Play with your food

Molecular gastronomy, avant-garde dining and the deconstruction of food as we know it – the world of cooking has never been so experimental, and the public has a new found appetite for both the food and the exhibitionism that comes with it. At the world leading Fat Duck restaurant, Heston Blumenthal created a new culinary paradigm with such cutting-edge dishes as snail porridge, bacon and egg ice cream, and licorice salmon. Since the restaurant’s inception in 1995, experimental cuisine has enjoyed a rapid return to popularity. Ferran Adriá’s elBulli in Spain has been overwhelmed with bookings since overtaking the Fat Duck as The Best Restaurant In The World in 2002. Meanwhile, back in the UK, up and coming experimentalist kitchen Casamia from Bristol was recently featured on Ramsay’s Best Restaurant. And then there’s Bompas and Parr.

A few years after graduating, and having dabbled in various jobs including running an escort agency and assisting an MP, Sam Bompas and Harry Parr decided that they didn’t want to bumble on, as their peers did, in accountancy or management consultancy firms. As Sam puts it, “You know those conversations you have with your mates down the pub, the ‘what if we did this’ conversations? Well me and Harry are the guys who are dull enough to sit down and spend the hours necessary to work out if it could really be done or not. And in most cases it can.” Their calling card is jelly (not literally, mind – that could get quite messy) – and it was this that first thrust the duo onto the culinary scene.

Why jelly, I hear you cry? Well, having scoured London’s Borough Market for a sweet treat, the boys found that everything was far too dense and heavy for a diner on the go – their solution was jelly.
A passion for perfection meant that Sam and Harry insisted their creations were made using only the freshest fruit and the most exacting traditional methods. With an eye for the sensational, the pair were desperate to present their work in an eye catching and remarkable manner, but there was a problem – they couldn’t afford the vintage copper jelly moulds that were available online. Their solution – to make their own. Using the skills that Parr had acquired as a trainee architect, they were soon creating moulds of all shapes and sizes to house their creations. The results were extraordinary: replicas of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Madrid’s new Barajas airport (complete with tiny jelly aeroplanes), and even a Trafalgar class nuclear submarine are just a few of their past projects.

You may have already seen their work without realising it, as they helped to create the jellies used on the Channel 4 show Heston’s Victorian Feast, where Heston consulted them before creating both luminescent and absinthe jellies. In fact, the boys combined these ingredients a year previously, in their ‘Jelly Ronson’ – a tower of glow in the dark, absinthe jellies displayed in a dark room for Mark Ronson’s 33rd birthday.

The pair have since expanded into the wider field of gastronomic experiences and events, and are hot property on the scene for, well everything. When they were first starting out, Sam recalls, “We would cold call art galleries with wild suggestions for sensory exhibitions, and usually they’d just hang up.” Now, the galleries are begging them to exhibit, with their most recent ‘trifle-based performance’ appearing at a Serpentine/V&A collaboration earlier this summer. They’ve done festivals too – a ‘Ziggurat of Flavour’ was installed by the group at the Big Chill 2010, in which festival goers could inhale a cloud of breathable fruit inside a 30ft pyramid. A similar experience was repeated recently with a gin and tonic vapour, with a slightly more inebriating effect. They even flooded a rooftop in London with over four tonnes of Courvoisier-based punch last year, across which visitors travelled on rafts only to find remote controlled garnishes!

With such a wide span of projects under their belts, which range from the purely culinary to more artistic or architectural briefs, the outfit has a sensational aura of mystery about them, the likes of which is often not done justice by interview alone.Therefore, on behalf of the Cherwell and cutting-edge journalism, I volunteered myself as a free worker to investigate this intriguing duo.

Arriving at Shoreditch Town Hall in the late afternoon, I had no idea what to expect. I’d been told that the team were putting on a banquet for 300 guests, with ‘a Minerva’s shield dish’ and ‘load of meat’. Interesting stuff.

Let me set the scene from the view of a guest; entering the sizable main hall for the pre-dinner reception and drinks, they were faced with four chest-high wooden podiums, the first of which I was manning.
“Sir, madam, welcome. Have you see our mountains of meat popcorn? On one half we have bacon and maple syrup infused popcorn – think of it as our take on breakfast – full of actual bacon bits. In the other half we have our chilli and truffle infused popcorn – the dinner course, if you will.”

On the final podium the team had assembled one of their signature experiences – Flavour Tripping. Jam jars full of suspicious looking purple pills, alongside hundreds of lemon wedges laid out in parallel lines greeted the guests when they reached the stall. The pills, it turned out, contained the extract of the West African berry ‘Synsepalum Dulcificum’, which blocks the tongue’s taste buds that detect bitter and sour foods, with the result that lemons taste sweet and vinegar tastes like sherry.

The banquet itself consisted of a giant platter of slow-cooked belly of pork, topped with a skinned and cooked pig’s head, which had been painstakingly coated in gold leaf. In a surreal and rather dreamlike sequence, the doors of the dining hall were heaved open and the platter was paraded around the room, accompanied by a deafening apocalyptic soundtrack over the P.A.

But what about the jelly? A potent combination of 20 year-old Courvoisier cognac and ‘Iris’ Orange, accompanied by fairtrade raspberries. Hundreds of plates were laid out in a grid, back in the reception hall now, with huge, chalky ornamental spikes meticulously positioned around them. The guests oooed, they aaahed, but I had to leave to catch my train. The night had been a triumph, with much of the mystery of this experimental duo unearthed. An uncompromising commitment to high quality ingredients, practices and staff, combined with a killer vision for what they want to achieve have left the Bompas and Parr boys with the culinary world at their feet, and from what I’ve seen, they’ve earned it.