Meet the Team: Co-Founder, chef, designer of the delicious... Jenny McNeill
Jenny McNeill - Co-Founder & Food Director of Flavourology
What do you do?!
I’m the Food Director and one of the co-founders of Flavourology. It’s my job to design edible experiences for Flavourology’s bespoke event clients, but also to design the menus for Gingerline’s long running immersive dining experiences.
What were you doing before Flavourology? What brought you to where you are now?
Before Flavourology I have two lives, the first being working in marketing for 12 years, ending up in London integrated marketing agencies working with global brands. I gave it all up to go and be a ski bum, falling in love with food all over again while working in the Alps and eventually retraining to be a chef at Leiths School of Food & Wine. On graduating, I started Ginger Jar Food, a food design and event catering company based in South London, which I had been growing that right up until meeting the founders of Gingerline.
Did you always know you were going to do what you now do? Have you always loved working with food in some capacity?
Honestly, I was a very fussy eater as a child, but I remember getting excited about food for the first time in my early teens. We went for a Chinese meal on Christmas Eve and Peking duck pancakes blew my mind. From then I cooked and experimented a little but it was during living in France as a student that I had a proper awakening. A friend’s mother used to invite us for lunch every Sunday and the food was incredible – proper sauces to accompany roasted meats, a whole range of delicious salads and side dishes. Cheese.
When did Flavourology start and why - was there a light bulb moment?
Flavourology was truly born out of market demand. Gingerline sees 1000’s of diners a month flock to their experiences and many of those people work in marketing, PR or the events world. They started to ask if Gingerline could recreate some of their magic for their brands or clients and after a couple of years of building enquiries, Suz Mountfort and Kerry Adamson (Gingerline’s founders) had the idea to start sister company, Flavourology. With my background in marketing (and getting to the nub of a brief) and event catering we ran some tester events together before officially launching the company in April 2017.
Why the name Flavourology?
Our longer name is the Institute of Flavourology, which forms part of Gingerline legend in some of the Chambers of Flavour story lines and original classic Gingerline scripts. It’s a mythical place (or is it?), where experiments on perfect flavour combinations are constantly carried out.
You create ‘edible adventures’ – what does this involve?
Edible Adventures are all about taking people on a journey through food. To be a true adventure there needs to be a taste of the unexpected, a narrative holding the experience together with changes of pace and peaks of action, and enough drama to create memorable moments for guests to take away
Your multi-sensory dining experiences are ‘strictly for brave brands and daring hosts’ - what should someone expect at one of your events?
The unexpected. Each experience is designed to perfectly suit the brand or host we are working for. With brands, it’s all about trying to create an environment where diners live the product/service rather than simply being shown it or told about it, and with daring hosts we aim to hit the right note to ensure their guests leaving feeling what they want them to feel – excited, benevolent, comforted, spoilt – it suits a whole range of emotions and objectives.
What have been some of your most memorable events or dishes / menus and why?
Our first time working together was on a Resident Evil themed event, where we needed to create a dinner party hosted by zombies playing the family from the game. The team came up with courses that looked vile but were delicious to eat. The dessert course was a human heart on a platter, which actually was actually beating before being taken away and killed by the zombies. In reality it was a gorgeous summer pudding covered in wild raspberry jelly!
Any personal highlights so far…?
The most personally challenging event we have done and therefore the most rewarding for me, was the first time we delivered one of our adventures for News UK at Cannes Lions. We had less than six weeks to design an experience which would impress even the most seasoned, seen it all, marketing professionals, while working from a farmhouse kitchen with no time to fully rehearse.
We designed a crime caper as the back drop to the evening and cast the diners in the role of journalists, dividing them up into editorial teams. They had to write Sun headlines and be judged by the ex-editor of The Sun, interrogate witnesses and form their version of the facts for The Times and finally follow the charge of actors to a woodland clearing for the Fake News ending. All the while, our food was designed to match the identity of the publications they were experiencing working for.
What is it about food that makes a good medium for storytelling / taking people on a journey?
Food is the thing that ties everyone together in a collection experience. Especially if people are sitting down, when you feed and nurture people they also give you their attention more readily, allowing you to immerse them more fully in the adventure.
How do you develop the ideas behind your projects? What is your creative process?
The process differs depending on the product, brand or company we are designing for. With pure daring hosts - corporate hospitality - how you want the guest to feel is at the centre of the creative process and then the fun starts from there. With a product or brand it’s a much more complex design process to break down the root components into an immersive experience, which feels like that product/brand in every sense.
If I was hosting an event and approached you to provide your unique style of bespoke edible adventure, how would that process work?
We start at the beginning with what you want your guests to think and feel during and after attending your event. Is the event there to alter perceptions of your brand? Is it to raise awareness and social clout by doing something daringly different? Is it there to make your guests feel the most spoilt they have ever spoilt? The underlying driver sparks the event design process as we add building blocks of food, performance, set design and sound design to achieve this through a whole manner of immersive techniques.
‘Immersive’ is a massive buzz word in the events world and some might say slightly overused – what does this word mean to you? Is it something that you work towards in your food?
True immersive dining takes you away from your normal reality and into a totally new space. It needs to make you start thinking and feeling that you are truly part of the adventure from what you are eating to what you can see, how you are being interacted with, what you can hear and what you can touch. Gingerline is the pioneer of this type of dining, creating whole new worlds for diners to experience. Flavourology works on scale of immersion from Gingerline-esque, multi-sensory experiences to more light touch, food-focussed events, designed and tailored to each client.
Immersive and theatrical events that involve extraordinary, thoughtful and intriguing food/menus have really increased in popularity in recent years – do you see this trend changing or evolving in any way?
This sector of the market with definitely keep evolving. London and its inhabitants are constantly looking for new adventures and it’s our job to keep up.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Inspiration comes from all sorts of sources. We’re lucky in that we can use so many reference points to cause a reaction in our guests, from nostalgic, childhood games to futuristic innovations or perhaps classic literature.
What do you love most about what you do and what do you find most challenging?
I love that my job keeps me on my toes. Our clients love to give us tricky briefs and are constantly pushing us to innovate. We readily accept the challenge and are most fascinated with finding the perfect way to engage our guests in our experiences.
When you’re not whipping up imaginative feasts for others how do you like to entertain when you’re at home?!
On a whole I keep things simple. Last NYE was shin of beef chilli, piles of build your own taco ingredients and ice cream for dessert. If I have more time to do still love to push the boat out though, I’ll ask my diners to pick a continent and try and find inspiration from there.