“The Complete History of Food,” for instance, which was done in partnership with Courvoisier and took place in July, featured Bompas & Parr at its odd best: For starters, the evening began with a diagnosis of one’s “humor,” the medieval concept of health that divides the body into four substances that, when out of balance, cause illness. Visitors received diagnoses of, say, too much phlegm or too much black bile, and were ordered down to the ship-shaped bar in the basement. There, they had to walk on raised blocks to get across the eel pond unmolested before being treated to a humor-balancing cocktail and a canape. In addition to enjoying their delicious cocktails, they learned a little something about themselves — as well as about how people six centuries ago understood health and the idea that what you ingest directly affects how you feel.
The effect isn’t lost on the guests. One woman in attendance, who runs a successful underground restaurant out of her London living room and who goes by the moniker Ms. Marmite Lover, praised the high-concept affair. “I think that they are very innovative,” she said. “It’s like a Disney ride — but it’s food.”
And that’s exactly the idea. Parr likens their events to a theater where the public is the star and their reactions fuel the experience. At the History of Food event, for example, one room was turned into a massive inflatable bounce-house representing the interior of someone’s stomach. After kicking off their shoes and stowing their purses and valuables, visitors jumped around the room, bouncing off an inflatable esophagus and stumbling over inflatable peas, carrots and french fries.
While Bompas & Parr is singular in its efforts today, Parr notes that historically, food was just as much about the spectacle of serving it as eating it. “[Serving food] was just really a performance,” he says. “The important thing wasn’t what it tasted like, but what it looked like and the room it was served in.”
For inspiration, the duo mine history for some of the more outré circumstances, like the famous Iguanodon Dinner in 1853, when a group of 21 leading scientists celebrated New Year’s Eve by eating dinner in a life-size model of an iguanodon at the recently built dinosaur sculpture park in the Crystal Palace in South London. At the History of Food event, Bompas & Parr recreated the dinner using a dinosaur built by a local artist that fit 10 people comfortably.
And cramming 10 people into a dinosaur fits nicely with another of Bompas & Parr’s aims, which is to bring people together through food and drink. In a world that’s increasingly virtual, people have begun to crave what Bompas calls “real experiences.” And food, he feels, is the ultimate medium. “Facebook can’t replace sitting down together,” he says, “and it never will.”
He’s right, at least judging by the number of people who flock to their soirees. At the History of Food’s Courvoisier bar, the 2,000 patrons — mostly foodies and other curious Londoners — were enthusing to one another about the event’s every detail, from the jailbreaking eels to the dessert of a Courvoisier jelly with a smear of ambergris-flavored cream. Ambergris, for the uninitiated, is an intestinal secretion vomited up by sperm whales that, during the Middle Ages, was used in a perfume thought to ward off the plague. Today, it can be as expensive per gram as gold — and apparently delicious, as the attendees were shocked to discover.
So what’s next for these architectural foodsmiths? Where can they go after ambergris? Both upward and downward, it seems. In August, Bompas & Parr presented the Ziggurat of Flavour, a pyramid-shaped tower featuring rooms of inhalable fruit. And come December, they’ll be orchestrating an underground dinner in Welbeck Abbey’s subterraneous chambers and tunnels that will accompany a showing of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In a wink to the lead character’s ophidian phobia, snake will most definitely be on the menu.
There’s no telling what kind of culinary stunts Bompas & Parr will continue to dream up. But whether it’s snacking in outer space or deep-sea dining, the founders’ end goal will always be the same. “Our intention is to really get people lost in an amazing magical world — to put them in a place where they can feel a bit free from their normal life,” Parr says. “Where they sort of lose themselves and say, ‘I didn’t know food could be like that.’ ”
Freelance writer LINDA RODRIGUEZ McROBBIE lives in London. In the name of good reporting, she tried the ambergris — and it wasn’t half bad.
To learn more about upcoming events or to hire Bompas & Parr for an event, call 011-44-20- 7403-9403 or visit www.jellymongers.co.uk.