The Food Wizards

Bompass and Parr from London.

Sam Bompas and Harry Parr are masters of culinary experiences. You might find a street food market across the other side of the Atlantic, or visit a high­concept Michelin­starred restaurant in Copenhagen, but where could you see a steamship set within 55,000 liters of luminous green jelly, where could you get drunk in a bar filled with cocktail gas, where could you taste still­beating cow hearts? Where else but a Bompas & Parr event. COMPANION visited their headquarters in London to get an insight into the jelly business and other ways to make food entertaining.

The London natives met in their orchestra at renowned public school Eton, where Harry Parr played the cello and Sam Bompas the violin. But it wasn’t until a few years after leaving university, when both were settled in respectable careers, that they met up and agreed to pack it all in, deciding to try their hand in architectural jelly­making, using 3D printing technology to create the molds. It’s something that could have quickly been dismissed as a gimmick but, despite the career choice being arrived at on a whim, both Parr and Bompas have always taken what they do very seriously. “You don’t spend 20­hours­a­day on a project unless you do,” Sam explains.

Nine years on, in 2007, not only have they built a successful company and silenced the skeptics (they were invited into the Royal Society of Arts thanks to their creativity with jelly), but they’ve also disrupted the elitism of both the gastronomic and creative industries. The two are often compared to magicians but, while their work can be illusory, it’s not their intention to withhold information or to fool. “Some chefs and artists feel the need to conceal the methodology, but we’re always very open about what we’re doing. If anything, we want to encourage self­initiated learning,” Sam says.

And their installations represent only a slice of the magic. All of their projects are backed up by rigorous academic research, most of which happens at the Bompas & Parr headquarters in Southwark where Sam is talking to us from now. It’s a fully inclusive setup containing their studios, kitchens, library, meeting rooms, and workshops, so they can get involved in every step of the process – although, presently, it’s a building site. “We’re in the process of moving studios,” Sam says, “so I’m literally surrounded by rubble as we speak.”

The depth of their research, as well as their sheer determination to see madcap ideas through to fruition, is what marks Bompas & Parr as unique. They bring unexpected elements of culture, history, science, technology, design, branding, and spectacle into their experiences, but always with a commitment to individual engagement. They are very modern inventors, proof that a bit of imagination can go a long, long way.

COMPANION: How did you get into making jellies for a living?
SAM BOMPAS: There was never any big, formalized plan. Initially, we just wanted to do something really fun on the weekends. But one of the things we seem to have always been very good at – luckily – is finding things we love and exploring them creatively and commercially.

Do you still spend as much time in the kitchen yourselves or do you have a team to help out?
I do make cocktails and desserts, but we now have a bigger team that are a lot better than us at most things. Ultimately, we’ve got to compete with food professionals who have an awful lot of practical and life skills. When I’m asked to go on TV to do some chopping, it’s frankly embarrassing! But having a great team allows us to read and learn more. Coming up with creative concepts and then actualizing them is the part of my job I most enjoy. Everything is possible – it’s just a matter of budget, time, expertise, and a willing audience. Of course, the food has to be really good, but that’s not where the story ends.

There’s quite a lot of technological wizardry to what you do. Has that marriage of food and technology always been an intention?We’ve never used technology for its own sake but as a means to achieve an end. We were using 3D printing right from the start, not because it was a new, sexy technology but because it was impossible to make big jelly molds any other way. It’s the same for other technologies like CAD modeling, virtual reality, holograms, unexpected use of flavor. It’s funny but once you know more about them, they don’t seem strange or magical.

Where do the initial ideas for each project come from?
It can be anything, whether an interest in the future, an understanding of death and the implications of that on future monuments, rock climbing, or tropical fruits. As we’re talking, I’ve got on my desk now a couple of inspirational books: “The Book of Human Emotions,” “Chicken: Low Art, High Calorie,” “Sex and Buildings,” “The Science of Ice Cream,” and “How to Stop Smoking.” I don’t smoke personally, but I’m interested in the psychology behind it.

Where are you focusing your attentions?
I’m really interested in wellness, the idea that people are turning away from drinking and generally more conscious about their consumption. That’s led me into the realms of ritual superstition and ghosts. 50% of Londoners believe in ghosts today as compared with 10% in 1950, which is unbelievable. I’ve also always been fascinated by the limits of human perception and consciousness in a broad sense, but particularly in relation to food. All foods have a psychoactive effect as they release endorphins. Nutmeg, for example, can potentially give you all the bad effects of LSD, but only in extremely high doses. There’s a reason why it’s so readily available, and that’s because you’d have to be a moron to try and get a kick out of it.

Have you been inspired by any other artists?
PT Barnum and Edward Bernays have had a huge influence on us, not necessarily who they are as individuals but how they executed their ideas. In terms of what’s happening now, the production design of the London­based event experience “Secret Cinema” is just phenomenal. And designer Faye Toogood offers a beautiful aesthetic.

You occupy a middle ground somewhere between artists, creative directors, historians, caterers, scientists, and inventors. How do you see yourselves?
We’d call ourselves experience designers if anything. We’re not artists. The most important thing to us is the audience, not how we come across. We don’t want to dictate emotion; we want to excite people’s curiosity and sense of wonder for the world so that they can go away and create their own adventures.

Which of your projects has evoked the best audience reaction?
Well, one of our biggest projects was a multi­sensory fireworks display for about a quarter of a million people, where you could taste the fireworks as they exploded. For another, we served up sautéed cows hearts that were still beating, which was a very visceral examining of how we relate to what we’re eating. We also cooked a feast over lava from a 1.1 billion­year­old rock, which had been melted down. That was exciting. I’d like to do something with that again on a larger scale. 

What are you working at the moment?
The British Museum of Food is our main project. We had the first installation of it at the end of last year in Borough Market (note: one of London’s biggest and oldest food markets) we’re now looking for a permanent site. There doesn’t seem to be anything like it out there. There’s the Dutch Institute of Food and Design but that has a much more narrow outlook in terms of what they’re interested in. We want to appeal to everyone. Then we’re also doing this thing called “Romancing the Armpits,” which is part of our Alcoholic Architecture installation. It’s like pheromone speed­dating. You can see the other person and talk to them, but you have an awkward armpit­sniffing introduction rather than having to hear their polished anecdotes. Shorter term, today I’m going to be talking about cryptology and the future of the bento box and trying to trace the lineage of all sausages worldwide back to one father sausage.

Putting food and drink at the center of your projects has the effect of making some quite conceptual ideas more universally accessible. Why do think people engage with food and drink much more readily than other mediums?
Food is a wonderful medium because it is so democratic, everyone can have an opinion on it. While it can be conceptual, it doesn’t have to be. Its main qualities are being physical and essential to our lives. When we started out, the culture around food was very po­faced and elitist. We want to show that food can be fun. Fundamentally, it should be a wonderful source of pleasure in people’s lives, not a place of self­loathing and guilt. 

“Alcoholic Architecture,” until July 2016

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