By the turn of the millennium, I had left my job in the music business behind, published two cookbooks, appeared as a guest on over 300 TV shows in several countries, and become a national spokesmodel for a major U.S. food product. But in the world of promoting cookbooks, if you don’t have a platform such as a TV show or a high profile restaurant, you are basically chopped liver. As I prepared to launch my third book with only a modicum of notoriety, I knew I had my work cut out for me. But I had no idea that it would become the most physically, mentally and emotionally challenging three months of my life.
If you name a cookbook Off the Eaten Path, you’d better have a voracious appetite for adventure. At the same time, if you are a fledgling author trying to make it big, you should probably refrain from biting off more than you can chew. These conflicting principles led to the creation of the Toastermobile—an Airstream trailer topped with two eight-foot slices of toast that served as my commando kitchen for the summer of 2000, and later as the set for my TV series Surreal Gourmet.
I had worked on my third cookbook for over a year, writing, developing recipes, creating one-of-a-kind culinary objets d’art, and working alongside the designer for two straight months of fourteen-hour days in an effort to create a uniquely styled book. By the end of the birthing process, I couldn’t fathom the thought of handing my baby off to my publisher’s jaded promotion department and embarking on the typical snoozy whistle-stop book tour. So I decided to take matters into my own hands. Why not go off the eaten path, I wondered, and inject a dose of high-adrenalin fun in the process?
In my former life, I was no stranger to the itinerant lifestyle. I had criss-crossed North America as a merchandiser (a.k.a. T-shirt puke) for a handful of major rock bands, and traveled the world several times over with Jane Siberry, the hugely talented eclectic artist I managed for thirteen years. Transforming a conventional book tour into a gonzo, rock ‘n’ roll adventure appealed to me—it was both practical and farfetched. I also secretly hoped that such a tour could catapult me out of the legions of niche cookbook authors into the big leagues, and maybe even lead to a television show of my own. These are of course, the hopes, dreams and aspirations of anybody who has ever published a cookbook.
In order to turn my dream into a reality, I channeled my love of travel, adventure and cooking through my inner carnie. The result was a hair-brained scheme to travel off the eaten path in some form of kitchen on wheels. One that captured the whimsy and lightheartedness of my new book, but also emphasized my culinary passions by functioning as a serious professional arena. Instead of making do with the hot plate and crappy electric oven found on the sets of most TV morning shows, or simply yakking to food writers about my recipes, I’d be able to invite the reporters inside and involve them in some real cooking. And I’d have my own pirate crew: a team of like-minded adventurers to help cook, clean, and drive.
One of my ideas was to customize an Airstream. I’ve always been a sucker for retro design, especially Deco and Atomic Age furnishings. Airstream’s aerodynamic profile and bright, aluminum-skinned exterior was a fusion of futuristic aesthetics and functionality. It encapsulated America’s romance with the open road. Optimistic, adventurous, forward-looking: Airstreams and I seemed perfectly suited for each other.
If the folks at Oscar Meyer could transform a giant fiberglass hotdog on wheels into a national icon, why couldn’t I come up with something equally unique? I mentioned my half-baked idea to Dick Kaiser, the simpatico photographer who shot the images for my first three books. Dick used to be in the ad agency business and had more creative ideas than Aunt Jemima has pancakes. He also likes to take the piss out of me, so I can never tell when he is serious.
After half an hour of amusing, but fruitless brainstorming Dick tossed another idea onto the griddle. “You know, those old Airstream trailers kinda look like vintage toasters. You could put two giant pieces of toast on top”
“That’s it!” I cried as Dick laughed off the idea. To me, it was genius and I was instantly sold. As soon as I returned home, I downloaded a picture of an Airstream from a website and cut and pasted two slices of nicely browned toast on top. Voila! The Toastermobile was born—on paper at least.
“It was impossible, so it took a little longer to accomplish.”
– Wally Byam, founder of Airstream.
A little research revealed that after a twenty-year hiatus, classic Airstream models were once again being manufactured at the original Airstream assembly plant in Jackson Center, Ohio.
Even the smallest Airstreams are fully functioning trailers with a bed, bathroom, kitchenette and living/dining area. My quickly evolving game plan was to retrofit one so that the entire interior was a kitchen—and a highly-functioning, self-sufficient, television-friendly piece of eye candy to boot. The model that most resembled a vintage toaster was the curvaceous 17-foot Bambi.
In my life, I spend a lot of my time visualizing perfect world scenarios, and then trying to make them a reality. From my naïve perspective, there was no question that the Airstream company would see my Toastermobile as embodying the spirit of Wally Byam, Airstream’s quirky founder, for whom I learned Airstreams symbolized independence, freedom from routine and a venturesome spirit. That is exactly what this tour will be about, I thought. In my mind, the synergies were obvious, and I was certain that once the nice people at Airstream heard my idea they would be only too happy to contribute a trailer in exchange for what (according to my delusions of grandeur) would amount to reams of valuable of media exposure.
Unfortunately, the folks at the Airstream factory in Jackson Center, Ohio, saw my cross-country culinary crusade more prosaically. I didn’t even get through the elevator pitch before I was politely informed that they’d heard—and seen—it all. Apparently people do the darnedest things with Airstreams. And while the polite gentleman on the other end of the line didn’t want to discourage me, he certainly wasn’t about to give me anything for free. (To their credit, years later, the Airstream Company did welcome me with open arms and support several of my endeavors).
“No”, to me, is just a delayed “yes”, so instead of hanging up I asked to speak to their PR person.
“PR?”, replied the man. “We don’t have anyone like that here. I’m the corporate sales manager. If anyone has any requests they come to me.”
Mustering every iota of charm, business logic and persuasion that I could, I kept talking, explaining the fantastic exposure the tour would bring Airstream. But the man on the phone remained unimpressed. I hung up and admitted that in this instance, my perfect world ideal would have to succumb a little to reality. I hate that.
I shook off this small defeat and pressed on. My fantasy promotional tour was quickly snowballing into an extravaganza—a thirty-city, three-month, seventeen-thousand mile culinary odyssey to be specific. The estimated price tag for the whole shebang had already climbed to $250,000. Yikes.
Seduced by the adventure, I was unfazed by the improbability of this plan, and adopted a new mantra: Go big, or stay home.
One of my life’s secrets for making sure that I rise to meet a challenge that I’ve set for myself is to shamelessly blab about it to everybody I know. That way, my only option for saving face is to march forth with blind faith. By this point, I had shared my grandiose scheme with my publisher, my friends, my business manager, and my dad. So what’s a house-poor, debt-ridden guy with lousy credit to do when he’s in need of a cool quarter mil?
I called a war room meeting with my friend-cum-business manager Norman Perry and his bag-man Monica Netupsky. Together we came up with a list of every contact we had at any kind of company that might have been even vaguely interested in sponsoring the tour. During the six-years since my first book was released, I had pimped for several food-related products, doing everything from convention demos to national television commercials. This included some heavy hitters like Weber grills, Mrs. Dash spice blends, and Barton & Guestier wines. Our list started with the companies I was already in bed with and digressed from there all the way to Pampers.
Energized, the three of us spent the next week on the phone, using phrases like “unique opportunity” and “exclusive category rights.” In addition to modifying recipes from my book to showcase their products, our pièce de resistance was my promise to wear a chef’s jacket embroidered with each of their corporate logos—like a NASCAR racing driver—for the entire tour. I loved it: a food tour that counted rock ‘n’ roll and Salvador Dali as equal inspirations, with a bit of Hunter Thompson and Jeff Gordon thrown in for good measure.
After some understandable hesitancy, my publisher Ballantine Books, agreed to kick in $20,000. It was basically their entire marketing, merchandising, advertising and PR budget for the book all rolled into one lump sum. By giving me this money, they were essentially washing their hands of any further responsibility. That was a good start, but we still had a long way to go. I anticipated a lot of uphill work to raise the rest, but much to my surprise, almost everyone we approached jumped on board. In addition to much needed cash, Chefwear agreed to supply clothing, Whole Foods our groceries, and Barton & Goustier the wine. Now that we had convinced the corporate world that this tour was going to happen, there was no turning back.
I called the sales manager at Airstream and ordered a Bambi.
Raising the money turned out to be surprisingly easy, but converting the trailer into the rolling kitchen of my dreams was, I quickly found out, “impossible.”
A friend put me in touch with a small company in the San Fernando valley that specializes in building custom kitchens for movie catering trucks and Mexican food wagons—affectionately known as “roach coaches”. Armenco Catering Trucks is run by a burly 63 year-old Armenian man by the name of Gerry Armenco. I called him and arranged a meeting.
Bubbling over with enthusiasm, I explained my vision for the Toastermobile. Gerry listened patiently until I was finished. Then without missing beat, he responded.
“It can’t be done.” His answer was curt and final.
“But what do you mean it can’t be done, why not?” I stammered.
With the weary patience of someone who is explaining something for the tenth time, he continued:
“See that?” Gerry said, pointing to a parking lot full of battered taco and ice cream trucks lined up for repairs. “They’re all square-bodied”. He was right. None of them were anything like my voluptuously curved Bambi. “Everything that is made for catering trucks—sinks, refrigerators, stoves—is square. Your trailer is round. They do not make appliances or fixtures that would fit into it. They just don’t exist.” Gerry emphasized the last two words to punctuate the end of our discussion. I thought he was going to turn around and leave.
“But – there must be a way to do it”, I insisted, trying to keep the desperation out of my voice. I didn’t know a damn thing about building kitchens or contracting or trailers or trucks, but I knew it had to be possible. It just had to.
“Even if it could” he stopped.
“So, it can be done” I said quickly, sensing an opening.
“Even if it could”, Gerry continued reluctantly, “everything would have to be fabricated from scratch, by hand. The sinks, the floor, the counters, the water tank, the refrigeration unit. All from scratch. And all to code, to satisfy food safety regulations.”
That was all I needed. Fifteen minutes later, Gerry and I had negotiated the price, $45,000. That was well over my nascent budget, but I didn’t quibble. The impossible had just become the achievable.
In short order, the shell of my Bambi was on a flatbed rolling through the Rockies, headed for California.
I soon learned that Gerry had a heart of gold and the passion of an artist. It was my good fortune that he embraced the project as though under-budgeted, one-off designs in impossibly-rounded vehicles was his true calling. From a few chicken scratchings on a napkin, he designed and fabricated a stainless steel kitchen with a Wolfe stove, a custom-built refrigeration system, diamond flooring, diner-style quilted aluminum walls, and a pass-through window that was blown out of the starboard side. And per my Weber contract, Gerry jerry-rigged one of their top-of-the-line propane grills so that it could be locked down into the interior and offloaded at every stop.
When it came time to fabricate the 8-foot slices of toast, Gerry was almost insulted that I didn’t consider him first for the job. “You want to make those, too?” I asked, surprised that he had any patience left for my project. Suffice to say he crafted two fabulous three-dimensional eight-foot aluminum slices of toast that would make Claes Oldenburg green with envy.
Shortly after my Toastermobile was finished, I had a big party, hugged my friends, kissed my flummoxed girlfriend goodbye, and climbed into a rented 40-foot Winnabago that would function as a rolling home and tow vehicle. Along with a driver, a sous chef, and an assistant/tour manager/photographer I set off on what can only be described as an epic journey. What follows is a twenty-four slice of life on the road.
Some Days you tame the tiger, and some days the tiger has you for lunch
– Tug McGraw
St. Petersburg, Florida, June 26
It’s 5:15 a.m. and we are on day 22 of the tour. We have already traveled four thousand three hundred miles, ticked off eight cities, and had exactly one and a half days off. Our days begin at dawn and end in bone-crushing fatigue long after the last dinner guest goes home. Criss-crossing the continent initially sounded idyllic, but visions of meandering trips down quaint back-country roads and exploratory quests for the perfect barbecue joint have faded to only one desire: sleep.
Any free hours I am able to snatch are spent on my cell phone, doing interviews, pinning down scheduling details, juggling sponsor requests, finalizing details of media appearances, arranging drop shipments of supplies—all in my quest to save America from the evils of mediocre food—one palate at a time.
I’ll sleep when I’m dead—that is, if this tour doesn’t kill me first. It’s not like I don’t have help. There are a total of ten other people who have become intimately involved in the organization of this culinary odyssey. In addition to the three-person road crew, the pit team includes Norman and Monica back in New York who are handling the financing and sponsor relationships; four publicists, who’ve divvied up the U.S. and Canada between them and are pitching like hell; and Lynn back in Los Angeles, whom I hired as the home-base tour coordinator. I am flabbergasted that the organization required to publicize a single cookbook could escalate, almost overnight, into a full-blown company. To top it off, PR people representing the interests of various sponsors parachute in along the way and add to the mayhem.
I do, on average, five events a day; mostly a mix of interviews, book signings, cocktail parties, TV appearances, and the occasional spontaneous drive-by shrimp feeding.
This morning we are up before daybreak in St. Petersburg. Our day is starting with a live television appearance on WTOG. Looming in the distance we see a cluster of large satellite dishes on the roof of an industrial-looking building—the sign post of TV studios everywhere—and pull into the parking lot. Suzi, my tour manager and the only morning person in the group, springs into action and heads into the studio to find someone to let us in.
From behind a smoky glass window, I see a security guard do a double take as his eyes focus on the Toastermobile.
So far the Toastermobile has functioned as imagined. Motorists honk approvingly, chefs covet it and most importantly, the media eats it up. Once producers see it with their own two eyes, they want to milk it for all it’s worth. Not just because it makes for a change from the usual in-studio cooking segment, but because it’s fun. It makes people—even cynical, seen-it-all television producers—smile.
Suzi emerges with a chipper segment producer named Laurie who informs us that I am scheduled to go live at twelve minutes after 7:00.
Laurie walks me to the studio through a set of huge swinging doors, over which is a red light. A sign next to it says “ON AIR.”
A squat, surly guy with coffee and tobacco breath introduces himself as the sound tech puts his hands up my shirt, running a wire down the front of my logo-covered chef jacket.
Two stagehands roll cameras outside, and illuminate the interior of the Toastermobile with a “sungun” they rig to a small hook on the ceiling that I had Gerry attach for specifically for this purpose. In a matter of seconds, everything is illuminated.
A minute before my segment, Laurie runs out and delivers the news that my allotted four and a half minutes of airtime has just been reduced to three. In an instant, I have to figure out how to explain why I call myself the Surreal Gourmet, start my Chipotle Dry Rubbed Shrimp with Cilantro Dipping Sauce, explain the origins of the Toastermobile, pitch my book and have the shrimp done and ready to taste in less time than it takes to warm up a pan in real life. It’s a bitch and a let-down, but there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. A tractor trailer overturns somewhere, a hurricane watch goes into effect, or maybe the last guest just went over on their allotted time – and it’s chop chop.
Jacki, the host climbs into the Toastermobile, looks at me and asks. “So what’s your specialty?” making it evident that she has never even cracked the copy of my book she is holding in her hand. I am deflated. I look up to see the floor producer counting down. “Four, three…”, he says. Then he holds up two fingers, and points at me on the count of one.
The red light over the camera goes on, and on cue Jacki lights up. We banter while I demo the recipe. I do my best to engage her in the cooking process and get in all my key talking points. I’m just hitting my stride when from the corner of my eye I see the floor producer roll his left hand in a circular movement indicating that Jacki has to wrap up the segment. She stabs the shrimp into the dish of cilantro sauce, which sits flirtily between Barbie’s splayed legs, and takes a dainty little nibble. Before even swallowing, she coos “delicious.”
Jacki throws back to the in-studio news anchor, the camera light goes off, and we both relax. After a few seconds of small talk, she picks up another shrimp, dips it, chews slowly, then volunteers, “This really is delicious. I think it is the best shrimp I’ve ever tasted.” For the first time, she is being sincere. And it kills me that no one watching the news that morning will ever hear her genuine endorsement or see the look of food-induced pleasure on her face. After she leaves, the crew swoops in like vultures to pick on the leftovers.
With the segment wrapped, Mary my sous-chef, heads into the Toastermobile to clean up the shrimp tails and latch down the drawers. Mary—nicknamed Mary Sous for the duration—is a friend and fellow food fanatic from New York who came to my rescue after the first sous chef (nicknamed Angry Man) was voted off the Toastermobile after just one week, in a real-life game of Survivor.
Come to think of it, the tour is making Survivor look like a Club Med vacation. Back in the RV, I find Phil, our Texan-based driver, dozing against a windowpane and Suzi multi-tasking while talking on her cell.
“OK, what’s next?” I ask her as soon as she hangs up. “We have a huge supply run to do at Whole Foods, followed by a tasting in their parking lot at 10:30, another book signing at a local bookstore at lunchtime and a big dinner party for Barton & Guestier and their VIP guests tonight at 6”. B&G is our wine sponsor, and I realize with a sinking feeling that nothing for the dinner party has been prepped, meaning it all needs to get done, from scratch, between the afternoon bookstore appearance and dinner—or showtime as I call it.
“Let’s go!” Susie tells Phil and we head out through the burbs to a new sub-division of St. Petersburg where we find the shopping mall. It’s only 8:40 in the morning. The lot is empty and the store is deserted. Suzi looks at the clipboard on her lap, then at her watch. She looks up and gives me a big grin. “Time for breakfast!” she says gleefully. “But only if we can do it in less than twenty minutes.”
Yeehaw! The combination of sleep deprivation and the post-adrenaline rush from the live television segment has made me ravenous.
“Hey kids, who wants Parking Lot Eggs?” I ask rhetorically. Mary takes the cue and we jump out of the RV and pile into the Toastermobile. Parking Lot Eggs is the name we have christened the mash-up of eggs and leftovers that I love to make for the crew on the rare occasion that we have time to eat breakfast. Mary starts rooting through the refrigerator while I pull a frying pan from my arsenal of All-Clad-sponsored cookware and ignite 5000 BTUs of firepower.
Ten minutes later, we’re sitting in a row on a concrete parking lot divider, digging into plates of scrambled eggs, pancetta, parmigiano reggiano, shallots, garlic, avocado, cilantro and a pinch of my favorite ingredient of the moment, chipotle powder. (recipe page XX). No fuss, no muss—all flavor. Five minutes after that, the emptied plates are scraped and in the sink, and we get ready for a military-like assault on Whole Foods.
Every sponsorship deal is different, My deal with Whole Foods is that we have a $15,000 credit with them, which basically means we can shop till we drop.
“Listen up everyone, here are your assignments,” Mary Sous says. She has taken the supply list that we devised last night and divided it up amongst us. Phil has barely come to a rolling stop before Suzi, Mary and I leap out of the Winnebago and split in three different directions. It’s 9:00 AM and the clock is ticking.
We run amok through the aisles filling our shopping carts like contestants on those old game shows who get to keep everything they can get their hands on during a ten-minute shopping spree. Little old ladies scramble for cover as we tear through the store. An hour later, shoppers stop and stare as the four of us form a human chain on the sidewalk and unload five overflowing carts of groceries with the speed of a well-oiled machine.
“DONE!” Mary Sous shouts triumphantly. I look at my watch: 10:15 AM.
We have fifteen minutes before we have to pop the pass-through window
on the Toastermobile and start feeding hungry shoppers. We’re sampling two recipes from my book: Shrimp on the Barbie and grilled asparagus
As I’m buttoning up my logo-splashed chef’s jacket, I’m trying to remember if I reminded Mary to defrost the shrimp, and Suzie to unearth another container of dry-rub from the storage bin below the RV. And did Phil refill the propane tank for the grill? With each of these questions being answered satisfactorily (no, but Mary Sous can run water over them; yes, there’s another stash, and, shit, I don’t know but it’s too late now, respectively), I drag the Weber grill out and fired it up on the tarmac. By some miracle, there is enough propane left to get us through the event.
While I grill the asparagus, Mary Sous tosses the shrimp with the dry rub and squirts some cilantro sour cream sauce into a ramekin. Before you can say “Come get your free samples,” a gaggle of curious onlookers has begun to gather.
The small crowd attracts more people. A couple of them seem to know who I think I am, but the rest have been attracted by the sight of a giant toaster parked incongruously amidst the SUVs. I circulate among them, tongs in one hand and a plate of shrimp and napkins in the other, putting them down only to sign books. After an hour, Suzi comes over and whispers “Five minute warning.” I can see that Mary Sous has already started to clean up, and I remember that we have a bookstore appearance on the other side of town in just over an hour.
“Thanks so much,” I say to the mother toting her kids who has just
bought three books for future Christmas gifts, “I gotta roll.”
As our Phil negotiates his way through the morning traffic, I get to work.
Five phone calls and two cups of Earl Gray tea later, Suzi calls out a five-minute warning from the shotgun seat. Damn. I haven’t even checked my e-mail yet. Balancing awkwardly on one leg as the vehicle sways, I slide the other leg into a clean pair of chef pants, grabbing my electric razor with my left hand and cupping the phone between my right ear and shoulder.
In a parking lot the size of a football field, a man is gesturing towards the Toastermobile, guiding us in the direction of a row of orange cones in front of a mammoth Barnes & Noble.
We’ve arrived late, but because Mary Sous prepped for this event at the last one, we’re able to fire up the grill and start serving shrimp and asparagus faster than most people can microwave a burrito. I serve up a few platters of shrimp, sign some books and then head inside the bookstore for an interview with a local alternative weekly newspaper. My chef’s jacket is splattered with oil and my eyelids are heavy. Luckily, the air-conditioned coolness of the store revives my energy and the reporter—who, refreshingly, had read my book and cooked a meal from it—is a blast to talk to.
All too soon, Suzi appears and politely interrupts us. “Bob, sorry, but we need to get going.”
En route to the dinner party location we root through the freshly-stocked RV refrigerator and I make everyone sandwiches for lunch.
It’s 3:45 when we roll up to the suburban house owned by one of the B&G execs. In short order the crew and I become a Mobile Dinner Party Commando Squad. We unfold two long tables onto the front lawn, pop the pass-through window, offload the grill and start prepping.
In just under three hours, 18 guests—including B&G big wigs, some of their VIP customers, four journalists, and a distant cousin of mine—will descend upon us. I am, I realize, a little nervous. This is Mary Sous’ first dinner party. And though she has been cooking with me for other sorts of events during the three days since she parachuted into the tour, dinners are different. Timing, details, and organization all need to be precision-perfect for the evening to come off well. Forget one pan in the oven, or one step in a recipe, and the meal (and possibly my reputation, depending on the guests) could be, um…toast.
Tonight’s menu reads like a best-of from my book. I’m starting with my familiar shrimp on you-know-who, and grilled asparagus. The entrée is Halibut baked in a brown paper lunch bag topped with papaya salsa (recipe page XX), and roasted purple Peruvian potatoes finished with olive oil and sea salt. It’s followed by a cheese course—served on a giant mousetrap that I made out of wood and copper tubing from Home Depot. And for dessert I’m making my “Faux Fries” (recipe page XX)—strips of pound cake that are baked until they resemble French fries, then served in cardboard McDonald’s fry containers. I get a kick out of people’s puzzled reactions when they get served French fries for dessert, and the look of wonder as they take their first bite.
Individually, each course is simple. But prepping and cooking all this from scratch in three hours for 18 people, with a brand new sous chef to boot? It’s doable, but not easy—just like everything on this tour.
In short order, Mary Sous and I are in the cooking groove. The controlled frenzy of chopping, slicing, grating, grilling, and whisking that follows has the intensity of an emergency room during a full moon. And just like a real toaster, this larger-than-life version becomes red hot on the inside. With the oven cranked to 475°F, the gas range fired up, and no air conditioning in the sweltering Florida heat, it is hot enough in here to roast both of us alive, right along with the halibut.
Before we know it, it’s 6:45. I duck into the RV to towel off and change into a clean Chef’s jacket, leaving Mary Sous to finish the prep. Guests begin to arrive, and Mary Sous emerges from the Toastermobile with a tray of Vouvrey. The asparagus come off the grill, and the shrimp are piled around Barbie’s plastic torso. People are digging the shrimp. So far, so good.
One by one, the courses are plated and served. Throughout the night, I slip into the kitchen at strategic moments to test doneness, plate the food, and most importantly, make sure Mary Sous is getting it right. Then I go out and work the crowd. Somehow it all works. The stove doesn’t run out of propane, the fish is perfectly cooked, the selection of stinky cheeses blows everyone away, and my Faux Fries survive the humidity.
With the guests in a food-and-wine-induced trance, I walk out to front of the house to check on Mary Sous as she cleans up from the madness. On the quiet, palm tree-lined street, a vintage Bowie track is spilling out from the Toastermobile into the darkness. Mary Sous is grooving to the music, feet tapping on the diamond pattern steel floor as she starts to put a dent in the mound of dishes. I step inside and we high-five mutual congratulations on a job well done. A wave of relief floods over me. The day, which started in the distant mists of 5:00 AM, is almost done. The morning’s TV appearance seems like a lifetime ago.
Mary Sous rides the wave with me. Suddenly we are infected by the opening guitar riff of Bowie’s Suffragette City and we both start bouncing around the Toastermobile to the beat. All the manic intensity of the day pours out as pure motion energy. Guests trickling out from the party pause and gaze in astonishment at the sight of two, sweat-drenched, food-stained cooks in a giant toaster, rockin’ out like crazed fifteen year-olds in a mosh pit, rupturing the night time silence of the suburban street.
During a pause between songs, I suddenly realize I’m exhausted and that every ounce of energy I possess has been depleted. Working as fast as we can, we finish washing the dishes, haul out the trash, put away the pots and pans, scrub the sinks, wipe down and polish the counters and walls, sweep the floor, secure any objects that might spill or roll, latch the drawers, extinguish the lights and jump into the RV.
Phil has already hitched it up to Toastermobile. As soon as we slam the door behind us, he pulls out. It feels kind of like a hit and run job from a wacky 70s comedy: a bank heist with our Winnebago-Toastermobile starring as the unlikely getaway vehicle. “GO GO GO!!” Suzi yells, as though the fuzz were hot on our heels, as we lumber towards the interstate.
We have a book signing tomorrow at noon, in Atlanta, 500 miles away. In a motor home towing 5,000 pounds of stainless steel, that takes about 11 hours, which means we have virtually no time buffer. What slave-driving nut agreed to book these two events so damn close together? Shit, that was me.
My eyelids keep trying to close, even though I haven’t sat down yet, and my body feels like it’s been put through the wringer. Phil drives, the radio softly blaring country tunes to keep him awake, while Suzi reclines in the front seat and Mary stretches out on the dinette table, which converts to a flat bed. In two minutes she is fast asleep, despite the lurching vehicle. I don’t know how she does it.
The back of the Toastermobile also doubles as a rolling wine cellar. I survey the cache and select a bottle of B&G Chateauneuf du Pape—one of the fringe benefits of having a wine company as a sponsor. As king of the rolling fiefdom, I get the real bed in the back of the RV. But with each bump in the Florida asphalt, the mattress bounces wildly. And every pothole and crack in the pavement is accentuated exponentially by the springs. I grit my teeth and try to doze off, but it’s like trying to sleep on the back of a bucking bronco.
Sometime around 5 a.m. Phil pulls off at a Motel 6 for a couple hours of rest. With the vehicle stationary, I finally fall into a deep slumber. Even the rush of Interstate traffic whooshing by fails to disturb me.
I dream that I am waiting in the wings of a morning show. I’m on the air in three minutes and suddenly, in a sickening, stomach-turning moment I realize that I’ve forgotten to prep any of the ingredients for the demo. “Next up, we’ve got the Surreal Gourmet, who is going to show us an unusual way to make flambéed pineapple” (recipe page XX) the talk show host announces. Mary Sous is beside me, panicked, shaking my shoulder and saying “Bob, I can’t believe we forgot to prep for this! Bob! Bob!…” And suddenly in real life, I’m awake and Mary Sous, already dressed for the new day, is shaking my shoulder and saying, “Bob, we are at the book store, get up.”
I square my shoulders and stumble out of the RV into the parking lot, blinking in the bright sunlight that reflects off the asphalt. Almost as if we had planned it this way, we are right on time. I smile as I’m introduced to the store manager, then bound into to the Toastermobile to prep yet another round of shrimp. It’s showtime again, and if you can’t stand the heat . . .
“If you are going through hell, keep going”
– Sir Winston Churchill
Over the course of three months, we traveled all the miles, cooked all the meals, and shook all the hands I had fantasized about nine months earlier. My journey was covered by People magazine and CNN. I appeared on countless local morning shows, nightly news and even QVC. And my book was featured in the Food and Entertainment sections of local papers across the U.S. and Canada. I wouldn’t be telling the whole story if I didn’t also acknowledge that there were plenty of book signings along the route where the only people waiting for us were the in-store staff masquerading as customers to help save face.
Along the way, we toured the Clinton White House and had a rare glimpse of the wine cellar, visited the Airstream factory and cooked for the assembly line workers—and met countless kindred spirits along the way. I burned through three drivers, two sous chefs and a whole lot of cash—crossing the finish line $60,000 over budget.
There is no question that I bit off more than I could chew. And it nearly killed me. But in the end—despite how tough it all was—I enjoyed every morsel.