there, and I can be me. I’ll take the worst part of me off of me. Molt a bit, you know? Like soft shell crabs in season, a bit vulnerable, a bit fuck you.

Okay then Dave! I’ll try not to offend you too much, or offend you by being too sensitive.
You’ll fail.

Great! On with the show. So tell us where you were born. Who are you?
My name is David Chaim Jacob Zilber. That name won the Most Jewish Name award on a tour of Israel with forty other Jews. The only black kid on the bus. I sat at the back by choice, that’s where the cool kids were. Me and Adrian the babe mathematician with the lazy eye. My dad is the son of two Polish Jews who spent the war hiding in Siberia, and immigrated to Canada once the dust settled. My mom was born in Curacao and moved to Canada when she was twenty. I was born in Toronto in the fall of ’85. Challenger blew up a couple months later. I grew up in a high density neighborhood just off Don Mills. Snow lived not far away. He used to babysit my neighbors. A licky boom boom.

And where are you now?
Right now I’m in Sydney, Australia. But I live, for the most part, in Copenhagen. Noma, the restaurant at which I work has taken to moving itself around the world for the past couple years. Last year was Tokyo. You’re usually so chained down as a chef. Restaurants are most always bound to one place. I feel very fortunate to work for someone who sees a deep value in seeing the world. I’ve been more places in the past year than I have my whole life. The only continent I have seen in the past 12 months has been South America.

How’s Australia?
It feels like hot Canada.

Where do you like to be?
I really do enjoy Copenhagen. It feels very much like home. Definitely the best, most livable city I’ve ever inhabited. Canada and Australia are both too new. They stumble to self identify. America is great but fucked for obvious reasons. Europe gets it, I find.

So you do a lot of things, you’ve modeled, you’re a photographer, a chef, you write a bit. In an interview with the CBC, they once called you a polymath –
You’re a self aggrandizing penis.

Anyway, was there a question?

Yes, why don’t you feel limited to just one field? Cheffing seems to be more than enough of a job for most, why stretch yourself thin?
Can I talk about consciousness for a second?

Sure, I mean I asked about what you do but if you want to dive off the deep end in the first five minutes, by all means…
Ok great. SO the best understanding of consciousness’ role in the scope of humans as organisms seems to be the UI, or User Interface if you will, of the human mind. The conscious mind is the story we tell ourselves of who we are in order to construct a coherent narrative and the illusion of agency. Now, I say illusion here, because there’s a lot of evidence in neurology and psychology that the you-you attributes to you isn’t really that much you. A lot of you is the structure of the brain itself. It’s the shit that happens in the background that you aren’t aware of. Your subconscious, intuitive self makes decisions fractions of a second (in the physics of brains, seconds are eons) before your conscious self is has registered that it wants what it wants. The you-you gets to have the satisfaction of thinking it made the decision in order to keep you in control; in order for you to get through your environment with purpose and motives and identity. These are all hugely important driving factors for an agent, and as such, the illusion doesn’t feel like such an illusion. If fact, it’s such a good illusion, it isn’t an illusion at all. It’s complete. It’s your existence. It works. Now, the thing to understand about this whole setup of the human mind is that it places you in the world, not as a part of it, but as an individual set to act upon it. They’ve got a word for this in German, Germans ALWAYS have a word – the Umwelt. Your worldview. People today define themselves by what they do. Jobs are not just jobs anymore, they’re identities. Chefs live the #cooklife, welders #dropdimes, police officers #bleedblue… It’s a view of ourselves that offers us community, social currency, legitimization. It’s extremely restrictive. If I’m a chef first, it’s only because it’s the thing that takes up the most time in my life. You can’t really get around that. The fashion, the artworks, those things carry a permanence that can exist even while I’m deep cleaning the dehydrators at 8 in the morning. The cheffing takes up the most hours of the day. And that’s fine. It’s good to be occupied. But in all these things that I do, I have a deep awareness of the direction of the currents I’m situated within, and tend to be deeply critical of them. I’ll often keep my opinions to myself about these matters, but this self aware heads up display allows me to, in a way, I guess, be more disconnected to the things I do. Less defined by them… but not in any way that hinders my ability to perform these tasks. I just feel it much more informative to ask why you do any of the things you do, than to take them for granted. Even the things you enjoy doing. Basically, a hyperactive prefrontal cortex makes me feel, well, less restricted.

Would you rather be a photographer first?
I mean, if my life panned out that way, I wouldn’t be too upset at all, but the cooking had the biggest head start. So I cook. It’s all a bit counterfactual to count the what-ifs I think.

Can you talk about your style of cooking?
My style? I dunno, I’ve never run my own kitchen. I mean, I’ve run kitchens, but not my own. As a chef at this level, you can spend your whole life under the thumb of someone else, and that’s fine. But you never really know what sort of chef you are until you have to answer the hard questions. How early do I want my staff to start? How little money can I make and keep the business viable? Those hard questions are the ones that really define you as a chef. Talent aside. They’re the fixed costs, the ones that restrict you and can force you to make creative compromises. As for food itself when I’m cooking? Acidity, heat, lightness. I feel like the properties of ingredients in the Mediterranean diet are some of the best on earth, and are by no means limited to the Mediterranean terroir. It’s a template. The food we’re doing here at Noma Australia is very much analogous, but wildly different. I resonate with that. On another note, the idea of a deeply subversive restaurant, with all the required trimmings and pedigree that served its whole menu vegetarian, or even vegan, without telling a soul is very attractive to me. If it’s delicious, it’s delicious. It doesn’t matter if you like meat or not. If you come in, lick your 12 – 15 plates clean, and leave feeling full and satisfied, I’ve done my job, and not a single sentient being would have to die for that to happen. The subversive moment happens after the fact, as a realization in lieu of the lack of aforementioned information. All vegetarian restaurants proudly raise their flags and trumpet their achievements (and most of them are pretty shit too). It’s cunning to make a guest have an ‘Ah HA!’ moment. I’m not a vegetarian myself. In fact, I used to be a butcher. Maybe that’s why I think it’s such a good idea. Oh, and that Cowspiracy documentary, while true, is an inflammatory piece of biased garbage.

Speaking of garbage, can you talk about your style of photography?
Ya, I take pictures of garbage. But not just. Buildings, people, in situ garbage structures as well, but mostly garbage I guess. I work with diptychs a lot. It’s an amazing communicative tool, the diptych; especially in the digital realm. You can’t imagine the thought that goes into laying the page order in a photo book. On Instagram, that’s all but stripped away. That’s why I like two pictures. You force a dialogue – you can’t just consume a photo, you have to digest it. I think a friend of mine said it best at a photo projection exhibition I took part in a few years back in Vancouver. “They’re, really… funny.” I feel as though I’ve succeeded in my art if I can make garbage and curbside happenings cause you to emote. But it’s often a product of the photos’ togetherness than their individual existence.

And you still shoot film? Why? An iPhone 6 takes pictures as sharp as your Cannon no? I mean, have you seen those ads?
But the process is different. Eggleston said he only ever takes one shot. Because the moment you take two, it’s no longer a problem of creating, it’s a problem of editing. You’ve removed yourself from the act by one order of magnitude. By shooting film (of which I’m a fan when it comes to palette, and minutiae) you restrict your self. Not just in frames, but also monetarily. Every shot is worth more, space isn’t free on a roll of cellulose. So you think more before you take the shot. And that’s the first step, beyond that, you start to see the world differently, and that worldview feeds heavily into the style of your finished product. I don’t even think they’re different to be honest.
What photos are you most proud of?

After my first group show in NYC, my name was getting around and I got picked up to do some editorial work for Subbacultcha! Magazine out of Amsterdam, shooting west coast bands in Vancouver. My first commission was Teen Daze. We spent a whole rainy day walking through the forest together in the outskirts of Vancouver. Subbacultcha liked the photos so much they used a few of them in a retrospective of the magazine that was being held at the Foam Photography Museum in The Netherlands. The museum liked them so much they took them into their permanent collection. I liked them too.

What’s your job at Noma?
I’m a Sous Chef working in Fermentation as well as Research and Development. There’s a whole lab back in Copenhagen, nicknamed the Science Bunker. It’s comprised of four chopped up shipping containers, seven rooms that are all temperature and humidity controlled. Imagine one big ongoing science experiment. Trying everything. The shotgun approach. Postulate a hypothesis, try every possible permutation, see what sticks. Reverse engineering Vegemite was a fun task, we did that for the menu here in Australia. We have Lactobacillus ferments, (think sauerkraut), we make our own vinegar, our own fish sauces, and a mold called Koji is very dear to our hearts as well. We use it in everything. It’s what the Japanese use to ferment rice and sweeten it before it becomes miso or sake… So ya, that’s my day job more or less.

Reading anything good right now?
A book that’s a pretty good tour de force on quantum mechanics. The Quantum Universe: Everything that Can Happen Does Happen, by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. It’s a bit of a mind fuck. I’ve been familiar with these ideas for the majority of my life but still, the implications are daunting for feeble human minds. I really do enjoy reading books that strive to explain the world though, more than fiction by a large margin. They can be so revelatory. The sense of wonder you experience when you start to make your own connections about the inverse square law, or equilibrium systems… it’s a high.

Is there anything else I should know about us?
I thought you took the fairly safe scenic route.

Well should we wrap up then?
It’s one in the morning here in Sydney, and I have to be up clean abalone real soon. So ya, we should get some rest.

You can find more of David’s photography online