Meet Bompas and Parr, London's jellymongers turned culinary innovators
Ahead of Toronto's 2016 Terroir Symposium, we sit down with Sam Bompas to talk breathable cocktail vapours, live octopus tentacles and the emotional side of food
"It feels like you're drunk or on drugs all the way through the day," Sam Bompas grins as we sit down in a meeting room in London strewn with antique jelly moulds, neon-coloured chairs and a large gold obelisk. He's referring to the late winter cold that's adding a slight rasp to his plummy voice, but as I spot an inflatable banana in the corner, I can't help but wonder if the same can be said of life at Bompas and Parr. After all, these are the people responsible for creating a breathable cocktail cloud...
In the nine years since Sam Bompas and Harry Parr started out, they've gone from flogging jellies (think posh Jell-O) at festivals, to creating large-scale, permanent installations, and sharing their curatorial expertise around the globe—including a talk at this year's Terroir Symposium in Toronto.
The path to international acclaim hasn't all been smooth sailing. In the beginning, Bompas recalls, "we went to Borough Market, which is London's best food market, and they said 'get lost, no, we're not interested at all.'" Undeterred, the duo took their jellymongering act on the road, and soon caught the attention of the Sunday Times. Bompas explains, "that started getting us some jobs, so within a month of starting out, we were running a catering company, doing these extravagant twelve-course Victorian feasts in the bowels of Warwick Castle, with three separate catering kitchens."
From there, things only grew more surreal. At one point, they created a flavour-changing bubble gum that drew comparisons between the two and Willy Wonka. (For his part, clad in a sharply tailored electric blue suit, Bompas certainly looks the part.) With each new project, Bompas and Parr transition seamlessly from hosts to publishers to inventors.
As Bompas puts it, "The ambition has always been to think of the most difficult thing we could ever do, then try and work out a way to do it." So far, just a few of those difficult things have included building an emerald green boating lake on the roof of Selfridges (a luxury British department store owned by Canada's own Galen Weston); serving a 200-course, 24-hour tasting menu; and vaporizing cocktails to be absorbed through the lungs and eyes.
The ambition has always been to think of the most difficult thing we could ever do, then try and work out a way to do it
Events and installations like these have made Bompas and Parr household names among Londoners who follow the city's food and drink scene. "London's quite a special place," Bompas says, "but, by the same token, everyone's doing the same sort of stuff in London... There's cool stuff going on, but it fits this very narrow paradigm of what's happening now."
That's why, more and more, the pair looks outside the UK for inspiration. "Because we're working all over the world now, we get exposed to a lot of new things," Bompas explains. He asks if I've heard of sannakji, a controversial Korean octopus dish, and I glance at the cold tentacles laid out on a marble slab between us. Drizzled in olive oil and garnished with fresh dill, they're incredibly tasty—and thankfully, quite still. But Bompas's enthusiasm as he describes the custom of cutting live tentacles is palpable.
"They come to the table kind of squirming around and you have to chew them furiously or they can stick to the back of your throat and suffocate you. Six South Koreans die every year because of it. If I had my druthers, those octopus tentacles would be squirming, or at least one would, just to bring some fear and awe into the dining experience."
Bompas recalls another revelatory dish, this one from a South African restaurant called Africola in Adelaide, Australia. "[The chef] brings it out and it's a whole cow's head... You can see the beautiful cow eyelashes, and as a British person, it's so taboo. Obviously there's no way we could do anything with a cow's head."
How, then, do they reconcile these diverse influences with local cultural norms?
"I guess for us, one of our missions is not so much to present British food as to just understand the wonder in everyday foods that people might have had many times before, and see what's marvellous about it and give people a sense of jamais vu," Bompas explains.
"Food, I think, is wonderful, moreso than any other artwork or medium. It's something that everyone has some sort of experience with. Stand in front of a painting, you may or may not have an emotional response.
"When people are sat at a table and the meat comes, or just headed to the bar and the first round is bought and it's being carried over, you see the animal side of them. Huge amounts of endorphins are being released in their brains. It definitely has an emotional response, which is a very powerful thing to work with."
Bompas and Parr's installation at the 2016 Terroir Symposium combines these themes of shock value and so-called universal experiences. "You can sit in the most gorgeous dining rooms in the best hotels, and still this fly buzzes in," Bompas offers a wry smile. "So we're going to make a massive bug zapper chandelier."
As he continues, it becomes clear that this is exactly what it sounds like. "It might be interesting to install it in a really fancy restaurant. The only problem is, you can't have any tables within two metres around it, because you have what's called scatter, which is all the bug juices going everywhere…"
Bompas muses over how, exactly, such a device could be created. He doesn't seem concerned that the work hasn't yet started—but then, why should he? When you make a business of tackling the most difficult projects you can imagine, a giant bug zapper is just the tip of the iceberg.
[Food] definitely has an emotional response, which is a very powerful thing to work with
"It's always good to read science fiction, because everything that exists has been, by and large, conceived at some point and written about," Bompas remarks. "Lab-grown meat, which has been written about since the 1930s, is now a reality."
So do the jellymongers have a future in butchery? "We've got a great microbiologist," Bompas says, "So yeah, one day we'll have mammoth steaks..."
That's one dinner we hope to get invited to.