Dubai: Hot dog, ketchup and ice cream cone – what probably would have been odd culinary inventions to the audience of 20th-century World Expos are now irreplaceable snack staples of our generation. Expo 2020 Dubai will carry on the legacy; among its 200-plus food and beverage outlets and robot servers, there is a themed banquet awaiting diners who love a little spice, drama and adventure on their table.
We’re referring to the grandiose foodie experience aptly titled ‘The Future of Food: Epochal Banquet’ by London-based creative studio Bompas & Parr housed in Expo’s Sustainability District.
When you sit down at the long banquet table for your three-course dinner of two hours, you will be sampling a spread from the year 2321 - or at least that's how its creators envision it. Sam Bompas, co-founder of the studio alongside Harry Parr, assures that the meal will be had in the best-case scenario, where artificial intelligence (AI) will graduate from our dystopian films and books to stage a “joyous” banquet.
“Imagine theatre colliding with a dinner show,” was all Bompas said in an interview with Gulf News, adding that more details on the eclectic menu will be released closer to the show date. Visitors can book their seats as an add-on to their regular entry ticket on the official Expo 2020 website (www.expo2020dubai.com), keeping in mind that the experience is limited to three shows per day.
Housing a team of chefs, set designers, architects, graphic designers, and specialists of various disciplines, Bompas & Parr is somewhat of an innovation hub for food and drink. Its experimental streak birthed the world’s lightest dessert (a soft, cloud-like meringue), glow-in-the-dark ice cream and ramen, and flavoured fireworks. To think it all started with a fascination for jellies 14 years ago.
“[Harry and I] had a shared curiosity and interest in food and drink. We wanted to [start] a jelly company – historically, the British were very, very good at making jellies,” said Bompas. “We got distracted [along the way]; within a month, we’re doing full catering, 12-course Victorian breakfast … within a year, we’re hosting jelly banquets for two thousands of people at the same time.”
Their current project took two years to develop with Expo 2020 Dubai, and it is the studio’s biggest one since its inception – about 60 staff members make up the dedicated team for the world fair.
Food for thought: The Novacene theory
Behind the embellished curtains and posh setting, there lies a thought-provoking narrative touched by food. According to Bompas, food is the perfect vehicle for storytelling with its universal and accessible connection to multiple cultures on the planet. At Expo, Bompas & Parr is realising English scientist James Lovelock’s Novacene worldview, a theory that predicts the cohabitation of humans with hyper-intelligent beings born of AI in the very near future.
“When it comes to Expo 2020, we’re asking people to engage with very interesting topics about our change of relationship with AI; what some of the ethical pressures or challenges of innovation are; and what we should eat in the future,” said Bompas. “Our interpretation is that the relationship [between us and AI] is actually rather wonderful, where it can free you into a realm of pure creativity.”
When it comes to Expo, we’re asking people to engage with very interesting topics about our change of relationship with AI; what some of the ethical pressures or challenges of innovation are; and what we should eat in the future. Our interpretation is that the relationship [between us and AI] is actually rather wonderful, where it can free you into a realm of pure creativity.
The key is to feel an emotional connection with these beings who supersede our understanding of the world, and food, of course, can bridge that gap. Déjà vu drawn from eerie ‘Black Mirror’ episodes in our day-to-day lives is no longer a mere coincidence. Bompas says to prepare for co-existence is to simulate this imminent reality well in advance so that we may make better decisions in the future.
“Maybe ours (the banquet) is a fire safety training for the deep future, but one that is hopefully a lot of fun,” he said, laughing.
Bioluminescent food for a palatable future
When served noodles in colour-shifting neon yellows and bright oranges, you might wonder the whys and hows, just as diners before you in the US did while slurping from their lumen ramen bowl. The limited culinary experience, which was also the world's first, in the Nakamura-Ke mobile kitchens was put together by Bompas & Parr in 2019.
The alien-looking dish, for one, could very well serve as an ice-breaker for the quiet eater at Expo's communal meal. And on the more sober end, glow-in-the-dark condiments plan to trigger a serious conversation, according to Bompas, that puts food security on the table.
“We’re looking at future implications of transgenic [food]. Obviously, one of the great themes of Expo 2020 Dubai is the sustainability of our future planet,” he said. “One of the greatest challenges that humanity faces at the moment is food security. So, in the next 35 years we have to grow as much food as all of humanity has in its entire existence.”
Advanced tech makes it possible to grow crops that can stand droughts and mature faster. Though genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have stirred quite the controversy over the past decade, Bompas & Parr wanted to visualise the possible colours and shapes foods could take on to make them palatable to us.
A three-course extravaganza
A diner’s journey into this new world begins in a museum reception set 300 years into the future - you are invited to its grand opening night. At The Universal Museum of Food, one starts off by trying what we already know, or perhaps not know, from our time on earth as hunter gatherers to space explorers. Any head-scratching moments in the curation are very much deliberate.
“Sometimes museum curators just get things wrong,” said Bompas, referring to one of his favourite exhibits at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, Scotland, that houses a collection of unlabelled objects. “[Our museum] sort of breaks down the all-knowing language of a normal museum.”
‘The Future of Food: Epochal Banquet’ is headed by Chef Adam Filipek. Canapés, bite-sized savoury appetizers, are served before the first course comes in. Then you are met with a platter of glowing foods and its implications for transgenic ingredients, which is followed by a dystopian AI setting, challenging you with the strangest edibles you can stomach. “But the menu is one that everyone will be able to readily eat,” Bompas assured.
It doesn’t end there. The three-course meal extravaganza will take diners through “hypernature”, where they will get to dig into “ultra-exotics”. Novacene is the finale that shows off how creative AI can get.
Tickets for the culinary odyssey, starting at Dh550, are to go on sale early September, just a few weeks before Expo 2020 Dubai goes live on October 1, 2021.
Some pointers to keep in mind before booking:
- Any specific dietary requirements must be mentioned at the time of booking.
- Vegetarian options are available upon request.
- Banquet diners must be aged 14 and above.
- Since there are three shows per day, there is a lunch setting and a dinner setting.
- The experience is wheelchair friendly.
- The writer is an intern with Gulf News.