Interview: Sam Bompas

Categories: Features

Sam Bompas on butterfly houses, levitating food and erotic cookbooks

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Joseph Fox

What do you call a man who cooks with lava and lightning, throws upside-down banquets and designs flavour organs for a living? The out-of-office email, received after I first tried to contact his business, Bompas and Parr, gave little away.

“Thank you for your note,” it read. “I’m currently working on a mini-series involving bioluminescent food, zero-gravity canapés, plasma ovens, toroidal vortexes of flavour and slime, but will be back in the studio in June.” It was signed simply “Sam”.

Sam is the Bompas of Bompas and Parr; Harry Parr his co-founder. He has described himself as the storyteller to Harry’s more technical, cheffy mind. The pair met playing badly in the school orchestra, reunited in London after university, and set up their joint business venture making jelly, on the wobbly premise that Borough Market would jump at the thought of a fruit jelly stall.

The jelly moulds
They didn’t, perhaps because the pair didn’t have formal culinary training. But this initial set back was in fact a blessing in disguise, spurring them on to cook up even bigger, crazier culinary ideas. They went back to the drawing board—or rather, the jelly moulds, which Harry constructed using architectural skills gained at university.

3D printing enabled them to fashion jelly into almost inconceivable shapes—Aztec pyramids, sea shells, brains, even St Paul’s Cathedral—in a series of experiments that culminated in an architectural jelly banquet at University College London.

From there, it was a matter of months before the “ridiculous” became the sublime job of ‘experience designer’. “It makes the title ‘jellymonger’ look sensible,” Sam grins. Now he’s responsible for creating immersive food-based experiences for all manner of clients.

Quivering women’s breasts
They still do jellies of course: upon arrival at their studio Sam shows me the kitchen, where 200 quivering women’s breasts are receiving some final touches from a lucky chef. “These are for someone’s wedding. We get all sorts of requests. I suppose there’s an element of surprise when 200 breasts appear in the room.”

We move to the workshop, where a homemade whisky fountain rubs shoulders with an air hockey table designed to shoot canapés. It’s tempting to draw a comparison to Willy Wonka.

Sam’s trousers are pretty psychedelic, and he has made flavour changing gum, but the parallel is not quite accurate. Sam is no mad scientist. Instead, his genius is in uniting the insane dreams of Bompas and Parr with the people whose knowledge, craftsmanship and ideas can make them a reality.

Scientists, engineers, magicians
“We do a lot of collaborative work,” he explains, “with scientists, engineers, magicians—people who are super specialist.” They bring ideas to the table, or find a way of bringing Sam’s and Harry’s ideas alive. This could be by formulating a gin and tonic cloud, designing a chicken-shop themed silk shirt for fashion week, or transforming the roof of Selfridges into an emerald green lake.

They work with food because it “is universally good at getting people excited. That is our approach. We don’t want to be snobbish or elitist,” says Sam. They want to entertain: to create experiences that taste great, and to educate about food in the process. They want to use food as a vehicle for stories and ideas.

On Valentine’s Day they arranged a whisky tasting, but one where the drinks were tasted from the bodies of life models whose presence serves to “conceptualise what it means for a spirit to have been aging for that number of years”.

Aging a spirit
Willingly, I stammer? “You’d be amazed how many people on Valentine’s Day are up for having 30 people lick them. Still, there’s a serious reason behind it, which is helping people see what aging a spirit really means.”

It is this sense of inventiveness and daring that inspired the pair’s Borough Market pop-up, the British Museum of Food, offering a vivid exploration of British culinary identity. “If an experience is entertaining and at the end of it you know something you didn’t before, that is when it is at its richest and deepest. That’s what we wanted from our project at Borough Market.”

The aim is to eventually find a permanent home, where it can become “a separate entity. A credible independent body that’s not a Bompas and Parr project, but a real museum”.

Out of the woodwork
The project evolved in a very Bompas and Parr way. “I am a great believer in just doing things, rather than sitting chatting about ethos and writing business plans,” says Sam. “Interesting people and ideas just come out of the woodwork.”

It’s a process I get to see in action, as Sam explains his idea of creating a digestive tract potholing experience, and I respond by sharing my memories of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. One of my most vivid memories of being a six-year-old is of me and my father crawling through a large intestine.

We walked through the whole digestive system, having entered through the ‘mouth’, and I was spellbound as we trailed through pink fabric tunnels, watching VHS videos about digestion. As I speak, Sam scribbles furiously in his notebook of ideas. I can almost see his imagination whirring.

Memoirs of a Stomach
Only last year Bompas and Parr produced a book entitled Memoirs of a Stomach, inspired by a Victorian book of the same name. Updated with comments from a top gastroenterologist and medical photos of Gizzi Erskine’s gut, it charts “the rest of the story. Sydney Whiting wrote this book from the point of view of the stomach in 1853, asking people to respect it,” says Sam.

“It’s a pertinent question at the moment. How do you get people to think about nutrition seriously in a world where fast food is so often cheaper, tastier and more convenient than real?” The likes of Jamie Oliver address this question through television. Sam Bompas isn’t knocking that, but suggests a more concerted effort is needed to effect long-term attitudinal change.

“TV generates interest, but as soon as the light goes dark on a show, we move on. I think there is a role for a museum that can inform and advise government, schools and the public about food, because it’s such an important part of health and identity.”

Cloud of cocktails
“But hectoring is not sexy. We want to educate people in a way that is fun, so they want to know more.” This can involve disgust (an authentic recreation of a Roman vomitorium), awe (extreme ice sculptures) and humour (a breathable cloud of cocktails so dense you’ll need to wear a waterproof poncho while examining the 8,000-year-old subject of booze).

The timing is perfect. Throughout most of our nation’s history, cooking ‘plain and wholesome’ food was a way of distinguishing ourselves from the saucy cuisine of our French rivals, who cared far too much about cooking. Two world wars left our food supply so ravaged, even discussing it was impolitic.

Yet slowly but surely, on farms and in cities, a new story has been written by the food producers and cooks who make up today’s burgeoning food scene. A British Museum of Food now seems not only possible, but long overdue.