Photo: Jellymongers Sam Bompas (left) and Harry Parr show off their Jell-O map of the United States.
The eels, whether they like it or not, are part of an experience — and that’s really the only word that can aptly describe an event put on by Bompas & Parr, a London-based creative culinary company that, too, defies easy classification. This event in particular, “The Complete History of Food,” is a delicious and interactive tour through the ages, via cuisine. The eels can rest easy; they are not on the menu. They’re merely set dressing around a ship that’s been constructed in the basement, so realistic as to be seasickness causing. And that’s just for the pre-dinner cocktails.
Bompas & Parr is Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, two 27-year-old culinary curators at the intersection of art, architecture and food. These are guys who have a large supply of communion wafers on hand just in case — evidently, the wafers absorb scent and flavor exceptionally well — and who had their original studio (really Bompas’ former apartment) registered as a chemical research laboratory. They are innovators who take an impish, admittedly nerdy delight in the history and experience of food and the many things one can do with it.
But defining exactly what it is that Bompas & Parr does is a bit complicated. This is in large part due to the fact that there simply is no one else doing it. No one, for example, is flooding an entire room with four metric tons of Courvoisier cocktail for visitors to raft across on giant orange slices. Or whipping up jams made with sand from the Great Pyramids or cognac infused with oak from Admiral Nelson’s ship, the HMS Victory. Or making a three-dimensional map of the United States out of Jell-O, complete with a somewhat squat Washington Monument and scale model of the Empire State Building.
Bompas & Parr’s events have made the men media darlings — in 2009, for example, U.K. newspaper The Independent named them two of 15 people “who will define the future of arts in Britain” — and very, very busy. But before they started putting in 100- hour weeks and being forced to turn down work, Bompas and Parr were just two guys who wanted to do something fun during their summer break.
The two have been friends since their days at Eton, a famously posh prep school for boys in England that has produced, in addition to jellymongers, several prime ministers. When Bompas — the kind of guy who wears mintgreen bow ties over lurid purple sweatshirts that read “Dope Chef ” — graduated from University College London with a degree in geography, he found himself at a bit of a loose end. He tried his hand in a variety of industries, including public relations and finance, trying to find his niche.
Parr, meanwhile, was in his final year at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London. “Up to the age of 11, I wanted to be a chef. Then, at 13, I knew I had to be an architect,” he says. “Now, I do what I consider to be a combination of the two.”
In the summer of 2007, both were living in the area around Borough Market, a covered market near London Bridge, packed with stalls hawking artisan foods. They became determined to get a stall in the famous foodie destination; all they needed was a product. Explains Bompas: “We thought jelly was the obvious answer.”
Jelly, or, as it’s known in the U.S. by a popular brand name, Jell-O, is a source of deep nostalgia in Britain. Practically everyone can remember birthday parties involving jellies, typically made in a rabbit-shaped mold and served with ice cream. But in the 1990s, the sales of gelatin — the main ingredient in jelly — had declined, and Bompas and Parr figured that jellies were due for a comeback. Borough Market, however, disagreed, and the two were turned down for a stall. Still, the jelly idea stuck, and they ended up, through a series of contacts, getting a gig serving fresh-fruit jellies at a large outdoor summer festival in The Regent’s Park.