In the psychedelic dreams of gourmands, rainbow sausages adorn the sky and candied rose petals rain down onto blobs of jelly that glow and wobble in the night like aliens. For Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, founders of the food studio Bompas & Parr, this is daily life.
The pair lead a lab of hungry and creative investigators in the mad pursuit of food and cocktails beyond your wildest trip. But this isn’t just your usual lettuce foam and liquid nitrogen — though Bompas & Parr have experienced much of molecular gastronomy. Rather than following the trends of modernist cuisine, Bompas & Parr operate on principles of fun and design, and the visual effects are striking.
Working with brilliant designers, cooks, architects and techy folks, the studio creates Willy Wonka-like environments, like this year’s Alcoholic Architecture, wherein a crowd enters an ancient monastery and inhales breathable cocktails such as gin and tonics and pina coladas. Their cocktails in a cup, meanwhile, will honor druidic lustral waters, with flowers and herbs picked at the time of the rising of Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. The druidic cocktails combine water infused with bee pollen, borage honey, and mead with elderflower to ensure a heavenly, mystical night of dancing. This Sunday, Bompas & Parr will throw an Alcoholic Architecture party serving snake oil West African bitters and Elephant gin and tonics, with DJ’s Krywald and Farrer making the crowd dance in the cloud.
If it all sounds like too much, know that while their craft is complex, their desire is simple — merely to give people a wonderful time and let them have fun with their food and drinks again. While it sounds easy enough, Bompas & Parr have seen that diners sometimes struggle to let go and enjoy the pure experience of eating and drinking in a high-pressure dining climate. The pair believes that when diners are given food and drinks that invite them to play, they can become childlike again.
“The ultimate aim is to give diners their own ‘Naked Lunch’ where they see what is on the end of their fork with fresh eyes,” Bompas explains. Through this rabbithole of experiential dining, the pair have found themselves in a variety of bizarre situations, including anatomical whiskey tastings, breakfasting in water and barbecuing steaks with lava.
Although the creative pair have been friends for most of their lives, starting off as classmates when they were 13, Bompas & Parr didn’t come to fruition until 2007. The pair spent many days and nights deciding if they wanted to start a business together, but eventually they decided to throw caution (and jelly) to the wind and do something fun that would in their mind, pique the interests of others.
With no formal culinary training, Bompas & Parr set out to create an experience for their guests that was a wholly immersive experience for all the senses. “Our research will give us the hook to create an interesting project,” Bompas says. He then explains to me how they recently were studying pickles and how they could illuminate them and push them to the extreme, creating a gherkin chandelier, of sorts.
“We’ve been working on collaborative projects that initially were food-related,” Bompas explains. “But more recently we’ve started using what we’ve learned in the gustatory arena to address the other senses.” With Parr’s background in architecture and Bompas’ focus on the narrative, their very first jellies were born.
Making creations around what Bompas describes to me as “axiomatic to the human condition,” their projects explore the intersections of food and sex, death and space. Last year, they launched coffee beans into space, where the beans plummeted to the earth and were collected and sold as “space beans.” Bompas & Parr were curious as to how space would affect the taste of the coffee, from cosmic rays to low atmospheric pressure.
In 2008, Bompas & Parr pushed the envelope of sex and food with the Architectural Jelly Banquet, in which architects, including Lord Foster, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, competed with their most upstanding creations in jelly format. The multi-sensory event included many a wobbling jelly, but only one could be crowned. Chef Heston Blumenthal and Maxwell Hutchinson ended up winning with a jelly made from vibrators. Bompas exclaims, “I think my girlfriend at the time suggested to him the use of vibrators to make the jelly wobble!”
Their largest achievement may have been the world’s first multi-sensory firework display for London’s New Year’s Eve, which was visited by a quarter of a million people. The sensory and taste assault included red pyrotechnics exploding in the sky with a strawberry-flavored cloud, which was a delight for attendees, and quite a challenge for Bompas & Parr to create and execute. “One of the key attributes of the world we have created is having an extremely short-term memory in terms of remembering the struggles that are required for a successful project,” Bompas says.
Since 2007, the molecular gastronomy scene has changed, for better or for worse. The exclusive use of molecular gastronomy by chefs is quite dated. “There are many more arenas of human activity to draw on for inspiration, but many of the techniques continue to be hugely useful in the service of giving diners a consistently excellent meal,” Bompas says. For him, while diners may not be impressed by a piece of dry ice, he feels like the importance it makes to consistency in cooking is paramount. For the average diner, he says, it’s important to keep an open mind but also realize the importance of consistency in food prep.
With a changing industry comes the immense desire to look to other industries for inspiration. Bompas explains that often he and Parr will look to the engineering, magic, chemistry, neuroscience, psychology, design and fine art worlds to transpose what they have learned and bring it to the realm of food. “We try to push the creative, visuals and the rest as hard as we can and then reflect on what worked and what didn’t,” he says of the experimentation process.
The result is some successes and some failures, including a tidal wave of chocolate sweeping into an ornamental lake at an art installation. “There have been some hairy moments but with the right team and an ardent spirit, you can pull anything back from the brink,” Bompas says optimistically.
The most rewarding projects have been some of their most challenging, but the great thing about food, Bompas explains, is that there are low barriers to entry. In this past year, they have taken on some of their most visible and most challenging projects, including trying to open the British Museum of Food, which has closed its temporary location in Borough Market and is now seeking a permanent home.
Now that Bompas & Parr are seen as industry leaders, they are being flown around the world to speak out about their revolutionary ways, most recently at Toronto’s very own Terroir Symposium. Their presentation, geared towards chefs and innovators in the industry, was about how those working in kitchen could create their own Bompas & Parr approach to gustatory creativity. Creating culinary spectacles, Bompas explained at the presentation, can be done and anyone can create dishes that will really grip diners and audiences by the throat.
Bompas truly believes that anyone can do what he and Parr are doing and believes it can start from anything. He explains, “We ran Bompas & Parr from our houses when we first started and now, we have our own lab.” He believes that the chefs and creationists around the world should find their niche — be it vinegar, pickles, sausages or tentacles — and study it to exhaustion, then make it a visually-stunning item to present. “[Our process] was certainly the steepest learning curve, but look where we are now.”
Amanda (Ama) Scriver is a full-time community builder and official ‘head bee in charge’ of the food, fat and feminism blog, Fat Girl Food Squad. When she isn’t busy kickin’ ass and takin’ names, she is having serious feels for all things coffee, hip-hop, the art of drag, Kardashians, pizza and Doritos. You can find more bylines from her at Eater, BizBash and Toronto is Awesome. Follow her on Twitter: @amapod.
Top main photo by Stefan Braun. Ice cream photo by Nathan Pask. Lava photo by Sam Bompas. Cloud and “Breathe Responsibly” photos by Ann Charlott Ommedal.