The Master of Turin

30 Jul 2013
5 min read
Davide Scabin boldly goes where few chefs dare to tread. Manuela Tomasi discovers how his passion for the sensory experience has pushed this Italian chef to the frontiers of modern cuisine

“The kitchen offers a dining experience that touches on emotions that go untouched when looking at a piece of art.”

– Davide Scabin

The important thing is to always study the raw material,” Davide says, from his culinary home in Turin.

For over 20 years Davide has been inventing new gastronomic creations, continually surprising his colleagues, guests and fellow chefs. His dishes are conceived and prepared with meticulous precision.

Guests of Combal.Zero are given the full sensory experience, with the architecture and presentation on the plate as important as the flavour and texture of the ingredients. Davide says: “It is essential to study all aspects that influence pleasure, like the colours, the ergonomics and the architecture of the dish.”

Scabin began his career at Combal in Almese, not far from Rivoli. After several years at Combal, Davide moved to the enchanting Castle of Rivoli, the former Residence of the Royal House of Savoy and the current home of the Museum of Contemporary Arts, taking the name Combal with him and adding the ‘.Zero’. The magnificent, ancient building houses Combal.Zero, the perfect juxtapositon of history and art, old and new, for Davide to perform his very modern craft.

Combal.Zero is a long restaurant with wooden flooring and crystal walls, overlooking the Alps, accommodating up to 60 diners. With an obsessive attention to detail, Davide charms his guests from the kitchen with cooking, preparation and service rhythms that are meticulously calculated. The wine list is equally impressive, including over 500 labels from around the world housed in the cellar.

Davide’s brigade at Combal.Zero has been working together for years, each with a specific task and important role to play: in the kitchen, the dining room and the wine cellar.

The dishes Davide creates represent history of modern cuisine, such as his famous Cyber Eggs, created in 1998. The idea for Cyber Eggs came from a gastronomic concept that upset the conventional paradigms of taste. Now, 15 years later, it is still appreciated by an international audience. Cyber Eggs is a dish consisting of a double bag of transparent cellophane, containing air in one section and caviar, egg-yolk, vodka, pepper and shallot in the other—its appearance more clinical and scientific than culinary.

The Cyber Eggs recipe is one of Davide’s most famous, alongside his Virtual Oyster dish, which is made up of roasted almonds. Uniquely, what Davide creates is an experience, not just a meal. As bizarre as it sounds, if you close your eyes while sampling Virtual Oyster, you are expected to experience the salty flavour of a fresh oyster. The name of the recipe, Virtual Oyster, creates a mental expectation, which influences the taste.

Another example of Davide’s attention to the senses occurs with his dish Spaghetti Pizza Margherita, a pizza presented with a semi-liquid consistency, with cream cheese placed on anchovies and tomato. This dish plays with our expectations of a pizza, by using the same ingredients, but changing its shape, temperature and texture.

The most recent stage of Davide’s development has been his focus on the central taste of ingredients. Going back to basics through new research based on the core taste of a product. His creativity has not been lost, however, but his focus streamlined towards the maximum achievable quality with the perspective of luxury and simplicity.

Davide’s newfound focus has helped him create dishes such as Check salad, aubergine Tataki and kidney with gin. He explains: “A couple of years ago I worked on the architecture of vegetables. An onion, for example, has become a normal way of interpreting puff pastry, because it has a natural structure that can be exploited like a millefeuille, giving rise to the Matryoshka Tropea dish.”

Matryoshka Tropea is the product of Davide’s research on an onion—separating an onion’s layers into individual sheets, before rebuilding them again. Each layer is seared in a vinegar solution, before being cooked at 120C and confited with liquorice, olive oil and oregano. The layers are then filled with onion gelee, caviar, liquorice powder, oregano and sour cream and nestled one layer on top of another. Another dish created with this same rigorous research is aubergine Tataki. Davide explains: “While working on the architecture of plants, aubergine Tataki was born. The reasoning is to use the heart of the aubergine like a tuna tataki or meat, then working on the plant as if it were meat or fish, to occlude the fibres, as in a tataki.”

Tataki, as Davide describes, is a technique for preparing fish or meat typical of Japanese cuisine, which includes roasting in a pan, pickling and slicing.

Davide has begun a new chapter in the way that we understand food, particularly with the development of gusto della forma®, a trademarked research method used during the creative process. Davide is able to give new life to traditional ingredients, by proposing a new outlook, enhancing the emotional and evocative properties of the elements of taste—sweet, salty, spicy, bitter and sour. Davide’s design-oriented approach is fundamental to harmonising each element within the dish, creating an emotional experience with the food.

“The way I think in the kitchen has evolved recently.” Davide explains: “Until 2007, I was trying to produce and create objects, a personal expression, Cyber Eggs or Virtual Oyster, for example. But, when you’ve played with everything you have available to you—each individual product—you must create another, bigger challenge. I wanted to reverse the two wires, the red and the black and go back to basics. With this new challenge, we want to work on a design system and take control of the primary tastes: salty, sweet, spicy, sour, bitter, even leaving aside the umami, a complex flavour, which is not part of western food culture.”

Since 2003 Davide has been teaching at the Technical University of Turin. Within a workshop on Food Design, he addresses students of the faculty of Industrial, Graphic & Virtual Design.

Taking inspiration from every opportunity, particularly art and graphic design, Davide’s ideas are constantly evolving.

“I consider myself pretty lucky because, in search of inspiration, I have ideas that come in very different ways.” He says: “One of my latest ideas came from looking through a car magazine. I came across an article about a new system of shock absorbers. I suddenly realised that a mechanical shock works just like our human language: a platform that moves up four paces. From there I began to think about dishes that have an ergonomic design that moves on four depending on how you introduce the food into the mouth, that then allows us to perceive tastes differently.”

The quality of the gastronomic offering and the undertaking of his extensive research has earned Davide mentions within some of the world’s most respected food guides, including two Michelin stars; 93/100 in the Gambero Rosso guide; 19/20 in the Ristoranti d’Italia guide by L’Espresso, and 59 in The World’s 100 Best Restaurants.

Davide has created a constantly evolving culinary style, which is a firm part of the attraction at the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Turin.

“In many reviews I am referred to as the master of food design, so a connection with art is inevitable. Although, the kitchen offers a dining experience that touches on emotions that go untouched when looking at a piece of art.”

Davide Scabin, the creator of Combal.Zero, master of his craft, studies his subject at length, before creating a masterpiece worthy of any of the world’s galleries or museums.

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