Interview: Chef Bob Blumer
The Surreal Gourmet, Glutton for Punishment, and breaker of seven Guinness World Records, Bob Blumer, is notorious for his fearlessness in the kitchen. His popular TV shows, which air all over the globe, show Bob diving head first into different cuisines and reveal his energetic passion for food — a passion he also shares in his acclaimed cookbooks. One his latest is Pizza on the Grill Expanded (The Taunton Press, 2014), co-authored with Elizabeth Karmel, which is a step-by-step pizza-grilling guide that’s perfect for barbecue season. Though he’s currently busy developing a new TV show, Bob took a moment to chat with House & Home about pizza, gluten-free-grilling, summer entertaining, and cooking inspiration. He also talks about his important work as ambassador for Second Harvest, a Toronto organization that provides food for those in need.
House & Home: You’ve sampled and cooked food from all corners of the world. What fascinates you about the humble pizza?
Bob Blumer: Pizza is insanely versatile: anything you can eat you can turn into a pizza. In fact, a lot of the recipes that I created with my friend Elizabeth are based on classic dishes, be it Kung Pao chicken or a BLT, a cheeseburger or French onion soup. We deconstructed the ingredients and reassembled them onto a crispy, smoky, crunchy pizza crust that you can make on your gas or charcoal grill.
H&H: Why did you add a gluten-free dough recipe to Pizza on the Grill Expanded?
BB: Elizabeth and I have several mutual friends who are either celiac or avoiding gluten. So it seemed like a great opportunity to add a whole layer to the book, because one of the things people who are gluten intolerant miss the most is pizza. We definitely solved that problem.
H&H: What were the challenges you faced making great, gluten-free pizza?
BB: First, creating a crust that you can pick up and throw onto the grill (we have two dough recipes from Bob, a handmade recipe and machine-made version). Simply stated, glutens help hold your dough together, so with gluten-free dough you’re typically left standing over your grill with a little bit of dough in your hand and the rest of it on the floor! So we created a par-bake system where we take this gloopy dough and press it out onto a sheet pan and bake it for ten minutes. This only allows it to set, not fully bake. Then, all of a sudden, it becomes very malleable and you can transfer it to the grill without having to worry about it falling apart. That was our biggest revelation.
Then we went back and looked at the recipes. It turned out that virtually every one was already gluten-free except for the dough. So it meant that if someone was gluten intolerant, they could turn almost any pizza gluten-free with this new crust. It was a pleasant surprise!
H&H: What are your go-to recipes from Pizza on the Grill?
BB: The ones I make most often for friends are, coincidentally, all vegetarian. The Blistered Corn, Asparagus & Pesto Pizza is the one I make the most. People look at it and can’t understand how corn could possibly fit onto a pizza, but as soon as they taste it they simply love it! The pizza that’s on the cover of the book, the Fire-Roasted Tomato & Cabrales Pizza is another favourite. I also make the Magic Mushroom Medley Pizza a lot.
H&H: Do you have any prep tips for grilling perfect pizzas?
BB: Being organized is really important — having everything mise en place. I bring everything out to the grill, so I don’t have to run back to the house all the time. The first side of the dough grills in about three minutes, so if you’ve forgotten something or you still have to slice and dice, it can burn.
H&H: These grilled pizzas are ideal to serve at summer parties. What are some mistakes you often see people make when entertaining?
BB: I coined an expression a long time ago that I keep coming back to: “guests feed off your energy as much as your food.” When people get frazzled at a dinner party they’re throwing, their guests can feel it and it undermines the experience. It’s better for you to be relaxed. Don’t try and have parties that are too big and have too many things on your plate, when what everyone really wants to do is get together, hang out, and have some good food and good times.
H&H: What do you serve at your own dinner parties?
BB: I tend to present a lot fewer options at dinner parties than most. I believe in doing a few things and doing them really well. I just pick a couple of nibbles, one delicious salad — maybe I’ll have somebody bring a second — and, if I’m going to do pizzas, I’ll do two different recipes or I’ll just make a couple of the same one. I don’t go crazy.
H&H: Where are you currently getting cooking inspiration?
BB: I go to the farmer’s market wherever I am. The Sorauren Farmers’ Market is just around the corner from where I’m staying in Toronto, and I go there to find whatever’s fresh and exciting. I’m really excited about foraged foods, something that’s becoming a bit of a trend.
At the market there’s a foragers stall, and every week they have different things. They had sea asparagus this week, and the week before they had morel mushrooms. Last night, I made a risotto with wild leek scapes, wild garlic scapes, fava beans, fresh peas, and stinging nettle pesto. It was so much fun to make!
H&H: On that note, where do head for a great meal when you’re back in city?
BB: There are so many fantastic restaurants! The flavour quotient in the city has just gone through the roof in the last few years. I can’t stop going back to Electric Mud, which is a very cheffy barbecue restaurant. I also love Cava, Pizzeria Libretto, Enoteca Sociale, and Banh Mi Boys. Oh, and Porchetta! It’s the best $10 you can spend on a sandwich.
H&H: Another thing that brings you back to the city is your work as an ambassador for Second Harvest. For those that don’t know, what is “food rescue”?
BB: “Food rescue” is the act of rescuing food that is perfectly consumable, but is about to be thrown out. It could be fresh produce, dairy or meat in a grocery store that is close to its sale date, food from catering operations that wasn’t served at a big event, or excess product from a farm. Every year, Second Harvest rescues around 8 million pounds of food. It’s really a trucking and logistics company: they take the food from where it’s picked up, for free, to where it needs to go. Within a 48-hour period they distribute it to organizations that will pass along the food to people in need — to food banks, shelters, community centres and meal programs. It costs about 50 cents per person, to feed someone a real, full meal.
It’s a great way to save the food and feed people all at the same time — and that’s a pretty amazing model. Believe me, there are a lot of people, even in this city, that really need help from time to time.
H&H: On Glutton for Punishment, viewers relished watching you master making different dishes from gumbo to hand-pulled noodles, to Montreal-style bagels. Is there anything that you’d still like to learn to do in the kitchen?
BB: Just this afternoon I was thinking to myself, you know, I have to go and learn the classic French techniques. I couldn’t make a mother sauce to save my life!
Read more interviews here with chefs such as Susur Lee and top designers Kelly Wearstler and Sarah Richardson.
Christopher Hirsheimer, courtesy of The Taunton Press