How to Make a Career Out of Throwing Outrageous Dinner Parties
Sam Bompas, one half of culinary art studio Bompas and Parr, talks about his job bringing physicists, magicians, and microbiologists into the food world.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2016.
"I'd rather Harry didn't join us. We've just found out we're doing a dinner for a couple of thousand people in Korea in two week's time, and so I'd rather he make that happen."
I'm talking with Sam Bompas, who, along with the absentee Harry Parr, is the co-founder of culinary art studio Bompas and Parr. We're at the pair's base near London Bridge.
Best known for brightly coloured jellies in the shape of famous buildings, Bompas and Parr is also responsible for engineering a gin and tonic cloud in a cathedral, personalised chocolate death masks, and aged whisky served from naked bodies.
It all sounds like a lot of Willy Wonka-esque fun—and in fact, Bompas mentions the word 11 times during our 15-minute interview—but a lot of hard work goes into a Bompas and Parr installation. If the string of meetings and cross-country conference calls I inadvertently find myself a part of as I wait for Bompas in the studio's reception-slash-meeting room, it's not all gadding about with jelly moulds.
Which shouldn't come as a surprise, really. Can you imagine the logistical nightmare of sending coffee bean into space?
But Bompas insists that all of the hard work is all about creating a spectacle which makes guests feel like they're at the centre of it all.
"We want to create stories where you're the hero," he says. "You can go to a Gordon Ramsay restaurant and he hasn't got any salt or pepper on the table because he's perfectly seasoned it, and if you don't like it, you can fuck off. Our events are more like: What can we do to make you have an amazing experience whereby you're the protagonist?"
Bompas' love of inclusive dining experiences could be traced back to a particular childhood memory.
"One of my formative food moments was going to see Medieval Times in L.A. [a dinner and theatre show], where you're given a colour and your knight jousts for the hand of the fair maiden while you're served chicken like a king," he remembers. "I love that kind of spectacle of parties and themes and narratives and stories. Food is a vehicle for that conviviality."
Despite the only cooking experience between Parr and Bompas being the former's stint as a private chef while training to be an architect, nearly a decade after founding the company as a glorified jellymongers, the pair have racked up the on-the-job hours.
"Within a month of starting Bompas and Parr, we found ourselves doing a twelve-course, 4,000-calorie Victorian breakfast which used more than 1,000 pieces of cutlery," Bompas remembers.
And along the way, they've learned the various perils of working in the kitchen.
"We've discovered that there are a large amount of jelly-related injuries you can get, like jelly finger," Bompas says with a slight grimace.
I hesitantly ask him to explain, not quite sure if I want to know the answer.
"It's where the acidity and sugar from the moulds when you immerse them in hot water can give you tiny cuts which start getting a bit infected," he says.
My turn to grimace.
Changing the subject from jelly finger, I catch sight of some twigs and beer cans on the table in front of me. Bompas tells me they were part of a tasting this morning for one of their latest projects.
"We're doing Dinner at The Twits [based on the children's book by Roald Dahl] and looking at the science and psychology of disgust in human society," he explains.
In-depth scientific research, Bompas tells me, is where most of their projects start.
"We've always been trying to bring different worlds into the food world. Chefs tend to live in a bubble below ground, just speaking to other people in the food world," he says. "What we love doing is bringing in physicists, magicians, and microbiologists. It takes their work to a totally new audience in a way that, we hope, ultimately manifests into an interesting meal for someone."
So, what's the deal with Dahl?
Apart from the event's PR-friendly hook, which centres on the fact that the pair have created a beer using yeast from a swab down the back of Dahl's writing chair, when Bompas gets into the nitty gritty of the science, Dinner at The Twits starts to sound interesting.
"In contemporary science, there's a notion that our microbiome not only have a profound impact on our health, but also on our personality," explains Bompas. "There's a paper in 2011 when researchers took mice, some of which were quite timorous and some which were more adventurous. They inoculated the mice and then re-introduced the gut bacteria of the timorous mice and the adventurous mice across the sample. The mice then exhibited the behavioural traits of the bacteria."
OK, I'm just about keeping up.
Bompas continues: "So now, people might be able to assume one of our nation's greatest writers when they drink the beer! Perhaps there will be 14,000 people taking on Dahl's yeast and going on to write. Maybe that's what Britain will be known for after this."
Maybe. But of course, the dinner is also about giving people a fun experience.
"How we judge a lot of our installations is: If you're going on a date with someone and they're a rubbish human being, can you still have a fun date? If the answer is yes, imagine how good it's going to be if they're the person of your dreams."
He adds: "Ultimately what we want is when you go to the pub on a Friday night, you are going to have a more interesting week to talk about than any of your friends, to the point where you start to annoy them."
I ask Bompas whether his friends get pissed off down the pub on a Friday when he talks about his jet-setting, wacky, fun-filled week?
He laughs: "No, when I'm at the pub, I tend to be quite quiet and not speak."
As Bompas heads off into his next meeting, getting stopped by someone else in the doorway while we say our goodbyes, I'm not surprised he wants a quiet one at the end of the week. Spending half an hour inside the Bompas and Parr studio, I'm exhausted too.