What is a culinary experience designer? Your taste buds REALLY want to know
Bompas & Parr may call themselves ‘culinary experience designers’, but what this British duo (Sam Bompas and long-term friend and business partner Harry Parr) actually do, needs quite a bit more explanation. References to Willy Wonka and Heston Blumenthal, and phrases such as ‘culinary deviants’ or ‘jelly artists’ have all been thrown around by the world’s press in a bid to accurately describe this duo. Our personal favourite comes from The Times in London: ‘If you’re going to do silly, do it in style.’ Quite.
In the UK this month, Bompas & Parr offered eager Easter gifters the chance to scan their face and have it modelled in chocolate: branded by the studio as the ‘Eat my face’ Easter egg, and by some UK media as a ‘chocolate death mask’. Most recently, Bompas & Parr brought their unique brand of culinary adventure to Dubai, challenging visitors at the new Dubai Design District’s Meet d3 event – held on Thursday April 2 to Saturday 4 – to make their own ‘artisanal’ chewing gum out of a range of flavours, from white truffle to sea urchin.
This, gives you a little insight into what exactly Sam Bompas means when he says ‘experience’. But we are nowhere near done with you yet. Meeting Sam Bompas on-site at their Dubai installation the ‘Artisanal Chewing Gum Factory’ at d3, he talks us through the thinking behind some of their previous projects around the world. Bompas begins by describing what he terms ‘a very simple project’. But what he’s referring to, is cooking with molten lava.
‘I’d been to Sakurajima in Japan, hopped over the railings and done some of our own cooking with actual lava, at the volcano,’ Sam begins. ‘But I soon realised, if we wanted to do this as a public project, we had to find a far safer way of doing so. And that’s when, with a bit of googling, we discovered Professor Bob Wysocki [at Syracuse University in the US]. He is the only person in the world who makes lava. He takes a 1.1 billion-year-old rock and puts it into a furnace to make it liquid, heating it up to 1,350°C. We asked him if anyone had cooked with it before, and he said no. So we popped up to Syracuse, poured the lava out, whacked a grill over it and cooked up some marbled rib-eye steaks. Honestly, it was the best steak I have ever tried. It cooks really quickly, so you’ve got to keep a good eye on it. It gets a really good salted char on the outside and a really clean flavour.’
Are you getting the picture of the fanciful food fiddling that goes on with these two? Jurassic-josper taken into consideration, you still need to hear more. Because, to our knowledge, Bompas & Parr are the only reprobates that have turned dirt (yes, dirt) into the inspiration for an evening of fine food: the ‘dirt banquet’ at Crossness pumping station in London. ‘I love Crossness pumping station, it’s a Joseph Bazalgette cathedral to sewage,’ Sam exclaims. ‘This was an arts project with the Welcome Trust. They were having a season on the importance of dirt. So we did a banquet themed around it, and all its permutations, from filth itself, to fermentation, to more metaphorical dirt. The banquet was then punctuated by lectures from various academics, who gave their take on filth and food.’ Filth-themed food served that evening included ‘radioactive cheese serum’, pickled vegetables with miso-marinated tuna and natto and durian chocolates.
Inside the micro-factory at Dubai Design District where the team were making the chewing gum, we started our own ‘olfactory odyssey’ (as Sam dubs it). We were faced with a darkened ‘flavour library’, where four tables of more than 200 hundred glass bottles were divided by their ‘sweet’, ‘spicy’, ‘savoury’ or ‘fruity’ flavour profiles. These flavours took six months for the Bompas & Parr team to put together. ‘We’ve all got a great sense of smell. It develops as an early warning system, for when you are about to poison yourself. Happily, we live in a world where there is less risk of poisoning through bad food. But it means people don’t necessarily concentrate on their sense of smell enough. There is actually quite a large degree of variants between taste and smell,’ he says. ‘We’ve got some very challenging flavours. One of the most challenging is oyster. I’ve only smelt it once, and once is enough. I think your photographer actually just caught me on camera smelling it…’
‘Quite often people come in with a really fixed idea of what flavour they want. And we’ve probably got it, so this helps them to track it down,’ he adds, as he indicated towards the flavour map on the wall. ‘If you think, “I really want chocolate”, we’ve got five different chocolate flavours. So, maybe don’t settle for the first. And if you want to make a really unusual chewing gum flavour, you know you don’t have to deprive yourself. You can use the map to search out that shrimp head flavour.’ Which our photographer actually did. Teamed with ripe banana. Not quite as bad as you might expect.
Making chewing gum, in this candy-striped factory, amid Sam’s playful references to ‘Oompa Loompas in the background’, we can’t help but think of poor Violet Beauregarde. That’s the little girl turned blueberry who meets a sticky end sampling Willy Wonka’s complete meal in a chewing gum, in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Bompas &Parr have been dubbed modern day Willy Wonkas. Did they take inspiration from this when creating the project? ‘Yes, of course,’ Sam says. ‘I am hugely inspired by Roald Dahl’s writings. We actually did an entire workshop at Roald Dahl’s house a couple of years ago. We can actually use micro-encapsulated products, which sequentially release different flavours. It’s very easy to get the flavours in, but it is very difficult to get them out. So rather than distinct stages of flavour, they sort of blend into one another. We are not doing it this time, because it becomes very, very complex.’
Other culinary heroes, far more left field it turns out than the oddest children’s literature of our age, include Victorian era chef Alexis Soyer. ‘He was like the Victorian equivalent of Jamie Oliver. He was a sort of showman, a swaggard. He was offered the kitchen contract at The Great Exhibition, and turned it down. Soyer then set up his own alternative, which he called the podium of all nations. It was like a round the world, food theme park. They did all sorts of things, like cook a whole cow each day. In the gardens there was a grotto, with a bar inside, but you had to get through a waterfall to enter it. It was free to get inside. But you could rent an umbrella with or without holes for different prices… Or plunge into the waterfall entirely and get soaked for free.’
In case you missed out on the chewing gum installation at Dubai Design District, don’t worry. It sounds like Bompas & Parr will become regulars in the Emirates. ‘Hopefully we’ll be able to show people in Dubai our approach to food and experience. For us, Dubai is actually where a lot of our focus is starting to swing. We started out in London, and London historically has always been incredibly energetic and full of innovation. At the moment, we are finding that more and more of our work is focusing on Dubai and the energy there. We’ve started getting more commissions in the emirate. I think there is a hunger here for people looking at food, not just as nutrition, but also as entertainment and education as well.’ www.bompasandparr.com. www.dubaidesigndistrict.com.
More pop-up dining experiences in Dubai
Frying Pan Adventures Old Dubai expert and food blogger Arva Ahmed specialises in food-themed walking tours through the oldest and least discovered quarters of Dubai. One of her latest inventions is a photography jaunt through the neighbourhood of Naif. www.fryingpanadventures.com.
Lime&Tonic The kings of curating exclusive ‘experiences’, Lime&Tonic’s activities in the past have ranged from chef’s table dinners, secret supper clubs and mystery dining tours (including one in a helicopter). www.limeandtonic.com.
Restronaut Part meet-up group, part pop-up dining experience, Restronaut’s focus is pairing like-minded individuals with activities and eating suited to their interests. www.restronaut.me.
The Nth Degree Club Dubai’s newest kid on the pop-up dining block is a members-only group (although all are apparently welcome to become members) who have so far hosted events such as brunch in the Nobu Garden and a chef’s table at La Serre. www.thenthdegreeclub.com/dubai.