Sashana Souza Zanella arranges napkins and glasses along two long communal tables. Behind her, a massive concrete island separates the dining area from the kitchen, where her partner Ben Reade has just opened a huge plastic bag filled with ten bloody hare skeletons—a free gift from the butcher.
Zanella and Reade are preparing for tonight's dinner at Edinburgh Food Studio, the food research space and restaurant that aims to "change the way Scotland interacts with food." Since opening the studio a year ago, the pair have hosted food poetry nights, sherry tastings, and dinners with world-renowned guest chefs, including Esben Holmboe Bang of the three Michelin-starred Maaemo in Oslo and "Salvador Dali of cooking" Brandon Baltzley.
"We go balls-deep towards something we believe in," says Reade. "Everyday is an experiment and every chef [we work with] makes us want to do new things."
As well as giving Edinburgh diners the chance to sample food from some of the world's best chefs, Reade and Zanella also work to promote local producers, showcasing Scottish game, fish, and foraged ingredients.
"I'd say we're also a normal restaurant serving a seven-course menu for 42 quid," says Zanella. "Great chefs, happy bellies. Sure, it can be experimental in the sense that we take in folks who aren't kitchen-trained but have other interesting skills to offer, but as for the food goes, everything that comes out from the kitchen has to have a certain standard, no matter what."
Both Reade and Zanella are chefs. ("She's actually trained, I'm not," Reade is quick to point out.) They worked in kitchens before studying at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. Reade was also head of research and development at the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen.
Tonight's dinner is being cooked by Sasu Laukkonen, executive chef at the Michelin-starred Chef & Sommelier in Helsinki. He and Reade first made contact through social media, discussing the laws on wild herb foraging.
"It's fantastic to be able to bring in these big chefs who've become friends from all over the world and offer their cooking to folks in Edinburgh," says Reade.
He and Laukkonen discussed the menu over the phone a week prior to the dinner.
"I wanted to bring some ingredients from Finland that I love to cook with but I was very keen on getting to know the quality of the local ingredients here too," says Laukkonen. "The conversations we've had have been very inspiring."
In preparation for Laukkonen's arrival, Reade and Zanella fermented potatoes and sourced local ingredients including chestnuts and blue mussels. The Finnish chef brought Douglas pine needles, bark, and pine shoots in his luggage.
"These are for a halibut and kale dish but also for my dessert," he explains. "I want to go old-school and make my version of a crème brûlée. The bark will add a great flavour to it."
Reade adds: "It's interesting to see how these chefs who back home in their established restaurants have a pretty set framework to work in. Here, in our ghetto kitchen, they get excited to do whatever they feel like. That's really important for us and the ideology we have at the Studio."
The Edinburgh Food Studio kitchen smells like a mixture of bacon and pine needles—Scotland and Finland. A couple of diners start sneaking in early.
"They always do this, people are excited to be here, that's great," Zanella says as she shows her guests to their seats and offers them freshly baked sourdough.
At 8 PM sharp, Reade sounds the gong and announces Laukkonen. Dinner is served.