Life has taken some interesting turns for Bob Blumer.
Once the one time business manager of Jane Siberry—yes, that Jane Siberry—Blumer decided to create a cookbook while his famous client was off recording a record with Brian Eno. Little did he know where that cookbook would take him. Now, several cookbooks and TV shows later, Blumer is now one of this country’s most well-known celebrity chefs. We spoke to Blumer ahead of Second Harvest’s Toronto Taste event.
In four sentences or less, tell us who you are and what you do for a living.
I’m a professional dishwasher and gastronaut (laughs).
Becoming a TV personality was a career change for you—when and why did you decide to leave behind your job as Jane Siberry’s business manager?
To be honest, I never intended to become a television personality. I wrote a cookbook as a side-project, and over the course of six years it slowly turned into my accidental career.
What got you started on the cookbook?
It was a gift I had made for my sister when she moved into her very first apartment. I cobbled together a small scrap book that had all the recipes I knew at the time. It also included the best of my bachelor wisdom and inexpensive pick-me-ups.
Years later, after I moved to Los Angeles to be closer to Warner Bros. and Jane was in England making a record with Brian Eno, I had a lot of extra time on my hands, so I decided to pick up where that gift for my sister had left off.
I started a cookbook that was all about how to make champaign pasta while living on a SpaghettiOs diet.
And that’s where the Surreal Gourmet came from. It was called that because the illustrations in the cookbook were surreal, not because there was anything surreal about the food. I couldn’t afford a photographer at the time, so I decided to illustrate the dishes with my own drawings and paintings that were inspired by my favourite surrealist artists, Salvador Dalí and René Magritte.
Years later, a critic accused me of not living up to my name and so that’s about the time I started creating more unusual dishes.
Have you always loved cooking?
No, I was more so forced to learn to cook when I didn’t have much money. As they say, necessity is the mother of all invention.
You’ve had the chance to travel the world and check out most of the world’s great food cities. How would you say Toronto’s restaurant scene compares to those in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong?
A friend of mine from Los Angeles came to Toronto to do some touring; one of the things he was struck by was how many great but small restaurants there are in Toronto.
With a minimal amount of money, chefs and restaurant owners go in and transform a little hole in the wall in to place that has a nice environment. They haven’t spent a lot of money like restaurants tend to do in Los Angeles, but they’re still making phenomenal food and they’re doing it in casual environment that’s super diner friendly. That’s something you don’t see in a lot of places.
The barrier to entry for a great chef is much higher in other cities. In Toronto, we’re cool with casualness, and that’s what helps foster an amazing food scene here.
How did you get involved with Second Harvest? What drew you to the cause?
I participated in one of their events a long, long time ago.
I think their model is such a smart model. For basically what is a trucking logistics company, they rescue food—which is donated to them for free—that would have been thrown otherwise and they get it to people that need it. All their costs are in trucking and logistics. It only costs them about $0.50 to serve someone a full meal. I’m always so in awe of it and so I try to do whatever I can to help raise awareness and money for them.
As someone that is always around restaurants, can you put in perspective how much food is wasted at one?
Well, first of all, they don’t just rescue food from restaurants. They get their food from producers and grocery stores, as well. They rescue food that is maybe past it’s prime for a grocery store to sell, but not past its prime to be delicious and nourishing. They also get food from huge catering events where there’s uneaten food left over.
There’s a figure that’s tossed around all the time. It’s something like a third of all food produced in the world is wasted.
It’s shocking, but it happens at every level. The food that goes to waste in your fridge is a great example: we all end up throwing food out of our refrigerator, or tossing the leftovers we brought over from a Chinese restaurant. Multiple that by everything that’s happening the world and you have a lot of food that’s going to waste.
Can you share one interesting interesting tidbit about yourself that might not be immediately apparent to those of us that only know you through your TV work?
What I do on television is what I refer to as TV Bob. I come off as larger than life and some people might find me abrasive. When I’m cooking for on television, I’m preparing food that is usually whimsical in its presentation. Deep down, though, I’m a very passionate foodie. I love creating meals with simple and fresh ingredients. I also love sharing what I know with people.
I’m at the point in my career where I get as much or more pleasure mentoring people as I do doing things that solely benefit my career. It’s interesting to see that in oneself, where giving someone else pleasure or helping changing their life is actually more gratifying than doing things for yourself.
Outside of your work and food, what are some things that motivate and inspire you?
In an interview an old girlfriend of mine was asked to describe me. She said, “Well, you hang out with Bob and it’s kinda like food, food, food, food and then you go to the occasional movie” (laughs).
I do a ton of cycling and I have a big interest in wine. Beyond that, I try to be a good and loyal friend, and I’m always trying to get a lot out of life.
What’s next for you personally and professionally?
Oh, many top secret projects!
No, I’m kidding. I’m slowly working on the notion of creating a toaster mobile restaurant.
I have a new book that just came out which I co-wrote with a friend, Pizza on the Grill. I’m working on another new book. I’m also working on a couple of big ideas for my next TV show. Finally, I’ve start doing speaking engagements where I talk about the circuitous path I took to getting this job.
Toronto Standard is proud to be a media partner of Toronto Taste 2014.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Is there a creative Torontonian you would like to see profiled? Email Igor Bonifacic at igor[at]torontostandard[dot com] to nominate someone.
Igor Bonifacic is the managing editor of Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter.