by Malcolm Jolley
Bob Blumer is enjoying his wild blueberry scone. It’s a grey fall Tuesday morning in Toronto and Blumer has agreed to meet me at 9am at The Drake Hotel’s café. I have moved the meeting from a civilised 11 o’clock up to first thing because of a conflict. I assume Blumer’s suggestion that we meet at The Drake is because he’s staying here, but as he digs into his scone, between sips of Earl Grey tea, the veteran cookbook author, TV presenter and provocateur génèrale, explains it has nothing to do with where he’s staying and everything to with enjoying his pastry, which he has been specifically looking forward to since his last trip back to his native Toronto from his adopted home in L.A. And I am hit with the Zen revelation that Blumer’s entire career is about enjoying this blueberry scone and teaching the world to do the same. This is the first secret of his success, I think.
Some disclosure: Bob Blumer’s recipe for ‘Italian Chicken’ from his 1992 debut, Surreal Gourmet, altered the path of my life in profound ways. It elevated my humble undergrad repertoire considerably and stoked an enduring interest in good things to eat. In other words, I owe this man a debt of culinary pleasure. I have also become friendly and acquainted with Blumer, since I interviewed him for Gremolata, a few years ago. So when I learned he would be in town to promote his latest book, Glutton For Pleasure, I began a merciless campaign of harassment directed towards his publicist to secure a proper, sit-down chat because he’s not only an interesting guy, he’s also fun to hang out with. Which is, of course, the second secret of his success. The enthusiasm he puts to page and demonstrates in his shows is entirely genuine – there’s no act.
Glutton For Pleasure is a kind of ‘Greatest Hits’ book of recipes (all retested and sometimes tweaked – “remastered”, if you will). The book is also rife with amusing anecdotes and observations about life on the road as a food writer and TV presenter, mixed in with two decades of acquired wisdom on the fine art of sharing and enjoying a meal. Blumer insists he still cooks all the recipes in the book: “It’s my repetoire.” And as smart and interesting as Blumer’s food may be, it’s actually quite straight forward with a matter-of-fact simplicity of a cook who’s been shopping at the farmers’ market for 20 years and knows how to stretch a budget.
Blumer has made a career at focusing the joy of preparing and serving good food into easily consumed and digested cultural products, but it turns out it all came about by accident. Blumer’s first career was as a rock’n’roll manager, specifically to Jane Siberry, the Canadian avant-garde new wave chanteuse whose career he followed to California. In the early 90’s Siberry went to England to record an album with the legendary producer Brian Eno and Blumer used this hiatus to write Surreal Gourmet. “I was winging it, ” he says, “it was just my perspective on what makes a great dinner party.”
Three subsequent things happened in quick succession that launched his career, he explains, as the last of his scone disappears. First he was picked up almost right away by Chronicle books in San Francisco, then the The New York Times featured Surreal Gourmet in its Christmas book recommendation list, turning it into a bestseller overnight, and finally he received a scathing review from an Australian critic writing in QANTAS’ in-flight magazine. “It was a terrible review: the guy kept complaining there was nothing surreal about the recipes!” he says chuckling.
Of course, the recipes weren’t supposed to be surreal, the title referred to the Dali and Magritte inspired illustrations Blumer created with each recipe (as well as music recommendations, which he still does). But, as it happened, the first-time cookbook author received an invitation to cater a reception for the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburgh, Florida. Blumer decided to have some fun, take the cranky Aussie critic’s advice and came up with a menu that included “sunnyside-up eggs” made of apricot halves on cheesecake whites. Glutton For Pleasure includes a chapter of these sort of trompe d’oeil, with things like ‘Lamb Cupcakes’, but all the other “straight” recipes in the career-spanning book carry Blumer’s sense of play and deep desire of us all to get in the kitchen and have some fun.
Blumer’s most famous kitchen is the one he built in a customized Airstream trailer, a.k.a. “The Toastermobile”. The Toastermobile got Blumer onto television, where he continues to broadcast his food philosophy. Blumer quietly points out that only he and PEI Chef Michael Smith have been continuosly on Food Network Canada since its launch ten years ago. But the toastermobile, in which he toured North America for his Surreal Gourmet TV shows, was initially restored and kitted out as a way to tour his book: “I’m a rock’n’roll guy – a tour manager,” he explains, “I thought I should take the books on the road.” Blumer got sponsors for his tour and started taking his kitchen trailer around the continent, cooking for anyone who was interested.
Blumer’s entrepreneurial streak has held: he is a stakeholder in (and promoter of) Victoria Spirits, the Vancouver Island artisanal distiller and maker of Victoria Gin. He got involved because he liked the taste, he says, and he liked the people. He is also the self-described “spokesmodel” for Tabasco hot sauce, again because he loves the product. When I put it to him that he must be a canny businessman, he laughs and says, “I’ve never had a job in my life, I just try and do the things I love.”
Glutton For Pleasure is a riff on Blumer’s show Glutton for Punishment, his show currently airing its fifth season on Food Network and around the world. In it he accepts some extreme food challenge (often breaking a Guinness World Record). As production has wrapped up, Blumer is working on a new show, which involve going to the world’s weirdest restaurants. He hopes to be able to get it on air, but he warns me that despite his record of success, “I still have to jump through as many hoops as the next guy.” But the research sounds fun, and Blumer is animated and excited about the recipes he’ll develop out of each visit. They are clever, funny ideas like the ones in his book and I don’t want to jinx anything by giving them away. I hope the show gets made.
An hour flies by and it’s time for me to move on. As we say say goodbye he looks down and sees that I have been too busy taking notes to eat much of my scone. This will not do! He wraps it up in a napkin and insists I take it with me and I do.
Visit Bob Blumer’s website at bobblumer.com.