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Playing with food: London's most innovative chefs

Alexi Duggins

Who fancies a tarantula cocktail? There are people in London doing incredible things with food and drink. Alexi Duggins and Gareth May meet the innovators turning eating into an artform.

Suz Mountfort, Gingerline

In a nutshell: Co-founder of the city’s most popular immersive dining group.

'I started Gingerline with Kerry [Adamson, co-founder] as a way of just creating a really fun dinner party. Really, it was a way to test out if I had what it took to become a chef. Turns out, I don’t. But while figuring that out, we invented this whole new thing called “immersive dining”.

‘We try to send diners on a journey where they travel through several different experiences in one night. Our last event involved being put into a boat and pushed through a wall into a jungle, where your canapé course is an orb you pluck from the ceiling that releases a salad when you squeeze it. From there we sent them into a room that was a neon-lit recreation of a Singaporean hawker market. In one evening they went through a pan-century, pan-island holiday in five different food courses.

‘The thing that hooked me right from our first dinner is seeing people who’ve never previously met forging these really strong bonds. That happens because they’re interacting in these unusual situations. You’d never get that at a normal restaurant. But it’s what makes our events so great.’

Get a taste: New project ‘The Chambers of Flavour’ starts next month.

Alex Kratena, Artesian

In a nutshell: Head bartender at the most innovative cocktail venue in town. 

‘When I develop drinks I look at the flavour combinations rather than the ingredients. Inspiration can come from anywhere - a piece of art, perfume, anything you can absorb. I get a lot of ideas from cosmetic products because I know if something works as a scent I just need to figure out the recipe.

‘A couple of years back, our rivals and friends at The Dead Rabbit in New York challenged us to a cocktail competition, just as a bit of fun. We bought them a dead rabbit and used its blood in one of our drinks. It was like a horror movie.

‘We’ve also infused cognac with oven-baked tarantula. It tastes like a cross between beef jerky and chicken. It has such a wow factor, but when it comes to extreme or unusual ingredients, it’s a matter of personal perception. What is normal for me might be a bit of a shocker for others. In some parts of the world they have restaurants serving dog, and it’s absolutely normal. And delicious.’

Get a taste: Try the Anti Hero from Artesian’s surrealist menu. It’s presented in a Salvador Dali-inspired model elephant.

Brandy Wright, The Robin Collective

In a nutshell: Creator of sense-baffling food products and events.

‘I don’t know how to explain what it is that I do. Robin [Fegen, the other half of the Robin Collective] and I work with food, but we use it as a design medium. Usually, we just do stuff that we think is really funny. I had a dehumidifier in my flat and I was trying to convince Robin to drink the water from it. “Go on!” I was saying, “it’s basically like essence of Brandy!” And then we realised: you could actually do the same thing with famous people. We got as far as setting up a modified dehumidifier in the Churchill War Rooms and launching our brand of Churchill Historical Bitters.

‘Often our ideas come from sitting around with our team, brainstorming the most ridiculous things we can. That’s what we do: we come up with an idea and we make it happen.’

Get a taste: Join the Extreme Garnishing workshop on September 3 at Drink Shop & Do.

Paul Greening, Aqua Kyoto

In a nutshell: The chef who’s an actual scientist.

‘I get a lot of inspiration from my background in microbiology. I incorporate nature and the natural process of bacteria into my food. As a scientist you analyse things in a different way, and cooking, in many respects, is the first ever science.

‘One of the key facets of Asian cooking is probiotics and fermentation. We have buckets in the kitchen for all kinds of ferments, from sake kasu - which uses the lees left over from the production of sake - to nukamiso, made from the husk of milled rice. I’ve made a soy sauce out of fermented grasshoppers and a miso from English acorns, and I’ve fermented, among other things, seaweed, mango, carrot, fennel and Japanese rose.

‘My most ambitious idea to date was to create a new type of sushi skin made from a bacterial gel to use in place of nori. I wanted to make something that’s unique to Aqua Kyoto, which would not be replicated.

‘I always do a detailed analysis of what I want from a product. When I made a sugar apple [for the Fuji Apple dessert] with glass-blowing techniques it took two months to get it right. It’s an artform.

‘Recently, I’ve started developing an edible soya balloon made with a bacterial gel and filled with helium gas. It’s a bit of a plaything, really: you eat the balloon and you get a funny voice.’

Get a taste: Order the magnificent Fuji Apple dessert at Aqua Kyoto. It takes each chef a month to learn how to make it.

Harry Parr, Bompas & Parr

In a nutshell: Pioneers of experimental multisensory food events.

‘If I look at what we do in the cold light of day, sometimes it just seems absolutely bizarre. A couple of years ago me and Sam [Bompas, the other half of Bompas & Parr] created the world’s first chocolate climbing wall for Alton Towers. One day I woke up to an emergency phone call. It was really, really important: our project had started to endanger the lives of a lake full of fish. But when I look back on it, it was someone on the phone going: “There’s a chocolate leak! We’ve got to save the fish from the chocolate!”

‘We went from being a jelly company who wanted a stall at Borough Market, to launching an architectural jelly design competition where Lord Foster submitted a jelly in the shape of his Millennium Bridge.

‘We’ve turned the Kew Gardens Palmhouse Ponds into a fruity boating lake where you could row through a banana cloud. We’ve even had a quarter of a million people all tasting the same thing, thanks to the year we created multisensory fireworks at the Mayor’s New Year’s Eve display. 

‘What we do is actually a lot more work than just running a restaurant. It’s all about trying something new. I never, ever find myself wishing we’d just stuck to making jelly.’ 

Get a taste: Bompas & Parr’s walk-in cloud of breathable alcohol is at Borough Market until Jan 2016.

Want more whacky food? Here are nine London dishes that'll boggle your brain.

Still hungry? Bompas & Parr are hosting a 24-hour dinner party.

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