Life Food & Drink

Wednesday 26 June 2019

From lightning-struck vodka to fireworks you can taste, dinner parties are going to a whole new level

From lightning-struck vodka to fireworks you can taste - and tonnes of dancing jelly - Bompas & Parr takes dinner parties to a whole new level. Here, Isabella Davey meets the creative company's Irish events manager

To celebrate Bompas & Parr's ninth birthday, the studio launched the Jelly Parlour of Wonders in London's most famous department store Harrods.
To celebrate Bompas & Parr's ninth birthday, the studio launched the Jelly Parlour of Wonders in London's most famous department store Harrods.

How did the dinner party come to symbolise key moments in history? Sharing a meal, especially a grand one has always been a complex social mechanism in which we savour the cornucopia of nature's harvest and human ingenuity; from excellent cookery to table dressing and wit.

Dining has punctuated many significant moments from The Last Supper, Fall of the Roman Empire, Thanksgiving, Cleopatra's banquet for Marc Anthony, The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, the drunken feast of the deluded painter Benjamin Robert Haydon entering history as The Immortal Dinner, James Joyce's The Dead… Be it the key presence of friends or enemies, love and longing, whiskey, wine (or whatever your chosen poison), moonlight and a spread of exceptional cuisine, dinner parties have punctured literature, history, film, art and urban legend.

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Continuing this tradition in the contemporary gastronomic scene is the London-based company Bompas & Parr, self-titled "curators of spectacular culinary events".

Founded by Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, the company kicked off in 2007 with an innovative celebration of jelly. Since then, it has constructed enticing, perplexing and mind-boggling events: cooking with lava; creating multi-sensory fireworks for New Year's Eve that allowed revellers in London to see, smell and taste the likes of clouds of strawberry mist, peach snow, orange flavoured smoke and edible banana confetti; making a monastical atomised gin & tonic bar; concocting a cryptozoological Haggis-making feast; cooking up a 200 course colour-coded dinner served over 24 hours; inventing glow in the dark ice-cream and lightning vodka - a spirit that electrifies the palate due to having previously been struck by lightning in a scientific experiment…

Along the way, Bompas & Parr has amassed record-breaking titles such as the world's biggest jelly to the world's biggest cake (now sadly the world's second biggest cake), the world's first A-Z cocktail using 26 spirits in alphabetical order, the world's first non-melting ice-lolly and the world's first vegan hotel suite, at the Hilton Bankside in London.

Deep in the helm of this institution of wacky and wild, Kilkenny native Rian Coulter works as the company's Events Manager. Rian's focus has long been on creative engagement: his first class honours degree in Fine Art (Printmaking) at NCAD saw his thesis focus on the social and cultural importance of local retail within a community. As president of the NCAD student union, his leadership led to the foundation of an urban farm beside the college. Having organised food events such as a Disco Dinner and hosted healthy cooking classes through Irish and comedy, he is a natural fit for the world of Bompas & Parr.

Having first come across the company through a video of a dancing jelly on Instagram, Rian has been working at the studio for the past two years. There, he has found himself in a world where science collides with fantasy: nothing is impossible nor unthinkable. While other offices have stationery cupboards, as we talk I can see two fake chimp hands cradling tennis balls, a plethora of jelly moulds, and a whiskey organ - the world's first "flavour conductor"which explores the relationship between sound and flavour - peeking through the glass door into the meeting room.

Gelatine doesn't strike as a typical foundation for a globally reputable food design studio, so I ask Rian what exactly was it about jelly that acted as company catalyst? "Jelly is the perfect food," he says. "You can mould into acutely detailed shapes, flavour it sweet or savoury, you can add alcohol, colour it to almost any desired colour, add layers and a host of effects… And of course it wobbles, which appeals to adult and children alike. It has all the charm of yesteryear, with the cheeky sensibility and Instagramability of the modern day."

Amongst the 20 staff in the studio in Bermondsey are development chefs and architects nestled between the project managers, with project-dependant neuroscientists, engineers and pyrotechnicians called in when needed. The open-plan layout allows for all these varying skillsets to coalesce. "It is a conducive, creative environment, for people to be fabricating something, cooking something, and fusing those together," says Rian.

"This company is certainly one of a kind: I don't know if anybody else in the world has the wealth of knowledge, the capacity or the audacity to do things as spectacular as making the world's largest jelly… Also the modus operandi is always to do something that makes people happier, more enlightened."

As any good guess would gauge, no day is ever the same for Rian, who funnily enough doesn't admit to cooking much for himself: they do say don't take your work home with you…

While most companies impart the cautionary judgement of balance, logic, equality on their employees and clientele, for Bompas & Parr it is a swift departure from any form of placid thinking. The company motto is a quote from William Blake's The Proverbs of Hell. Rian recites it immediately when I ask about the ethos of the company: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom; you never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough."

Does anything ever go wrong, does disaster ever strike? "Not disaster, but every time we do something, it aims to have a new or novel element in it, so research and development is key. As Roy Keane says, if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail."

What project is next in line? "We are currently working on a project that explores all the cognitive functions and senses that you use when you consume something, and how you learn to appreciate that and articulate that to your friends."

After such deep diving into the art of the mad-cap, the magical and the sublime, what has Rian learnt that makes a good dinner party?

"What we try to do is give people the outlets to discover something new, and that people are challenged. First step is that people are welcomed and feel special, they have been given something to drink and hopefully something to eat. That they see something spectacular that they are attracted to. That they have been challenged to do something that they wouldn't ordinarily do. That they have been rewarded by achieving something that they have done at a party, drinking something different, tasting something different, or being asked to do a certain task. And then having been equipped with the vocabulary or the information to tell their friends at the weekend that they have done something special - that they are able to convey to their friends the uniqueness of what they have just done, and how it has enriched their lives."

I can sense from Rian that within the four walls of Bompas & Parr the crazy never stops: between the execution of one event is the conjuring of another. While the most agile companies are those that are composed of a concise team, I imagine the outputs, level of thought and dedication expected here are high.

In saying that, the possibilities for the growth of Bompas & Parr are endless. Where there is humanity, there is curiosity and desire, and where there is desire there is a dinner party waiting to happen. As Blake concluded: "Those who restrain their desires, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained."

Rian's tips:

How to turn your dinner party into something special

1. Have lots of great drinks; it's the prince of all liquids.

2. Have lots of great food; the prince needs a solid partner.

3. Have something interesting to bring everyone together: a dress code, a story, a spectacle.

4. Have something that people can take away at the end of the night, from a good story - a selfie or a fun memento.

5. …A pony? Why not?!

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