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The terms ‘future’ and ‘food’ are seldom used in the same sentence. When we think of food, it is usually to anticipate the next meal of the day. After all, food is all about the here and now. So, when Expo 2020 Dubai announced a first-of-its-kind dining experience, transporting us 300 years into the future, we wanted to get a taste of it. Future of Food: The Epochal Banquet, coming to the city in less than a month’s time (October 1), is a mega multisensory food experience that requires foodies of the town to sit tight and brace themselves for a rich, immersive culinary window into the future.
Here are Sam Bompass and Harry Parr, founders of Bompas & Parr multisensory design studio, who will be curating this experience at Expo 2020 Dubai
Promising ultra-light, glow-in-the-dark creations, made of edible luminescence and changing flavours as we go along, the futuristic dining experience is a never-seen-before journey created and plated to perfection by UK-based multi-sensory experience design studio, Bompas & Parr, in collaboration with Expo 2020 and will look like this...
The immersive experience, based on the idea of Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, hypothesised by renowned 102-year-old scientist James Lovelock, will explore the implications of food in a future where robots and artificial intelligence are seamlessly interspersed with human existence.
This picture represents a dish from the futuristic meal — the main course in 'The Gaia' (year 2220) based on James Lovelock's theory
“You’re coming to what happens when a piece of theatre collides with a museum and a restaurant to create a place where all sorts of entertainment comes together,” says Sam Bompas, of the UK-based design studio that has conceptualised this futuristic dining experience. “What you’ve seen so far is only a twinkle in the eye of the intention of the menu.”
The full menu is now out, showcasing several world-firsts, and tickets for the culinary odyssey are on sale at Expo 2020 website. Some of the world-firsts in the menu to look-out for: Vegan bone marrow, Aerogel meringues, transgenic collagen-infused sauce in a glow-in-the-dark starter, future dream-inducing chocolate.
The starters will showcase the imminent future (2021), with an entrée of shiitake and kow choi dumplings in a luminescent seaweed broth. Interlude will comprise AI-driven Dystopia (2121) with vegan bone marrow with burnt butter. Main course will serve dishes based in The Gaia (2220) like chestnut wafer tops, rolled lamb belly and trumpet squash. And dessert will be set in The Novacene (2320), with flavour-changing delicacies and iridescent knafeh iced sphere with botanicals.
Gearing up for a food-fuelled revolution, culinary designer, Sam Bompas, deep dives into the intricacies of the AI-infused, multisensory dining experience at Expo 2020 Dubai.
ON CONCEPTUALISING THE EPOCHAL BANQUET
Food is one of the ways in which nostalgia, culture and history are preserved and passed down. Cultures can be very attached to certain culinary traditions. In a place like Dubai, the palate is rich because the place draws from different cultures. That’s where the magic happens.
Almost three years ago, we were briefed by the Expo to do something utterly remarkable. Personally, I have been obsessed with Expos and the food there for many years. The ethos of the Expo has been to serve as a place where new features of food can be explored. You got the first ice cream cone at an Expo; apparently, the world’s first hot dog bun and ketchup were also discovered at an Expo. And these are things that have changed the way people consume food.
Graphics by Raja Choudhury
My personal hero is Alexis Soyer. At the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, he set up a universal symposium for all nations, which was a great exhibition for food. He basically invented gas cooking and his advocacy of it increased the average life expectancy of chefs in England. Prior to this, chefs often died from cooking on the coals, which would destroy their lungs.
And now, we’re actually setting up a Universal Museum of Food at Expo 2020, looking at the future of food and bringing it all together.
ON ENVISIONING THE FUTURE OF FOOD
What we didn’t want to do with this project is present possible futures of food that have been broadly discussed or seen by people. We are interested in presenting radical new futures that are beyond the limits of creativity. In the imminent future, we’re focusing on genetic modification. And one of the greatest challenges for humankind in the next 35 years is that we have to grow as much food as all of humanity has in the entire history of humanity. How are we going to do that?
We’ve been in talks with University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, University of Sheffield and the UAE space agency, where people are using cellular culture to define the future of what we’re going to eat. We’re setting up a bio tunnel with University of Sheffield to simulate an atmosphere of the future. What will the atmosphere of our planet most likely be in 300 years? Probably with a lot more carbon dioxide. What does that mean for the plants and herbs? Will they taste more or less? What we really want is, every single person coming to the Expo has an opportunity to contribute to and change the future. The Epochal Banquet menu incorporates herbs grown in a high CO2 environment simulated to resemble that of the year 2220.
These are the kind of thoughts we want to spark while keeping in mind the creative and aesthetic aspects. So, the very first dish glows in the dark. It’s going to look amazing on your Instagram. It also tastes way better than you think it should, given how much it’s glowing.
DOES THE FOOD TASTE AS WELL AS IT GLITTERS?
It looks spectacular, but tastes even better. Once you’ve had your first bite, you’ll want to have more. And, of course, with that, we’re also doing some hyper personalisation. We’ll be personality-profiling to give a personalised seasoning to your palate. The whole concept is you’re stepping 300 years into the future. We go through successive, different eras of eating and go deep into the future, reaching James Lovelock’s Novacene. That is the dawn of hyperintelligence, and it’s looking at the implications of AI in the future.
A lot of discourse about the future is around the manifested evidence of climate change, which has had an impact on people’s lives across the globe. He’s been incredible to work with because he’s told us all sorts of stories from his highly accredited body of work.
It’s only recently that there’s a growing understanding of human consciousness and we still don’t entirely understand it yet, right? Now, we’re also moving towards a greater understanding of animal consciousness. And as we do that, it changes our relationship with food. Think synthetic proteins.
ON ANIMAL CRUELTY AND WHERE IT FIGURES IN THE FUTURE OF FOOD
As we have a growing understanding of animals, their mental landscape, their ability to feel pain, I think we’ll become more conscious of it. Especially if we also have a choice of not growing animal protein organically and have other sources to provide the same benefits. Parts of the meal will explore the ethical and environmental implications of transgenics
We don’t want to go into clean eating with a bargepole because there’s bad science involved in it. There’s no accepted definition of clean eating. So a lot of it is marketing hype. One of the things that has been important for us is to work with pre-eminent scientists who are peer approved, to facilitate a scientific discourse. And then to get people to ask their own questions by providing a foundation of information. That’s not to shut it down because I think there are a lot of people making wholehearted and earnest endeavours to be more engaged in planetary issues. But it’s a very broad term. And within that broad term, it’s a mixed bag.
ON WHAT THE MULTISENSORY DISHES WILL BE MADE OF
There’s a whole spectrum of remarkable ingredients but what we ultimately want people to do is to have a very delicious meal and a fun night out. We want people to leave, having had a really good meal that provokes thought and debate.
One of the things I’m really excited about is a breakthrough we’ve been working on for over seven years. The chemistry department at the University of Cambridge has been working on the future of structural dyes. Now, structural dyes mean you get the colour through the molecular structure of the dye. This is important in a world where lots of dyes that have been historically used in food aren’t particularly good for you. The dyes that are best at the moment are typically derived from food, which means they aren’t necessarily as vivid as you’d like.
Whilst there are over 20,000 known fruit varietals, there are thought to be three times more, as yet untasted by humanity. These will be the defining flavours of future eras
Now, the University of Cambridge has developed a dye that looks like the back of a beetle. It’s iridescent and sparkles. It’s based on pollia condensata, a berry that is known to be the world’s shiniest living thing. And finally, the team at Cambridge, the kitchens and our studio have found an application for it. So at the moment, we’re looking at exactly how that comes through in the menu for the Expo.
ON DESSERTS THAT CHANGE FLAVOURS
We’ve been working with Professor Charles Spence at Oxford University, who’s done a lot of work on crossmodalism, which is using what you see and what you hear, and complex flavour matrices to change your perception of taste. So you’re within a complex flavour compound. For instance, chocolate has about 800 distinct flavours and you can dial up or dial down the volumes of those flavours. And that’s what we’ll be doing to change the flavour of the dessert as people eat it.
Bompas & Parr’s signature jelly will feature at the culmination of the meal. But they’ll be in their most futuristic guise to date. The Epochal Banquet menu features flavour-changing jelly accompanied by a biologically metallic iced sphere.
ON AI DISRUPTING HUMAN CONNECTION IN A DINING EXPERIENCE
We come from a food and drinks background, so there needs to be a spirit of generosity of welcoming and hosting. That underlies every design, every decision that we’ve taken — AI or no AI. Another aspect to this is people are coming to the Expo from around the world. Your understanding of food and drink and which flavours you like is a cultural phenomenon. You can learn to like almost any flavour. No one starts life on this planet liking the flavour of coffee, it’s something you grow to love.
So one thing that’s been important to us is to have flavours and food experiences that provoke thought, but are also universally acceptable because we are still hosting people and we still want them to walk away feeling great. There’s been all sorts of thinking all through the twentieth century that suggests robots are going to take over and humankind won’t need to lift a finger. But it’s important to have some friction and collision of ideas in your daily life. Ultimately, that leads to a rewarding life.
ON SOCIAL MEDIA'S EVOLVING RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD
We’ve worked wearing lots of hats, as chefs and caterers. We’ve worked as consultants advising many of the world’s biggest companies about how they should be serving people in the future. We’ve also worked as designers and as theatre-makers. So, I’d say the most important thing that’s happened in the food industry is the emergence of social media and what that has allowed people to do.
If you were a chef years ago, the only way you could experience other chefs’ work was by working for them. Then you’d wait for the chefs’ monographs, which come out every seven years or so, only documenting the world’s top chefs. And now social media means that anyone in the kitchen can come up with the next greatest innovation. And anyone around the world can look at it and recreate it. Although you might not be tasting the exact flavours, there’s been an acceleration of food culture, exchange of knowledge and democratisation of food in the last few decades.
ON DUBAI BEING ONE OF THE CULINARY HUBS OF THE WORLD
The strength of such a place is in welcoming different cultures and engaging with them. That’s why London, for instance, is an exciting place to eat out, just like Dubai. You’re always like “Where do I want to travel to today?” The richness of food experiences you can have in a day, in such places, is phenomenal. Once the repertoire expands, knowledge expands and that’s when you’re able to go into more complex ideas that can be transported across.
Consider the fork! The Universal Museum of Food will look at culinary themes throughout history, including the evolution of cutlery. An entire display case is dedicated to notable spoons
Look at bao, for example. It has been so successful in western context because although it’s different, it’s basically a burger. So Americans have embraced bao wholeheartedly because it’s something they’re familiar with. But it also becomes a gateway to exploring Korean cuisine more deeply.
The whole realm of understanding Asian cuisine is something you can’t fathom by only speaking English or European languages. For instance, Japanese has 400 distinct words to describe food textures whereas English has about 70 words to describe them. So, the impact will be harder to understand because you don’t have the linguistic toolbox to engage with them. But this will improve as food languages start to evolve. And this Expo has more country pavilions than any other ever recorded. There are going to be more people from different cultures coming through the door than ever before. So, we want to make a rich fruitcake of an experience for Dubai!
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