His music management career in a weird limbo and freshly arrived in Los Angeles, Bob Blumer was looking around for a way to pay the rent.
His friend suggested he write a cookbook. Bob had never worked as a chef. He hadn’t even worked in a restaurant. He had knocked together a “guide” of simple recipes and tips to stocking your fridge for his kid sister ahead of her moving into her first apartment. He called it Bob’s Bachelor Basics.
“Hare-brained schemes are a dime a dozen but I thought, ‘You know what? I should write a cookbook!’” he says. “So I sat there and sketched a few ideas.”
That The Surreal Gourmet: Real Food for Pretend Chefs was ever published was a testament to Bob’s knack for hustling an opportunity. That it ended up launching a successful career as an on-air chef and author only reinforced for him the absurdity of long-term planning for anything.
“Opportunities don’t knock on your door fully formed, they’re just little opportunities that can change your path and lead to bigger things,” he says. “You have to define what your currency is: If your currency is security, or your currency is adventure and excitement and travel…If you don’t have a family…and you’re willing to starve for it, then that changes your approach to things.”
Bob’s career is defined by a lack of mastery in any one area, but command over several. And if there are lessons to be learned from his story, it’s in the value of sticking to your preferred method of navigating life—even if it means courting chaos.
“Nothing I’ve done in my life is calculated,” he says. “For me at the time, it was just a big adventure. At the time, my life was super exciting and that’s all I cared about and truthfully that’s what I care about now.”
A chef’s inauspicious beginnings
Bob was a picky eater as a child, so it was only later that he realized how adventurous his mom was as a cook. Growing up in Montreal, he applied to the Rhode Island School of Design and a business school in Ontario. Rejected by the design school, he got a degree in business. But when it came time to enter the job market, he bailed on the interview process and sold t-shirts on tour for a band.
It was there he met musician Jane Siberry and began working as her manager. She had just been signed to Warner Brothers, prompting Bob’s move to Los Angeles. But when Siberry went off to London to record with Brian Eno for an unexpectedly long time, he needed cash, and The Surreal Gourmet was born.
The book featured solid basics like Caesar Salad, music suggestions to cook each recipe by, and Bob’s illustrations (heavily influenced by Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte). He somehow wangled a meeting at respected West Coast publisher Chronicle Books. He wasn’t a chef, had never written a book before—much less a cookbook—but something happened in that meeting. There was something in Bob’s charisma, energy, and enthusiasm that made the small investment worth the risk.
The value of perfect timing
What neither the publisher nor Bob could predict was how fortuitous the timing would be. Cookbooks were evolving from their rarefied and niche-fied reputations and accommodating a rising group of amateur chefs. Both The New York Times and his hometown Los Angeles Times (to which he had sent a postcard asking for a review) gave generous reviews. He was a hit on The Talk Show Circuit, and ended up befriending chefs that helped him polish his raw culinary skills into something more sophisticated.
Though he still managed Siberry for a few more years, he moved swiftly into the nascent culinary media industry (for lack of a better term). A year after The Surreal Gourmet was published in 1992, the Food Network was born and started pumping cooking shows and formerly back-of-the-restaurant chefs into American living rooms. Bob was paid to cook at dinner parties and released the second book a few years later on entertaining.
In 2000, Bob came out with Off The Eaten Path, which taught people to embrace the chaos and adventure in cooking. He gave credence to his “surreal pedigree” with dishes like snow-cones made of tuna, and meatloaf prepared to look like cake. He bought an airstream and converted it into a rolling kitchen with two gigantic (fake) slices of toast affixed to the outside. The Toastermobile stopped in 30 cities over a three-month period, with Bob cooking and promoting his third book.
Cooking in the Wild, Wild West
That the Food Network came beckoning was no massive surprise. The Surreal Gourmet got its own show, running until 2006. He followed that up with a show that demanded he master complex cooking techniques and then test them in competition, called Glutton for Punishment, until 2010. The World’s Weirdest Restaurants, took him around the world for two seasons from 2010 to 2012.
“It was the wild, wild west. I don’t know if you could do any of that stuff now because of all the competition,” he says. “I was able to make a living doing it and it seemed like fun. And I was the worst kid in the high school play. But I was able to build a show around whatever skills I had. I could work around the stuff I couldn’t do.”
When his last show ended, Bob kept hoping for another shot. Mind you, he doesn’t believe the world owes him another show. But for someone whose life has been a steady stream of working and hustling, the off-switch is hard to find.
A new chapter
“All lives and all careers come with their own baggage,” he says. “There are times where, even with the stuff I’ve done, I run up against brick walls and there’s no business to be found, and then I just bury my head and keep working on it. At this point in my career, where I would hope the phone would ring more, I often have to suck it up and generate more work and then things change.”
But what the self-described adrenaline junkie has begun to learn is to bring more balance into his life. He spends more time on his bike, with his wife, and with friends when he’s in LA, where he lives full time (with frequent trips back to his native Canada). He’s also found more time to dedicate to what he calls “noble causes.” He’s an ambassador for Second Harvest food bank in Toronto and recently did a highly watchable segment on creating a cauliflower pizza with food that most are quick to throw in the compost bin.
“If you look at the time pie chart, I’m spending more time as I get older doing things for noble causes,” he says. “I find that work sometimes even more gratifying than doing things for myself, so that’s one thing that’s evolved as I’ve got older and more comfortable in my skin.”