You can argue as to whether Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, the British jellymongers behind Bompas & Parr, are pranksters, artists, or simply bloody good marketers, but you can't argue about their success—since its formation in 2007, Bompas & Parr has become one of the most talked-about sweets companies in the world. And hey, here we are talking about it again. This time it's not glow-in-the-dark Jell-O (more on that here, with a recipe), nor the epic Ziggurat of Flavour (which must be seen to be believed). Now, a new stunt: a massive, five-metric-ton chocolate waterfall and grotto installed at a London shopping center for visitors to walk through. We got ahold of Sam Bompas on our transatlantic wire and asked him just what exactly was going on with this new shenanigan.
My brain is still wrestling with the scope of this thing. Tell us more about how this is going to work.
Five tonnes of chocolate [really, a mix of chocolate, water, and a hydrocolloid to increase viscosity] will be circulated by our pumping technology across the waterfall. The way the space is designed it feels like you are walking (on a rope bridge of course) across a flowing river of chocolate. There's a danger [guests will] get chocolaty as they step through the waterfall, but everyone will be totally suited up with shoe covers and hazmat suits. They'll also have sturdy umbrellas. Everyone knows what they are letting themselves in for though, so we're not anticipating expensive dry cleaning bills sent to us!
How did you develop and test the pumping and waterfall technology? Presumably you can't just buy this sort of thing off the rack.
We've picked up some of the most hardcore pumping equipment available to mankind. Chocolate is hard to shift. And our problem is compounded as the equipment has to be food safe. Interestingly, we've discovered that in several countries any fountain has to be made of food-grade material. Even those big ones outside casinos. This has made our life a little easier in terms of sourcing the kit to make this happen.
While in the chocolate grotto, visitors can mix their own flavored chocolate "elixirs." Tell us a little more about these mysterious treats.
The chocolate elixir is effectively a fancy chocolate syrup infused with botanicals you choose yourself before bottling. Jasmine, juniper, pine, cinnamon, star anise, grapefruit peel, dragoneye, frankincense ... it goes on. [The chocolate itself will come] from the waterfall. You can imagine what my HACCP document looks like. We've been doing a load of work on shelf life testing and such. There's so little available water that the mixture could survive the apocalypse and still taste good.
You say that this is an homage to [the Roald Dahl book] Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Do you think the Americanization of the Wonka brand diluted or distorted any of the original magic?
The original story we are working to is actually even better. Alexis Soyer is my real food hero; Soyer's Grotto of Ondine as part of his Universal Symposium provided the original inspiration for the whole project. But we were really keen to sex up the original rather than slavishly copy. The obvious answer was to have a waterfall running with chocolate.
[But yes], the release talks about Wonka as it's a lot more obvious and universal. It's interesting how these things work. We launched the installation and were subsequently contacted by the press team for Warner Bros. here in the UK. We didn't know it was the 40th anniversary of the Gene Wilder film until they got in touch. With a bit of luck the original Veruca Salt will be able to attend the Chocolate Waterfall. Apparently she's still got her golden ticket.
I hate to step outside of the magical nature of the event to ask an economic question, but can you tell us about the estimated cost for putting on this sort of an installation?
Whiteleys is helping support the project and has kindly given us a glorious space. We've been calling in a load of favors to make it all work.
We are also asking people to pay a small amount to come to the event (£5). This is a massive help. We never give people food totally for free, because if you dole it out people get in touch with their neolithic self and go feral. The results can be brutal. At the architectural jelly banquet we gave people free food. It was one of our first major events and we had a lot to learn. After 11 p.m. people went feral throwing the jellies around, even battling with the plates used to serve them on. As one person put it: "It was one of the best nights of my life, it was also the most expensive. I lost two teeth to jelly wrestling." The days of free food are behind us. We like people to keep their dignity and their teeth.
The Chocolate Waterfall opens between April 22 and 25 at Whiteleys Shopping Centre in London.