Fucking with people and the inability to time travel

Canadian-born Copenhagen resident, chef and photographer David Zilber makes magic in both the world of photography and the fermentation lab of world-renowned restaurant noma. MOMO The Magazine asked him about shooting on film, how he chooses titles, and when a zucchini is more than a zucchini.


MOMO: Deconstructing and creating seem to be your mode when photographing and cooking. Would you agree?

David Zilber: To answer that, I’m going to have to take a little detour, but a scenic one that delves into the history and inner workings of noma. Kitchens are top-down environments; the word may as well come from God on high, preaching to mortals below. And, especially in high-end kitchens, you find that a consistency of product is a large part of the craft. As such, cooks can become a bit, well, robotic, recreating with precision someone else’s ideas day in, day out.

When I first arrived at noma in 2014, I definitely went the safe route for the first couple of projects. But it didn’t take long for me to throw caution to the wind and start cooking… ideas or, as the director on the commentary track of my life would call it, ‘fucking with people’. One such project was titled Process and Synthesis (Analogies for Emergence). It contained some 30 different vegetables, all brunoised to a size of less than one cubic millimetre, cooked differently, and then combined to create a harmony that existed beneath each individual ingredient’s threshold of recognisability. Did it taste good? Well, ya, it really did. But further to its taste upfront, it forced you to question your own ability to discern flavours. It asked you to break apart and process the quanta of qualia, and how it is that you taste, well, at all.

To answer your question, this project of mine was a practical manifestation of the framework of synthesis via reduction – breaking something apart to build something bigger. It’s an arm of the epistemological branch of study known as reductionism. In Process and Synthesis it was taken to the extreme of its literal interpretation, but, yes, I’d say I apply it in far subtler ways in my own cooking and photography; to bodies of knowledge, aesthetics, and modes of consumption.

MOMO: You’ve previously referred to consciousness as the tool that enables you to distance yourself from the processes of life, and see the processes. What does this mean?

DZ: Consciousness and self-awareness aren’t some binary constructs, as they’re often purported to be in popular science. While many creatures in the living world are effectively biochemical robots, responding to outside stimuli mechanically, there are many creatures that couldn’t recognise themselves in a mirror but still possess some notion of ‘intent’. The concept of ‘theory of mind’ is one I think about frequently. Humans are exceptionally good at it, navigating our eusocial landscape by guessing what other people might think about our actions, using it as the mechanism to form a social contract that glues together families, communities, nations and, at the end of the day, for better or worse, a human planet over 7,5 billion strong. While humans are deft employers of this cognitive feat, we aren’t always aware that we’re actively employing it. It’s the moment that you start to think about yourself thinking that you can really hone in on the power to control thought.

‘I can’t remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I’ve eaten; even so, they’ve made me’ is a quote by [American essayist] Ralph Waldo Emerson that I love. Many of the books I’ve read have gravitated around an epistemological centre, touching on how it is we come to know the things we know. The consumption of all these epistemological texts has ended up forming the scaffolding of my worldview. It spills over into my art and what you see in the titles of my photographic works, like logical atomism, rationalism, empiricism. I try and make my way through the world one level up, seeing and critiquing systems instead of instances. Once exposed to a whole manner of epistemological theory, you can’t unsee it; it stays with you and ends up tainting your ability to analyse anything for what it is without wondering how it is at all.

In Carol Kaesuk Yoon’s book Naming Nature, a beautiful exposition on the history of taxonomy and the human relationship to the natural world, she writes, ‘We were patterned into nature before we ever discovered any of nature’s patterns.’ We navigate, and strive to contort the living world to our whims, unaware that we’re subject to the very same forces of nature we seek to control. This meta-consciousness I speak of, this ‘self-awareness’, is to me the discovery of our own pattern within nature’s grand scheme.

MOMO: You shoot on 135mm film and once it’s processed you digitise the analogue images to publish them on your website or Instagram account. Can you explain what that process means?

DZ: At an after-hours rave for the Canadian band Glass Candy well over a decade ago, I smashed my shitty digital camera in the mosh pit. That was, I believe, a Thursday night, and that weekend we were headed up to a friend’s cottage. I was no photographer back then. I owned a cheap point-and-shoot to simply document things and post them on Facebook. So without the funds to replace my Sony whatever-the-fuck, I opted to pop into a convenience store and grab the cheapest disposable camera I could find in order to keep documenting my life, especially since I was heading out of town.

That disposable camera taught me something no digital camera ever could have: it taught me to think. On returning from the trip, I probably came back with five or six good photos. I knew that photography was more than just pressing ‘click’ from that moment on. Making photos wasn’t a mechanical action after that, with the human eye being an extension of the camera’s gears and levers. It was a thought process.

Shooting on film, being restricted by the physicality of the medium, the 36 frames on a roll, forces me to see the world in a different way before I take the shot. I manufacture the photo in my mind before I release the shutter, instead of shooting first and asking questions an instantaneous moment later. I find it’s crafted an intuition about what photos to produce that simultaneously is my thumbprint as a photographer. I think no matter what you do, it’s important to have a style, an identity, a red thread through your work. My medium helps me to achieve that.

The fact that I have to digitise it afterwards only speaks to my inability to time travel, preferably to a time before the overdemocratisation and dilution of the image. But those are just the times we live in, I suppose. Truly free things travel on the paths of least resistance. Ideas and images enjoy the relatively frictionless digital world.

David Zilber Photography

MOMO: Your online photo series are named after philosophical concepts and theories. What do they mean in relation to the images?

DZ: The titles of those series are perhaps not meant to be taken at face value. As I mentioned, these epistemological frameworks, while many sit in contradiction to each other, all have the capacity to act as a lens through which you can view the world completely. To borrow an analogy from gastronomy, if you tell someone, before they take a sip of wine, that the wine is ripe with notes of cherries and plum, they’ll go looking for it, and quite probably taste it. So much of the act of tasting happens in your head, and thought, unlike the organic volatile molecule that transmits flavour, can be skewed – leading the witness, so to speak. I use the narrative power endemic to the act of naming a thing to my advantage: to get you to feel what it means to know; to question how you see, or perceive, before you think about what I was thinking or perceived at the moment I pressed ‘click’. For casual consumers of art or images, however – people who may not even be familiar with these concepts – I hope that I at the very least stir enough curiosity to get them to punch these ‘isms’ into Google, and leave their minds a hair richer at the end of the day.

MOMO: Why does being a chef work so well together with being a photographer? Is it about constructing a sensual product?

DZ: Qualia is a concept I come back to when thinking about either photos or food. And it ties into atomism experientially as well. It’s the idea that, at some point, the indivisible kernel of experience, whether that’s the experience of the colour yellow (not its wavelength in the electromagnetic spectrum) or the flavour of a mango (not the structure of the organic molecules that compose it), are at their core indivisible units within a mind, that can then be combined and accessed by a conscious agent to craft memories and experiences. The structure of the human brain is the most mysterious and complex system humans have encountered in the whole of the visible universe, but it holds that somewhere within it, all manners of qualia exist as arrangements of the structure within which they sit.

Cooking and tasting and crafting a whole out of raw parts demands you pay attention to the multi-dimensional qualia of ingredients. A zucchini is not just a zucchini. Is it spongy? Is it verdant? Is it flavoursome? Is it dry? If you keep looking for the individual quanta of quality, you’ll keep finding them, like theoretical physicists peeling back the veil of supersymmetrical subatomic particles.

How far does it go? I honestly don’t know but I’m still forced to ask myself these questions. My tendency towards abstraction in my art is informed by the same logic – forcing the distillation of a scene on the viewer, whether that be a moment in time, a colour or a part that begs to be reconstituted in a whole. Using this thought process, out of the ordinary springs the emotional, in both food and art. If the sensual is born of the senses, then, yes, my work is sensual.

So much of the act of tasting happens in your head, and thought, unlike the organic volatile molecule that transmits flavour, can be skewed – leading the witness, so to speak.

MOMO: How important are the titles of your photographs and the names of your dishes? For example, the title Recidivism, which means the tendency to repeat a previous mode, behaviour or condition.

DZ: I think I landed on Recidivism [for my photo journal] because I wanted to start doing something I would keep doing – reoffending without learning from my mistakes. Ironically, my practice has invariably been informed by all the mistakes I’ve made, but I suppose that’s why they call it a practice, as if you were never supposed to play that cumulative master symphony, but only ever strive to hit every note without falter. But the unattainability of perfection demands that you fail again and again and again…

I think I’ve answered what the titles of some of my photographs should do to an observer, but as for food, the opulent description of ingredients is anathema to how I use the power of a name. The world of food has taken a sharp turn in the past couple of decades to a selectively parsimonious mode of description, where only the ingredients more pertinent to the chef’s ego make their way onto the card – take ‘Squab / fermented grain / nitro grapefruit’ as a strawman. The new Nordic movement, and René Redzepi particularly, reacted to this by weaving stories through dish descriptions more and more, tying brief histories into mouthfuls – ‘A dish of grilled pike with last year’s pickles’, as another example.

For me, this still doesn’t go far enough. I strive to unshackle food as a medium only able to communicate immediately to its constituent parts. Beyond antiquity, modern-art history is strewn with great painters like Carl Plansky who made their own pigments to make their own art. And while we appreciate that, we don’t revel solely in the quality of their colours, but in their ability to compound meaning with them. I strive to, one day, without having to eschew one bit of what I’ve learned about seasonality, quality or ethics, do the same with food.

David Zilber Photography

David Zilber Photography

David Zilber Photography

David Zilber Photography

MOMO: Is there a Canadian dish you always miss when abroad?

DZ: Canada is a mashup of cultures. It’s a rich country for gastronomy but not in the way France or Mexico or Japan is rich. In lacking a deep edible cultural history of its own, Canadian food has come to be whatever all the immigrants who come to Canada choose to cook, and how they reinterpret their own culinary histories. That said, yes, I miss Jamaican patties like ya dunno.

MOMO: What’s the importance of creating a dining experience?

DZ: What you put in your mouth is not the be-all and end-all of dining.

While flavour and deliciousness are one of the biggest contributing factors to how you remember the meals you’ve eaten, it’s not actually what you’re remembering. In the media and pop culture, we usually talk about genes like lines of code in Visual Basic that tell a computer program what shape to spit out on a screen. But in reality, most genes are actually polygenes, strips of code in different locations, hodgepodged together to elicit some phenotypic effect.

In restaurants it’s the same thing. You can talk about how delicate the brown-butter soufflé was on the palate, but truly, you’d be remiss not to mention the temperature of the room,

the smell of the leather banquette, the weight of the cutlery, the light- ing outside at the time of day or the feel of the wooden table on your arms as you ate… The experience of eating is informed by countless unconscious minutiae.

Fine dining is not just fine food; it’s the attention to detail that accumulates in a long trail to create something bigger than the sum of each part. Striving for excellence in restaurants is expending an inordinate amount of time fretting about details that no one will notice. And I love it.

MOMO: Can you pair photographs and dishes?

DZ: I think you can. And I also think it can be extremely tacky. Art and food have never made for successful, and especially not seamless, bedfellows. There are a few chefs in history who’ve attempted it, Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena being a personal hero for how deftly and far he pushes it. I have a few ideas on how it could be achieved, but I’d like to play those cards a little close to my chest.

MOMO: What is the essence for you of being a chef?

DZ: At this level, it’s an all-encompassing way of life. Any time I eat out, I’m analysing the details of the establishment I’d be expected to pick up second-nature at noma. Any time I go for a hike, I find myself picking weeds up off the ground and eating the terrain of whatever place I’m in. It becomes a Gesamt-kunstwerk – a total work of art, like total war, that requires all parts of your corporeal economy to focus on the front.

David Zilber Photography