Mark Bonington speaks with Charlie Harry Francis – food inventor and founder of “Lick Me, I’m Delicious“
“I grew up on an ice cream farm” would have to be one of the more unusual opening lines to an interview. But then, there is nothing ‘usual’ about food inventor Charlie Harry Francis. A creative and technical tour-de-force, he has transformed his love of invention and, of course, ice cream into a lucrative business venture.
And yes, I’m afraid I was still unclear as how exactly one ‘farms’ ice cream by the end. I’d like to think there is an isolated estate in deepest Wales somewhere with a field for chocolate, one for mint, one for strawberry and so on. Or perhaps some creature as-yet-hidden from the non ice-cream farming community which produces it, possibly in a hive setting, from which the ice cream farmer harvests his crop before freezing it in little Tesco-ready plastic tubs?
The by-product of an ice cream farm upbringing (however it may be done) was, for Charlie, the entrepreneurial desire to build and experiment.
“As a little kid I was a nightmare,” he recalls, “I’d get my toys for Christmas, then on Boxing Day I’d pull them all apart and make new things out of them. I had a beautiful steam train, but by the next day I was making the lights flash with the motor and things. It drove my parents mad.”
But madness, as has so often been observed, is merely the misunderstood second cousin to genius. And genius means originality. So from popcorn hairdryers to edible mist machines, how important is originality to entrepreneurialism for Charlie?
“It really depends on your industry. For us, we work in the high end of the events industry, so innovation and originality are what we thrive off. As long as you do what you’re doing really well, then you can find originality in anything, I think. For us, we strive to make each event truly unique.”
Speaking with Charlie, you can’t help but notice that everything he touches, every invention he creates, seems to take on a slightly maverick and almost steampunk quality. Those aesthetics, he explains, are very important.
“The Victorians loved experimenting, and they were very proud of everything they built. It was about showing the inner workings off, not hiding them away. Levers and clunks and things flying around. I love all that.”
This is something which seems to fly in the face of current iGeneration technology, which often looks more like a plain white plate than a mysterious Victorian contraption.
“I think there’s almost a rejection against that,” says Charlie. “I mean, it’s great that we have it – I have an iPhone and I love it to pieces – but I’ve always had an advocate for curiosity. There’s something a bit sad that we don’t know what goes on in that little white tablet of magic. I think if you can create something where someone pulls a lever and then sees how it works, there’s something very nice about that. After all, we’re not just serving food. We’re serving theatre.”
And Charlie has amassed quite a resume of carnivalistic concoctions so far – ranging from viagra ice-cream for an A-lister’s private party to dinosaur meat. With such an impressive gallery, which are his favourite inventions?
“I’m proud of them all, in their different ways,” he says with the proud air of a Victorian father asked to choose his preferred child. “The things I’m most excited about are always the things which are coming next, because I tend to get bored quite easily. We’re working on a machine which reads the neurological brain waves of your head, so it can work out which foods you’re enjoying more. We’re also working on a jellybean waterfall.”
Inventions which have not gone unnoticed among the glitterati and cognoscenti. The sartorial server boasts a corporate and celebrity client list which includes names such as Google, Audi and Barclays.The others he is not allowed to reveal due to confidentiality contracts (yep, they’re THAT level of famous).
But when it comes to aspiring entrepreneurs, he has some sound tips:
“Do something you’re genuinely interested in. If you’re passionate about it, other people will feed off that. I’ve always tried to do things which have never been done before, which generates a bit of buzz. Just try and enjoy what you do. We strive to cross food with technology and engineering. A little bit of art as well. We’re also working on a project called the ‘Music of Meals’. It will include an album of music to listen to as you eat your meal, which will affect how the meal tastes.”
Somehow, the idea of everlasting mist machines and singing food seems close to normal. Rather like everlasting gobstoppers and chocolate waterfalls did as a kid.
Which brings me to the question I’ve been burning to ask: Does anyone else draw comparisons with a certain factory-owning chocolateur?
“Yes.” he laughs, with the wearied hidden sigh of someone so used to a comparison he doesn’t fight it anymore. “I don’t dispute them. I just don’t make them myself.”