The 2011 CHOW 13

Sam Bompas and Harry Parr: Turning Dinner into Performance Art

Credit the rise of pop-ups or an increasingly theatrical restaurant culture, but food performance art took off this year, thanks to Brooklyn's a razor, a shiny knife and the Bay Area's OPENrestaurant. But the masters of the genre are, without a doubt, Sam Bompas and Harry Parr.

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SCULPTED ILLUSTRATION LIZ LOMAX

Since 2007, when they orchestrated a sprawling, 12-course Victorian breakfast in a medieval castle, London's Bompas & Parr have been doing food- and drink-themed performance art on an epic scale. Students together at Eton College, and now both 28, the two self-identify as "jellymongers" for their explorations with jelly (U.S. translation: Jell-O). A defining project was 2008's Architectural Jelly Banquet for University College London's Festival of Architecture (Bompas & Parr judged a competition of architect-designed jellies based on "innovation, aesthetics, and 'wobble factor'"). The next year they brought their jellymongering to San Francisco to preside over a glow-in-the-dark installation at the Museum of Modern Art.

Since then, projects have assumed a much grander scope. In 2009, the pair engineered a pop-up storefront-bar hazy with vaporized gin and tonic—guests got more wasted the more they sniffed. That same year Bompas & Parr flooded an 18th-century townhouse with punch for 25,000 people, inspired by a punch from 1694 created by a British admiral and served by a small boy in a boat. Their 2011 Dirt Banquet in an elaborate Victorian sewage-pumping station included an exploration of, well, shit via coffee beans culled from civet cat feces, as a "brown note" (a frequency said to make listeners lose bowel control) played.

Sam Bompas, the duo's spokesman, talked recently about their inspiration and ethos. —J.B.

Where do you find inspiration?
At the London Library, which is absolutely amazing: a private lending library that's like a crazy old gentlemen's club with these endless stacks. The cookery section—there's some sort of byzantine classification system designed in the 19th century, so Drink is next to Dress and Death and Dike Systems in the Netherlands.

I know Harry studied architecture. As boys, were you guys always interested in food?
Harry is very creative in the kitchen. He experimented with rainbow-layered jellies when he was a child, but he couldn't get them to work. My weirdly formative experience was in the States at Medieval Times. My mum is American, from Los Angeles—we used to go every year to visit my grandparents. I was only six or seven, but it was my first look at food and spectacle, and how the environment and narrative can be used to shape food.

Do you feel you're part of some global community of food performance artists?
Not really. Our ethos is just "How do we give the most amount of people the greatest amount of joy?" We want to make things really accessible. If you can't explain what you're doing to people in a few words, no matter what brilliant narrative is framing it, you risk obscuring it.

You guys drink a lot?
God yes.