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Portland Fermentation Fest Snags Noma’s David Zilber for its 10th Anniversary Event

The celebrated head of Noma’s Fermentation Lab will give a talk at “Stinkfest” and attend a Plaza Del Toro La Ruta dinner inspired by his ferments this October.

By Kelly Clarke June 18, 2019

Noma Fermentation Lab's David Zilber will give a talk at the Portland Fermentation Festival this October.

Image: Evan Sung

Every October, the city’s pickle pros, avant garde fermenters, and avid home rotting enthusiasts gather at Ecotrust for the Portland Fermentation Festival, a one-day celebration of kimchi, kombucha, pickles, natto, miso and anything else one could possibly consider sticking in a crock or bottle and fermenting. It’s a zany, wonderful evening of deliciously intense flavors and smells that has earned the affectionate nickname “Stinkfest.”

For the festival’s 10th anniversary, organizers have pulled off a major coup: Portland Fermentation Festival has snagged Noma's Fermentation Lab head David Zilber as the speaker for its Thursday, October 10 event at Ecotrust. The night before the fest, the Copenhagen-based chef will be on hand for a special multi-course feast inspired by his creative ferments at Plaza del Toro cooked by Plaza chef Michael Kessler and Tasty n Alder’s Perry Austin.

Zilber, who co-authored the thoughtful, mind-expanding The Noma Guide to Fermentation last year with the hallowed restaurant’s co-owner René Redzepi, is a massive deal in the ferment scene: an October New York magazine story crowned him the “Future of Fermentation,” Toronto Life called the Canadian-born chef a “freaky brilliant polymath” who is “the culinary-world equivalent to James Bond’s Q.” (Vice Munchies chatted with the chef about salmon kombucha and attempting to ferment pig blood.) 

So how did a teeny, volunteer-only fest in Portland snag a man who is usually busy fermenting koji and shoyu (and squirrel sauce and “extract of petrichor”) for what many consider the world’s best restaurant? We asked Portland Fermentation Festival co-founder Liz Crain, a prolific local cookbook collaborator who is currently recipe testing her first solo tome Dumplings Equal Love, to explain—and tease what’s fizzing for the Fest’s 10th bash.

What’s so special about David Zilber?
Liz Crain: I’m inspired by David’s gumption, curiosity, and ability to at once honor the past of food and drink fermentation and look forward, way forward. David wasn’t hired by Noma to run their Fermentation Lab, [it’s a] role he stepped into really quickly. I love that he just took a super duper shine to [fermenting]. That’s a great message and one that we celebrate year after year at our festival: Fermentation isn't something that you need to have studied for years or learned from your grandparents. The fermentation world is immediately available to anyone with a knife, some salt, a jar, and a healthy dose of curiosity and patience.

In Copenhagen, it’s quite difficult to source locally year-round without food preservation. Fermentation has helped [Noma] to remain hyper-local and extend their seasons. They started fermenting damson buds and gooseberries several years ago and they’ve been hooked on evolving all sorts of Noma ferments ever since. Rather than miso with soybeans, which aren’t cultivated there, Noma has a signature yellow peaso—fermented with a slightly different koji and yellow split peas. David and the Noma fermentation team use traditional fermentation techniques and apply them to their unique ingredients so that the sense of place, Noma’s Danish homeland, is felt and tasted throughout their ferments. 

How did you end up snagging him for Stinkfest?
I'm a big believer in no dream is too big so it never hurts to ask. So, we just asked! Having John and Renee Gorham of Toro Bravo invite David to be a Plaza del Toro chef in residence for a special La Ruta dinner really helped seal the deal. We’re a small, not-for-profit festival, entirely volunteer-run, so our honorarium pretty much only covers David’s airfare to Portland from Denmark.

A scene from "Stinkfest" 2018.

What else do you have planned for the fest’s 10th anniversary?
Some of our Japanese fermentation friends will be traveling to the fest again all the way from Tokyo. Nat West of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider always brings a small batch of something special and unusual that he’s never made before such as makgeolli or chicha. He made cider steeped with a leg of lamb that had been rubbed in Toro Bravo salami mold one year. It was called Angel of Death. 

We’re pleased that our festival has had such incredible staying power. Portlanders embrace us year after stinky year. It's a testament to our city’s strong food culture, independent maker culture, and creativity. I love that our model of “no sales at the event” has become such a strong part of our festival ethic. By removing that transactional aspect people really connect and learn and come away with something special—everyone shares recipes, stories, and fermentation cultures. It’s unusual to attend a food and drink festival these days where you aren't treated first and foremost like a consumer. 

Tickets for the Portland Fermentation Fest and Plaza del Toro’s La Ruta dinner with David Zilber on Wednesday, Oct. 9 at will go on sale later this summer, most likely in early August, so keep an eye on both organizers’ sites.

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