The curious experiments of Bompas and Parr
story by: Johaina Crisostomo --- Issue #7
Every kid has had a love affair with jelly. I still remember the afternoons I'd spend perched on a kitchen stool instead of playing outside, watching my Mom make squares out of the gelatin congealed in a shallow carton of tin. Something about the way her knife crisscrossed through the gummy sheet tickled my six-year-old fancy. The jelly had shine, a little jiggle and, what was perhaps the best part of it all, could come in many shapes and sizes—the ultimate food schizophrenic.
Entrepreneurs Sam Bompas and Harry Parr have since seen this schizophrenia as endless latitude for experimentation. "No one was making jelly so there was an obvious gap in the market," says Bompas, who boasts of once winning an eating competition by consuming fourteen bowls of jelly. "Our inspiration came from two sources: childhood nostalgia and the knowledge that England used to be famous in the culinary world for two things—jelly and roasting." By exploring gelatin's ability to assume different forms, they were able to probe deeper into the structure of their favorite childhood treat. Since the founding of Bompas & Parr in 2007, this London-based company has extended these attempts to explore the architecture of food in general, taking on projects that push ordinary comestibles beyond the borders of the dinner plate to see how taste can be manipulated through a "reconstruction" of the dining experience. "We focus on jelly because it's the perfect medium for examining food and architecture due to its plastic form and the historic role it played in exploring notions of taste." For these two, it's all about rethinking the entire gastronomic experience from its conception, to its execution, to the multifariousness of its presentation. "We're interested in hijacking all the senses to create a gestalt experience," says Bompas. "Food should explore all the senses and we are definitely about exploding peoples' preconceived notions of food."
This idea to reinvent the dining experience was sparked by a piece of research conducted in 2003 by Prof. John Edwards of Bournemouth University as a way to investigate the correlation between taste and its environment. Prof. Edwards and his research team served the same Chicken a la King dish to consumers in different locations, ranging from convalescent homes to fancy restaurants, and asked them to judge the food based on its taste. Though the dish was prepared the same way using the same ingredients, they found that their Chicken a la King scored higher in the more luxurious settings. This stimulated the idea of taste as a variable element, of being something that can be manipulated through a tweaking of the surroundings in which the food is consumed. "We push this theory as far as it can go to try to create the ultimate food experience, " says Bompas, "So that involves using the dining environment as a theatrical stage with controlled sound, light and performance."
Since the founding of the company, these curious cats have been braving all sorts of experiments to turn ordinary food into a spatial phenomenon. In September 2009, an installation called "Funeral Jelly" was showcased at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as a part of "Sensate: Bodies and Design," an exhibition intended to examine the way bodies become reflected in the aesthetic of architecture and design. In response to this concept, Bompas and Parr decided to look to San Francisco's own Columbarium for inspiration—the city's only remaining burial site with space still available for ash-filled urns. They wanted to put a modern spin on old funerary traditions in which cakes were baked in the form of skulls, hearts and roses, and served to guests as tokens of remembrance. "Historically funeral cakes were made using molds much like jellies. So it will be interesting to design the funeral jelly molds," said the duo in a press release. For this project, Bompas and Parr designed a total of ten different molds. Some jellies were arranged in cone-like structures for "maximum visual impact," and showcased either the floor plan of the Columbarium or a traditional jelly mold. The rest were laid out on tables to be enjoyed by guests, and demonstrated three motifs developed from the burial site: a Masonic symbol, a funerary urn, and a whisky miniature.
"Funeral Jelly" explored food's relationship to the body by demonstrating how the design of food becomes reflective of cultural perceptions of mortality. The two wanted to make jelly the center of attention, to design an all-immersive performance space that would allow for this snack item to be the unrivaled star. They did this by working with one of the UK's leading chemical explosives experts to create fluorescent jelly—a glow-in-the-dark concoction that involved adding food-safe quinine to the mix, and using black lights to elicit a bluish radiance from the food. This glow pervaded the entire room and made for one striking spectacle in which visitors could not engage with the food without becoming encapsulated by the theatrics of its environment. The pitch-dark surroundings that dominated the showroom pushed forth the idea of this jelly as more than just a favorite refreshment, but an object of art to be commemorated with all its associations with the exhibit's subject. Yet the playfulness of the Bompas and Parr touch ensures that sheer somberness could not exist without some call for celebration, and while the darkness emphasized the gravity of the theme, it also elicited an abundance of brilliant smiles, and gave visitors the liberty to take a jab—literally, and with fancy silverware—at an otherwise taboo phenomenon. "The project allowed people to enjoy themselves and unleash their inner child," says Bompas. "Visitors to the installation had a lot of fun."
Other projects have crept out of the concrete molds of jello to fly in a more abstract direction. Earlier that year, the duo infused a room with vaporized gin and tonic in a production called, "Alcoholic Architecture." The idea was to drink by inhaling, to make the alcohol so diffused that it pervaded the entire environment, making the setting inextricable from the item being consumed. It embodied a completely new approach to drinking, as the liquid was in you, on you, around you, enfolding you in one inescapably intoxicating embrace. The two decided to push this idea for the "Ziggurat of Flavor," an installation commissioned by the 2010 Big Chill Festival held annually in Herefordshire, England. This project was sponsored by the Fairtrade Foundation, and exhibited an impressive pyramid-like structure in which visitors navigated through a labyrinth clouded in a vapor of Fairtrade fruit. As stated in their press release, the fruit was liquefied onsite by Big Chill visitors and clarified through reverse osmosis.
The "Ziggurat of Flavor" pushed the spatialitization of food to more extreme levels; instead of just crossing the line from liquid to cloud as exhibited in "Alcoholic Architecture," solid fruits were juiced and vaporized to permeate the pyramid's maze-like interior, suffusing the tiniest nooks and crannies of this colossal structure as well as the bodies of the participants, themselves. Stephen Gage, Professor of Innovative Technology at the Bartlett School of Architecture, said in their press release, "It's a fascinating experiment to see whether taste can be spatialized to the point at which visitors feel they are actually consuming a fruity building."
The design for this "fruity building" was derived from 18th-century Cuccagna monuments, which are outdoor structures of food described in medieval folklore. Traditionally, these structures are depicted as wooden monuments laden with meats, cheeses and other popular delicacies, but the monument that overlooked the grounds of the Big Chill was chic in black and white. "Our historical work is always given the contemporary twist," says Bompas. "We take inspiration from the past. In earlier periods like the Tudor and Renaissance, food was a tool to impress. These days it's about taste and presentation, whereas back then it also had to be a spectacle for senses with scale being paramount." Scale definitely took center stage at the apex of the pyramid where visitors found themselves confronted by a grand slide, and realized that the only way to exit the structure was to let gravity take its course.
To turn food into a spectacle is to change the way we interact with it, to rethink the possibilities of the stuff we have lying in the kitchen and question which senses we use to apprehend what we eat. In Bompas and Parr's world, creating spectacular food requires refashioning taste to become more than just a function of the mouth, but a performance perceived by the brain. Just like the amorphous medium that got their experiments started, each project becomes a chance to reinvent the eating experience and ask the unnerving question—"Is our perception of food just another trick of the mind?" Is taste subject to flashy colors and a dimming of lights? Can food really be thought of as space, and space as something edible—as a means to gain your daily serving of fruit, perhaps, or the instigator of a night's drunken revelry? Is the mouth the only gateway for nourishment, or can we also eat through our noses and eyes? As if to mirror the elusiveness of the material they work with, these two visionaries have taken on a professional identity that resists the rigid molds of categorization. Do they envision themselves as sculptors? Culinary experts? Innovative architects? "Boundaries are a load of balls," answers Sam Bompas. "We see all cooks, artists and architects as direct competitors, which makes for a life of love and fury."