Torino Internazionale | Of the standards of taste


Interview with Davide Scabin by Annalisa Magone 


Combal.Zero is not any ordinary restaurant. Opened in Almese in 1993, and relocated within the walls of the Castello di Rivoli in 2002, it is the brainchild of Davide Scabin, one of the top ten chefs in Europe.

What is the relationship between food and design?
Design applies to food in exactly the same way as it applies to any other field, and it is through design that industrial standards can be introduced into the kitchen. It is therefore not concerned simply with aesthetic forms, but represents a working process that carries the dish from its conception through to the moment it is served up. Today Combal.Zero is recognised for its innovative menus, where dishes belonging to a long gastronomic tradition are presented in a pioneering fashion. The primary concern here is packaging, and on numerous occasions Combal.Zero has designed its own dishes and equipment for service, being unable to find them on the market. Secondly, it regards the timing and order of dining: few people realise that a simple change in the sequence of dishes can be sufficient to provide very different results in terms of taste.

What do you mean by introducing industrial standards into the kitchen?
Modern catering no longer functions according to the traditional models of the trattorias, where a few people are able to dedicate the time and devotion needed to completing a limited number of dishes. In order to guarantee the highest quality cooking and service, the kitchen in a restaurant like Combal.Zero has to organise itself along production lines that each complete a sequence of tasks. It is physically impossible for one person to carry out all of the separate operations which go towards completing a single dish because those operations are all so diverse, even within the individual sections of the kitchen. Made-to-order cooking is really a performing art, to an extent improvised each time it is performed. But within the constraints of quality catering, the approach must always be diverse. Combal.Zero has in some ways decided to push these constraints to the limits, and thus transform them into opportunities for innovation.

Can you give us an example?
One of our dishes - a portion of ravioli - comes served in a cylindrical tube that you shake before eating. The dish uses this striking presentation to its advantage, forcing the diner to carry out a particular action. The choice of the shaker, however, does not stem from any aesthetic motive, but rather from the need to compensate for a difficulty inherent in the service of this dish: it is the only practical solution to the problem of serving ravioli to a very high number of diners while guaranteeing the right consistency of the butter sauce. Indeed, what you have to understand is that Combal.Zero's experiments in packaging are influenced by the objective demands of front of house service - situations where, for example, we maybe have to serve 10 hot courses to 1000 people.

So design is a form with a function?
There are various types of functions: interactive, ergonomic and physiological. With regard to the first of these, I am referring to the fact that the public has to free itself from subjection to haute cuisine, which has ended up in the position of making sacrifices in terms of taste, and transforming the pleasures of the table into a religious ritual. It makes me think about the state of contemporary art, which can be a tiresome experience for most of the public who make the effort to understand it. Nonetheless, cooking must also have a slightly irreverent edge, because eating is an act of enjoyment - at the end of the meal, with a helium cyber Campari we offer a laugh as well. When I speak of ergonomics, I am referring, for example, to the way in which I arrange the food on the plate. We actually study new plating solutions from a seated position, so that our visual experience of it is identical to that of the diner at the table. But in still more general terms you could say that, in the arrangement of a dish, the space that is left free on the plate is much more important than the space taken up by the food. There are also ergonomic considerations in the actual cooking of dishes. When we are preparing vitel tonné, wrapping a piece of meat around a sauce filling, we know that we have to determine perfectly the quantity of sauce that we put into the meat, in order to achieve the correct proportion between the two flavours at the moment when they are eaten.

Where are you heading in terms of taste?
As regards physiological considerations, it is worth bearing in mind that we understand very little of the ways in which we eat. Apart from some rather basic notions about the different parts of the mouth that are responsible for distinguishing between sweet, bitter and savoury, we are completely ignorant. So there are vast areas still open for research and experiment, most of all with regard to timing and the composition of flavours. In fact, we are dedicating ourselves increasingly to this.

Who works with you?
The small work group is made up of six people who have all known each other for years and have specific roles ranging from the actual hands-on cooking process to front of house service, full-blown creativity to wines,and logistics to consistency and temperatures. Our method is effective but not always efficient, because research at Combal.Zero tends to be broader than focused, and in general we are always rather late in developing ideas. However, if I had to point to one rule that we aspire to, I would say it is the standard of taste. Ever since cooking emerged from set formulas and the chef was given a creative role, it is a little like we put a gun in his hand. The risk that we run is of losing touch with our roots, which were not concerned with creating a show but with searching for authentic taste in form.