Q&A: Bompas & Parr

  • 20 March 2014

Sam Bompas, one half of the maverick duo responsible for setting SS Great Britain in 55,000 litres of jelly, talks to us about the inspirations and challenges of creating edible masterpieces.

Food architects, artists or culinary deviants – call them what you will, but Bompas & Parr certainly know a thing two about creating spectacle out of the edible. With previous projects including glow-in-the-dark ice cream, fruit-flavoured fireworks and a 30-tonne birthday cake for the Barbican, who better to inspire you to create your own delicious delights on May 9 as part of our new fundraising initiative, Edible Masterpieces?

What works of art or artists have inspired you?

I spent my entire childhood standing in front of paintings at the National Gallery. I remember being very bored in front of Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors while my mother explained what it all meant. So, really I've always been more interested in looking outside of the art world, but creating something that can sit within it.

In terms of artists, people like Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell inspire our studio. They have a keen of understanding of science, but also expose that understanding in their work. You can see their engagement with psychology, human perception and engineering, and how it all comes together to create the final piece. That's what we really like to do as well.

Why mix food and art?

Neolithic cave paintings tend to be of hunting, killing and eating, so in fact the very earliest impetus that caused humans to want to create art, was food.

Whatever you want to call Bompas & Parr – chefs, mavericks, architectural foodsmiths, food artists, culinary deviants – our aim is to give people an interesting experience and one that might get them thinking a little bit more about what they're eating or how they're living. But if they don't they still have a joyous and wonderful time. I think that is an aim shared commonly by both artists and people who cook for others.

Do any commissions stand out as favourites?

The New Year's Eve fireworks for London. We matched the colour of fireworks to fruit flavours, so when people saw red lights exploding in the sky, they tasted strawberries. There was also peach snow, orange bubbles and banana confetti. It was a total multi-sensory assault.

We are particularly popular in Russia. They say, 'we really like your art [because] it's not very conceptual, it's easy to understand'. I'm not sure if that's a backhanded compliment, but I actually think with the very best art you don't need to understand the total cultural context. What matters is that it should be engaging – and food is primordially engaging; when you set down a round of drinks you can literally see the glimmer of the animal behind people's eyes. But there's also always a great deal of research behind it. We've worked with pyro technicians, animal wranglers, magicians, all sorts of people in achieving our installations.

Do you have any advice for people about to take part in Edible Masterpieces?

Keep it sweet. There's a lot more scope for whimsy and lightheartedness in dessert. The idea of recreating the Mona Lisa out of ham – frankly, to me that's disgusting. Food shouldn't be wasteful. It has to do more than look the part, it needs to taste awesome too.

What would be your ultimate edible masterpiece?

We did something really fun recently for the Barbican's 30th birthday. We cast them a one-tonne birthday cake using the same casting techniques that they used to create the gallery itself. It was a pretty epic build.

What's been your most challenging commission?

Surrounding the SS Great Britain with 55,000 litres of jelly. There was not a lot of budget, but it was one of those things where everyone just thought 'floating a ship on sea of jelly, what a wonderful idea!' and got behind it. We supplied all the ingredients but we couldn't afford any labour, so when we turned up at the ship they'd roped in a load of people doing their community service. So we had ex-cons mixing up jelly! They were brilliant, but they said it was the weirdest community service they'd ever done.

What's the best food to work with? And worst?

Jelly is the best, obviously! It is amazing stuff. Least is chocolate – it's a tricky beast to work with. It's also really hard to clean up, which is fine in a normal kitchen, but not if you're working on a massive scale. If you're making 70 250-litre barrels of chocolate, it's a big clean-up operation!

Have you had disasters?

With the will, you can always pull it back at the last minute and make it great. But our work has taken us on many different adventures. Only last Friday we staged about the most extreme photoshoot known to mankind. We are really interested in food photography and how it presents the idea of the perfect plate of food, when actually the reality of eating is very different. So we sent a pill-cam down inside the stomach of the magnificent [food writer and chef] Gizzi Erskine and did the shoot inside her as her guts were churning around, digesting everything.

What are you working on next?

We recently set up our own publishing house Bompas & Parr Editions. The first book was Tutti Frutti, and all sorts of artists, like Martin Parr and Yinka Shonibare, contributed recipes. We're currently working on a new edition, which will feature footage from Gizzi's stomach and a reprint of Memoirs of the Stomach.

Order your Edible Masterpieces fundraising pack now. For more information on Bompas & Parr visit their website.