THE MASTERMIND BEHIND TWO-MICHELIN COMBAL.ZERO, CHEF DAVIDE SCABIN ATTRIBUTES HIS SUCCESS TO NONE OTHER THAN HIS TWO-YEAR GAP AS A COSMETICS SALESMAN.
CHEFS ARE ASSUMED to sport high toques and blanched double-breasted jackets complemented with decent suits and shoes with a gloss of leather. But Davide Scabin’s path to his current glory of two-Michelin-starred chef started with buttering up ladies with his bottles and palettes of make-up and skincare. Yet, it was precisely this two- year interlude as a cosmetics salesman that transformed him into the legend that he is today.
Born in Turin, Italy, little Scabin never imagined himself as a chef. He came to a fork in his life’s path when he was 12 – he loved technology and the arts and was torn between a path as a computer hacker or an artist. Vectored by his mother, Scabin fell into cooking. “Now it seems to me that my mum and I have made the most correct decision. Catering does allow me to put my fantasies of art in it,” he says.
Fast forward to 1990, when an opportunity was presented to Scabin to work in a kitchen in Manhattan, but collapsed right before his departure due his father’s accident. With no chef openings in his hometown, Scabin was left to find work outside of his field. “My girlfriend, who was a model, suggested me to try for a job as cosmetic salesman,” says Scabin, who took the advice and nailed the interview.
This turning point into cosmetics did not indicate an end to his culinary career, but a fresh start. “The cosmetic industry has taught me a lot. I got professional training in marketing and packaging. Inspired by the packages of makeup, I began to ponder why couldn’t I do some customised packaging and plating for my dishes?”
Hooked on this new idea, Scabin began experimenting obsessively with packaging and designs that better suited the dishes he cooked through implementing fine-arts concepts like golden ratio and colour assortments. His subsequent inventions have not only coronated him the prestigious title of “the world’s pioneer of food design”, but also became the benchmark for modern Italian cuisine. In 2003, he was invited by the University of Turin to teach Food Design.
Scabin is whimsical, eccentric and sometimes cranky – aside from his venture into fine arts, he also looks to science for better control over the shape, texture, taste and temperature of his creations. “When people taste the food in their mouths on different parts of their tongues, the flavours they can feel vary greatly.” This philosophy is paired with studies into ancient culinary techniques prevalent in 17th-to-18th century Europe (such as salting, smoking, drying or pickling in vinegar) alongside cooking customs from other cultures and countries. “Whatever makes the food taste better, I will have a try,” Scabin says with a smile.
A manifestation of his wild theories is Combal.Zero: located in an ancient castle in Rivoli, Turin, his culinary brainchild is in front of one of the headquarters for contemporary art in Italy. “I want diners to enjoy our elaborately cooked cuisines at a location closest to fine arts, and treat them in the most artistic atmosphere,” Scabin says. Ranking in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 best restaurants, Combal.Zero won him a supreme accolade for any chef – two Michelin stars. Recently, he was Guest Chef at Tosca in the The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong.
Now with decades of expertise, Scabin advocates the happy diet with a new project named Cleanic, a portmanteau of clean and clinic that aims to unite chefs in promoting healthy cooking. “‘Great food, less medicine’ is our motto. The project prizes making clean, good and healthy food more accessible for people to lessen illness and health problems,” he says.
The “Cleanic” project will be launched in January in Turin, Italy.