Next Tuesday, to celebrate the first anniversary of its restored Elizabethan gardens, Kenilworth Castle is laying on a 300-dish, 320,000-calorie dessert course including gold-gilded jelly, nine varieties of custard tarts, 20 sugar sculptures (bears, houses and aviaries with animated birds in them) and a giant sugar punchbowl in the shape of the god Atlas.
The feast is a recreation of a menu served 400 years ago to Elizabeth I. This time around, however, it has not been cooked up in a heavily staffed Elizabethan kitchen, but in the Southwark HQ of two 27-year-old guys – Sam Bompas and Harry Parr – who in three short years have become famous for their jellies, their parties, and their general wacked-out inventiveness. Since 2007, the self-styled culinary architects have pumped a Soho pop-up bar full of gin and tonic mist, created a bowl of punch big enough to row a boat across, and kicked off a 2,000-person architectural jelly food fight under the watchful eyes of Heston Blumenthal, all at the same time as bringing jelly wobbling back into style.
So how did two ex-Etonians with absolutely no formal training in catering become the Blumenthals of the jelly world? After school they set off in different directions – Bompas studied geography at UCL, Parr did architectural training at the Glasgow School of Art and then the Bartlett in London. But shortly before Parr was due to start the last stage of his degree, they decided to “do something fun for the summer”, which was initially going to be a jelly stand at Borough Market in London.
“There was no stall selling a healthy, fresh dessert, and we thought of jelly,”, says Bompas. “It was always jelly,” adds Parr, enthusing about the history and possibilities of his beloved pudding. Borough turned them down, but the pair got a gig handing out jellies at an Innocent Smoothies event in Regent’s Park and things unfolded from there.
“We got a little write-up in a paper, and then someone invited us to create a jelly feast for them,” says Parr. “We’d never cooked like that before, but we just sort of worked out what they would want, and then worked out how to do it. Once you realise that if you just think about it hard enough, you can work out how to do it, it does boost your confidence.” There is clearly, all the same, a certain amount of chaos to proceedings; sometimes the commission precedes the idea, or sometimes the idea precedes the commission but they are still not quite sure how to actually make it work. In the case of the gin and tonic cloud, they had been to see Antony Gormley’s Blind Light exhibition, where Gormley filled a room with a mist and visitors walked through it, hardly able to see their hands in front of their face. Bompas and Parr both thought it “would be even better if it was alcohol”. They had a hypothetical chat about how you could do it, Bompas mentioned it to “someone with some space” and wham-bam they were booked, “when we really only knew that it should theoretically work, but not if it actually would”.
They solve problems by googling them; “Anything you need to know is out there,” says Bompas breezily, but Parr’s architectural training is obviously also a huge factor, and he provides more of the technical wizardry while Bompas is more likely to be “on the phone all day”. They see their complete lack of catering education as an advantage: “If you’d had training you’d always go down one specific route, and actually starting from first principles with everything keeps it interesting,” says Parr.
Having worked out how to create jelly moulds using architectural computer software, and a way to make tables move to show off the jelly at its best, they are currently playing around with the idea of pressurised icing sugar in liquid form. “You can ice really accurately over large areas,” Parr tells me seriously. After an hour in their company, I am no longer surprised when I ask what they are thinking of icing and the answer is “buildings”.
Despite working round the clock and existing on next-to-no sleep, they seem to be having the time of their lives. “It’s all a joy,” says Bompas. “We’re just grinning from ear to ear all the time.”