When an email has the words “aerogels and edible luminescence” in its title, you can’t help but be intrigued. Within lie more fantastical descriptors: “super-light delicacies formed using Nasa technology; flavour-changing desserts; glow-in-the dark culinary creations."
It all starts to make a bit more sense when I read the two names associated with this Future of Food: Epochal Banquet dining experience: Expo 2020 Dubai, that ultimate platform of world firsts, and Bompas & Parr, a company that specialises in putting together multisensory experiences – think edible fireworks, an all-blue food menu and the world’s lightest dessert.
It’s that last bit – created using aerogel, the world's lightest solid – that diners in Dubai will probably get to sample, among other yet-to-be-revealed dishes.
“One of the dishes on the Expo 2020 menu is [made of] aerogels treated using super-critical dryers to create an egg albumen. This forms a meringue-like base, which has an almost desiccating feel on the tongue,” Sam Bompas, co-founder of Bompas & Parr, tells The National. “It may sound strange, but there is a lot of research that shows humans can enjoy eating almost anything when presented within the right context.
“That an aerogel matrix was used by Nasa [on the Stardust mission in 1999] to collect virgin comet dust for the first time in human history, is very inspiring. And it’s wonderful to be able to telescope a culinary experience from a planetary level.”
Technology-infused dishes – inspired not only by space and microbiology, but also artificial intelligence and hyperintelligence – are at the heart of the two-hour dining experience that will launch alongside Expo 2020 Dubai in October and run across its six-month duration.
“The experience will begin with a drinks reception after which guests will enter a culinary universe that is set 300 years in the future,” says Bompas. “The whole meal is structured around the vision of James Lovelock, an extraordinary scientist, on the changing relationship between humanity, plants and artificial intelligence. Basically, the coming age of hyperintelligence.”
In a nutshell, Lovelock’s hypothesis states that 300 years from now, AI will be thinking 10,000 times faster than humans, which is about the same rate of difference between humans and plants.
These AI "beings" will look upon us as we look upon flora, yet will be equally dependent on the health of the planet and, according to Lovelock, 102, partner up with humans to defend it.
“So unlike a Terminator-type scenario, AI is not going to wipe out humans. Rather, this theory allows us to create quite an optimistic vision for the future,” says Bompas.
The dining experience at Expo will explore how humans and AI can combine to sustainably feed a growing population and tackle food waste, as well as the implications for future nutrition.
One dish that the studio is looking to create, for example, is defined by “super nature”. This is a theory used by a group of soil scientists to simulate environments at any point in human history – both prehistory and the future – and then projecting what the environment might be like 300 years later and creating the herbs that might be found in those conditions.
“There has been a lot of nervousness around it, but many scientists see it as an extension of a toolkit that farmers have been using for millennia to successively improve crop yield, and just getting better at that,” says Bompas.
“Having debates around this can start shaping opinions and a climate towards which we, as humanity, are more likely to be successful. If there ever were a time to address this, it certainly is now; this has been the rainiest August I have ever seen in Britain, there are wildfires raging, the most unusual of weather events have been reported and, of course, there is the pandemic.”
While this all sounds sufficiently serious, Bompas assures that the Future of Food: Epochal Banquet dining experience is first and foremost about delicious food and gracious hospitality.
“There’s not a thing we're putting on the table without having done at least five tastings. The way to think about this production is like we're putting together a restaurant, a theatrical meal, a piece of theatre, a museum and, hopefully, the best night of your life.
“This meal is the most ambitious thing we’ve had the opportunity to work on,” he says. “An Expo is about innovation. So we’re taking inspiration from past world fairs, in which many food items that no one had ever tasted before were pioneered, including things we take for granted now, from tomato ketchup to ice-cream cones to hot dog buns.
“Our question was what can we present here that may be normal in 10 or 100 years’ time, but that today will infuse people with awe and magic?”
Tickets to The Future of Food: Epochal Banquet by Bompas & Parr cost Dh550 and will be available from expo2020dubai.com from September. The experience is not suitable for guests under 14 and features strobe lighting that may affect those with sensory sensitivities