If there weren’t a pandemic and I could be transported anywhere right now, I would go to Copenhagen. More specifically to Noma’s temporary outdoor wine bar to taste their new vegan veggie burger. However, if there weren’t a pandemic, then this extraordinary vegan burger might not exist!
The new burger was created by David Zilber, Noma’s Director of Fermentation and the co-author of The New York Times best-selling book The Noma Guide to Fermentation. Fueling a Nordic cooking revolution since its inception in the early 2000s, Noma is known to be among the best restaurants in the world.
I spoke with David about Noma’s recent reopening, and his hand in the creation of what many are describing as the best veggie burger they’ve ever eaten. David’s curiosity is truly infectious and inspiring. In addition to the burger, we discussed his ideas and philosophy around vegetables, climate change, and eating for a better world.
David told me that when the pandemic hit in Copenhagen, Noma was closed within a week. At the time, Noma’s chef and co-owner René Redzepi was actually stuck in Mexico with his family. It took some time for him to get back, but when he did the Noma team started to brainstorm ways to stay afloat during this uncertain time.
As he was creating the plant-based burger he set a high bar for himself, pondering the question, ‘How good can we make vegan taste in between two pieces of bread?’
René suggested putting together a kind of food stand and developing some burger recipes for it. When the team settled on the concept, René shared their plan on social media:
Copenhagen is about to reopen its restaurants. And so will Noma. However before we reopen Noma as we know it. We will transform into a no reservation, drop in only, wine and burger bar. We feel in the first phase of the reopening that we want to be open for all. We need to heal, So let’s have a glass and a burger, you’re all invited.
David, along with two Noma sous chefs, Stu Stalker and Eoghan Coady, put their heads together for the menu. They agreed that there needed to be a veggie option and David felt confident in taking the lead. As he was creating the plant-based burger he set a high bar for himself, pondering the question, “How good can we make vegan taste in between two pieces of bread?” Combining his fascination with plant-based ingredients, and his brain — which is a veritable encyclopedia of fermentation techniques — he envisioned a veggie burger with the perfect texture, juiciness, crustiness, umami, and caramelization.
His idea started with a taste memory from a festival he attended in Sweden. There, David tried a slider made out of quinoa-tempeh. “It wasn’t the best,” he recalled, “But that’s a fun thing about being a chef at this level: when you taste something that isn’t quite right and you know what needs to happen to make it amazing.” He headed into the fermentation lab to create a masterpiece.
David has a command of both the art and science of fermentation. From studying traditional preparations from Malaysian and Indonesian traditions, he knew that there are a handful of different rhizospheres strains used to make tempeh. The most common, oligosporus, is one he’d worked with many times previously. He told me that often, when developing a recipe, you’ll come to a fork in the road where there is a 50/50 chance you’ll choose the “right” option with your first try. Luckily, oligosporus ended up being the first and right choice to inoculate the quinoa-based burger.
He shared in a social media post:
To keep tempeh’s alkaline funk at bay, we offset the ammonia produced by the mold’s ability to cut proteins into peptides with lactic acid powder, neutralizing it upon creation. After a day, the mycelium webs together the grains in a way that feels like ground beef without being it. By fermenting open air instead of wrapped, the tempeh sheds enough moisture to not be wet (thus searing beautifully) but retains enough to stay juicy after cooking.
The plant kingdom is where there is new and exciting ground to break in the culinary world. Through cooking vegetables, ‘you can show people an alternate universe.’
During our conversation, David elaborated on his creative process. “Next, I knew that I needed to make the right glaze and I turned once again to fungus — specifically, to yeast garum, which is an offshoot of marmite. You get all of this vegan umami with it.” Noma makes its yeast garum from scratch and you can find the recipe in their fermentation book. “You don’t miss anything [about a meat burger], you just get the flavors from different domains,” David explained.
Innovation is a defining characteristic of the restaurant. In normal times, the restaurant bases its menu around three different seasons, with a vegetable-focused menu running from summer to early fall. “Actually, my favorite kind of cooking at Noma is vegetarian,” David shared, “We’ve always accommodated vegetarians and vegans, even during game and forest season, — but of course, the experience is better for all parties when they come during the summer vegetable season.”
From David’s point of view, the plant kingdom is where there is new and exciting ground to break in the culinary world. Vegetables require and deserve the same kind of respect as any other food group or style of cooking. Through cooking vegetables, “you can show people an alternate universe.”
David’s interests in food reach beyond innovations in flavor. He cares deeply about being part of a sustainable, ethical food system:
I think we all need to slow down. I think that the climate crisis is the pace of our existence. In the same way that we had to flatten the curve of the virus, we also need to flatten the curves within ourselves. There is a carrying capacity to any system of give-and-take, where at the end of the day […], harm will always be inflicted — but it’s about how much harm you draw from that system. If we are smart enough as a society we will be able to come to terms with our vices.
‘There is an opportunity within every crisis to drop the chains that bind you and imagine another way.’
Throughout his career, he has visited all kinds of farms, giving him an understanding of where food comes from. He wants to see more farms where animals are allowed to grow old and are treated like pets. He also emphasized that “everyone needs to eat a whole lot less meat.” In other words, we all need to eat more plants and explore this alternative universe.
I asked if he had anything else he would like to share with a vegan audience. “Most vegans I’ve met are very friendly. I’m not trying to stir the pot — well I’m always trying to stir the pot a little bit, but there’s a strange reaction I’ve seen towards the burger, a slight hullabaloo from some vegetarians who have been doing this a long time [and] are angsty about it.” David feels strongly that we’re all in this together and encourages the plant-based crowd to be happy when they see things moving in the right direction.
The more voices singing the same song will create a resounding message. “We’re all going to feel the crunch this year, some more than others,” David reflects on the pandemic’s impact. “There is an opportunity within every crisis to drop the chains that bind you and imagine another way.”
Thinking about the jar of soybeans in my pantry, and the unopened tempeh spores I had sitting in my fridge, I asked David to share some tips for aspiring yet apprehensive tempeh-makers. He emphasized that, yes, there is definitely some work to be done to ensure you will end up with tempeh that is more than just a fun project, but also something you will actually want to eat.
The first tip he shared was to use some kind of acid in the process, such as added to the cooking water for beans. Also, he told me to be sure to find a warm place to ferment the tempeh. It’s a food from the tropics, and thrives in the heat. Try tucking it underneath a radiator covered with a towel, or set it on your hot water heater at home.
In addition to his work with Noma, David often cooks vegan and vegetarian meals at home. David’s favorite thing to make with vegetables? “Lasagne. Give me five different vegetables and I will put it into a delicious lasagne. There is just something about eating all of those layers…”
David’s accomplishments are far-reaching and I can’t wait to see what he creates next. As a conversationalist, he connects the dots in a way that only an extraordinary and radical mind can do: “This pandemic has taught me that people are not black and white, good or bad. No... People are gray. We need to come to terms with that grayness and work towards a better version of that. That’s my mission for the rest of 2020.”