Our Story
I started Understory in 2012 to create new experiences with food. I never imagined that it would change my life. Over the last five years working as Understory has taken me around the world, brought new friends, thrilling adventures and redefined my understanding of what it is to eat and what it means to be human. In autumn 2012, I was fresh from writing and directing the immersive event ‘2.8 Hours Later’ and was keen to blend elements of immersive theatre with fine dining. Ever since I was a diner chef as a teenager, I’ve loved working with food. Seeking out support, I was lucky enough to win the new talent residency at the Pervasive Media Studio, alongside a G4A arts council grant, which allowed me to develop a prototype version of my first dining experience The Great Chocolate War.
The Great Chocolate War was an interactive edible story told in seven courses on purpose built dining consoles. The consoles were comprised of a wooden placemat, screen, headphones and raspberry pi computers. Each course was served on a slate of glass above the screen. The participants controlled the action through a wired knife and fork. I was privileged to work with an array of fabulous talent; Henry Edmonds (animation), Oscar Lyons (music), Russell Henry (carpentry) and Will Price (electronics). Each course contained chocolate and the story followed a magician trying to avert the apocalypse in a world where magic is powered by eating chocolate. This was in part inspired by the Aztec origin myth of cacao, where Quetzalcoatl brings cacao down from the heavens in a promethean-like tale.
Each individual component was successful. However, I learnt some simple truths. Fine dining is expensive. To run a restaurant that provides top quality experiences is already incredibly complex and costly. Adding technology, story gestation, multiple artists etc makes it enormously difficult to iterate. Thankfully during the project I fell in love with making chocolate and was certain that it was the right vehicle for edible art. I also learnt that dining is a social experience – as a species we are unique in how our social bonds are built around eating together. By placing headphones on diners while they ate, I isolated them from what feels natural. I finished the project wanting to understand the psychology that underpins eating.
Luckily, both objectives came knocking. Firstly, I was able to reach out to the Chocolate Tree, who are amongst the best chocolate makers in the UK, to train me in making chocolate ‘bean to bar’. Secondly, I began a collaboration with U.W.E on how storytelling and music affects flavour with Dr. Chris Alford & DJ Yoda. I was also contacted by psychologist Annie Zimmerman, who has become a key part of Understory and one of my closest friends.
Over the last 4 years, Annie and I have worked with research partners, exploring how flavour is created in the brain from the senses, memory and emotion. We’ve created experiences from immersive storytelling chocolate tastings to projection mapped chocolate giants and even our own chocolate bars that came with a documentary about the rarest cacao in the world. Our clients have included Unilever, Lipton, Dove, UKFA, Taste Chocolate Festival, BBC Radio 4 amongst others. Annie should be particularly credited with highlighting the importance of emotions and memory in not just eating but in the human experience. This has radically changed Understory’s approach to creating art. My original objective of creating new experiences with food is now viewed through the lens of how food creates emotions. We are now working more on how food creates emotions to understand those affected by mental health, obesity and eating disorders.
We have also been busy building our laboratory studio. It has taken nearly 2 years to acquire the equipment (and more importantly learn how to use it!) to deliver our vision of creative eating experiences in house. This involves using food lab equipment to create our chocolates and cutting edge fabrication tools to manufacture them. Below is a step by step of our process:
• Make delicious chocolate, of any flavour imaginable, using artisan ingredients • 3d scan or design objects • Create moulds from them • Make chocolates out of moulds • Create packaging in house • Create digital experience to go with chocolates
We are open, collaborative and always keen for new projects and experiences. If you would like to work with us, or commission us, click here. Thanks for reading, James Wheale
Founder & Artist