"Sam Bompas and Harry Parr were schoolfriends who had an idea in their 20s to make jelly cool"by Wendell Steavenson / January 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Back end of Bermondsey, industrial shed. I buzzed and a grey metal door opened. Into chaos and jumble: rubber fishtail costumes, upturned rowboats, a cabinet full of jelly moulds in the shape of famous buildings. Sam Bompas, half of the duo of Bompas & Parr, events organisers extraordinaire, apologised for the mess. He talked a mile a minute, shuffling inspirations like a deck of cards: Victorian cookbooks, astronomers, “infrasounds” that resonate below the scale of human hearing and can make your eyeballs vibrate. “Nasa has done loads of research… Do you know Scriabin? The constructionist composer?” He explained that Scriabin’s unfinished final work, Mysterium, mixed touch, sight and hearing. “He wanted to play it in the Himalayas with a chorus of angels and bells suspended from the clouds.” The next day Bompas was heading to Berlin to oversee an event. “More than 2,000 people; well basically it’s a rave.”
Bompas and Harry Parr were schoolfriends who had an idea in their 20s to make jelly cool. Stripy jellies, jellies designed by architects. Gelatin ambitions evolved into a successful events and catering business. They have flooded a basement with four tonnes of punch for Courvoisier, created a cake-themed crazy golf course on the roof of Selfridges and curated the world’s first museum of food (the British Museum of Food was open for a few months early in 2016; they are now looking for a permanent site), where one exhibit simulated the sensation of being swallowed. Their projects straddle culture, commerce and corporate; they employ artists, graphic designers, videographers and actors. “We now call ourselves experience designers,” Bompas said, as he cleared a path through a jungle of Perspex tubes stuffed to explode as giant party poppers, so that we could sit down.
Readers of this column may recall that I too like to create fun extravaganzas—the Battle of Waterloo in food; Alice’s tea party complete with a live rabbit in a hat-shaped cake. Food and eating have become increasingly experimental and experiential. Universities have started studying the confluence of taste, environment and emotion. Fear dulls taste, for instance. One of Bompas’s elves explained miraculin, a fruit extract that resets your taste buds to perceive sour as sweet; lemons into lemonade. Taste is multisensory and is being played with.
The following Sunday I took my brother Michael to Bompas & Parr’s latest installation, “Beyond the Waterfall,” a pop-up bar in the Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush. We walked into an anteroom carpeted in dark blue and lined with display cabinets of flasks and bottles arranged like an alchemist’s lab. “I feel a bit nervous,” said Michael, “like going into the London Dungeon.” Beautiful women in mermaid dresses greeted us. We signed a waiver and were given a purple velvet pouch containing two silver shell tokens for “our journey.” We followed a mermaid around a corner and found ourselves standing on a small jetty. Water lapped, the lighting was dim, our guides wore silver suits, oyster shells gleamed in recesses. We each got into a little rowboat and paddled around the indoor pool. Despite myself, never mind the cardboard-and-glitter-paint artifice and my should-be cynicism, I was excited. The boat was tippy, and I had to navigate the waterfall while juggling a single oar and an umbrella I found stashed under the seat.
“Disney does surprises,” Bompas had told me, “we go for risk.” He said he had realised that an experience was a story to tell (and photos to post and share) and, as with other mediums, it required a narrative. “We have a formula now,” he explained. “Anticipation. Compression. Risk. Reveal. Reward. Reflection.” Then he laughed, “I think we wrote it on the back of a beer mat.”
On the other side of the waterfall we were met by a tank of pulsating jellyfish and a jovial wizard who talked about the cloning reproductive cycles of these creatures and how they held the secret to everlasting life. We followed a tunnel and came to our reward: an under-the-sea bar with mermen (pictured below) lounging in a water tank, idly twirling their tridents.
A pair of blue glittering lips welcomed us, “My name is Ruby, because I’m hard and semi-precious! Feel free to mingle.” I ordered a “Sea Air” cocktail that came in three bamboo cups of different sakés, one topped with a puff of foam. Michael had a squid-ink margarita that was black. “So what do you think?” I asked him. “Umm,” said Michael, who spends a lot of time in the capital of themed excess, Las Vegas.
Experiential is the manufactured version of experience. It cannot quite replicate the serendipity and delight of discovery. I suspect that I have more fun thinking up crazy feasts—how can I represent the feeling of Alice getting smaller and then bigger? How can I get a cake to explode?—than people do consuming the result. Maybe the answer, as Bompas suggested to me, is participation. Getting my niece to crack the ostrich egg, asking my Mum to light the firecracker.
I asked Bompas to tell me his favourite moment from their projects. He went quiet, thinking, and then he told me about the time he had gone to Syracuse University where Robert Wysocki, a sculptor and an assistant professor in the department of Earth Science, has a laboratory where they melt rock in a furnace. Sam had always wanted to cook over lava, Wysocki had never tried, and together one afternoon, they rigged up a grill, rounded up a few people who were on campus despite the vacation and cooked steaks and corn on the cob.
“It was a total feral delight,” said Sam remembering. “The best steak I ever tasted.” It’s funny isn’t it, how the extemporaneous is often more fun than the planned. Michael and I tottered off to a quiet pub around the corner for a pint and a packet of crisps. Into every life a little of everything please.