In 2013, Cole Bowden was a broke college student and a Bob’s Burgers fan with a simple mission: to learn how to cook by creating recipes for the show’s Burgers of the Day, the running gag that has become a fixture of Fox’s animated sitcom. Each burger name, displayed on the chalkboard in Bob’s restaurant, is a food-inspired play on words, such as the Gourdon-Hamsey Burger or the Don't You Four Cheddar 'Bout Me Burger.
As Bowden took these puns from screen to plate, he documented his progress with a Tumblr blog, The Bob’s Burger Experiment, that soon amassed tens of thousands of followers and even caught the attention of the show’s creator, Loren Bouchard. From there, fan and creator became collaborators, and Bowden’s recipes will now appear in the show’s official cookbook, The Bob’s Burgers Burger Book: Real Recipes for Joke Burgers, coming out in March.
When Slate spoke to Bowden, who now works as an engineer for Honda, he had just returned from a trip to Burbank, California, where he toured the animation studio behind the show, Bento Box Entertainment, and saw some of the book’s illustrations in person. Bowden talked about making the transition from blog to cookbook, connecting with Loren Bouchard, and the one burger he just can’t make. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Before you began the Experiment, did you have any cooking experience at all?
I could not cook. I could put food onto a hot pan and heat it up, or put it in a microwave. Maybe I could boil pasta if it was a good day. So I wanted to do something to get better at cooking.
What made you choose Bob’s Burgers for inspiration?
I was sitting in my living room with my college roommate in early 2013. We had been binge-watching Good Eats by Alton Brown. I love Alton Brown. I went to school for engineering and Alton Brown is like an engineer of food.
I had just heard about Bob’s Burgers. We watched maybe four episodes of the show, and somewhere in there, I thought, “What if I just make gourmet burgers?” I could put weird toppings on them, and that’ll probably be the cheapest way to learn how to cook things. I figured, I’ll take this Burger of the Day, and that will inspire me to create something out of it.
What was the first burger you ever attempted?
The Foot Feta-ish Burger. All I knew is that it would have to have feta cheese on it. That one was easy, we made a burger with feta cheese and I think I mixed mustard and mayo and made a sauce and then put it on it.
You now have more than 50,000 Tumblr followers, and that number is on the rise. When did the blog’s popularity start to take off?
One day, my college roommate called me and said, “You’re the top post on this subreddit I follow called Eat Sandwiches.” Sure enough, I looked and there was a link to my blog. I went onto my Tumblr and saw that my number of followers was going up. I would refresh the page and there’d be 100 more.
All day, all I did was refresh that page to see how many more people were looking at my blog. It was blowing my mind. I never thought that anyone would follow it, let alone this many people.
And eventually, even the Bob’s Burgers creators. How did you first find out they were aware of the Experiment?
There was one day where I made a joke at the end of a post—you could call it a joke but I was a little serious too—where I called out Loren Bouchard, H. Jon Benjamin, and a bunch of the other actors at the end of burger post. I said, “H. Jon Benjamin, Loren Bouchard, I just want to make you burgers, call me.”
And a few days later I got an email from Loren from his personal email. I thought, this can’t be real. He said, “I’ve been following your blog for some time now.” I replied to him thinking, someone’s pulling my leg. I probably gushed a bit, and it was actually him. He emailed me back and said, “I’m actually thinking about doing a cookbook one day. It might not ever happen, but if it does, we want you to be involved.” That was pretty much all I heard from him for months. It was like, Cole, don’t get your hopes up. This might not ever happen.
One day, months later, I checked the email for the blog and there was an email from that just said, “Hey. Call me.” With his phone number.
What can you tell me about the cookbook itself?
Some of the burgers are burgers I’ve already done, and then some are cookbook-exclusive recipes. It’s going to be illustrated just like a Bob’s Burgers episode would be. I’ve seen some of the art for it and it cracks me up. Seeing the illustrations up close, in color—it’s like, this is amazing. I made that burger, and now it’s illustrated.
I saw the illustration for the Human Polenta-pede Burger, and everything about it was perfect. I laughed. That’s true of every illustration in the book.
When you’re not making burgers, you work as an engineer for Honda. Do your colleagues know that you are an amateur chef, and something of an internet celebrity, on the side?
Some of them do. My friends at work, they all know because they’ve eaten most of my burgers, whether they’ve liked them or not. In the beginning especially, they gave a lot of good feedback. One of my friends at work was a Japanese translator, so when I made an enoki mushroom burger [the Enoki Dokie Burger], I called her over to say, “You’ve eaten enoki mushrooms before. How does this taste?”
Have you grown as a cook like you set out to when you started the Experiment?
The more complicated recipes I make today are infinitely more complex than what I could’ve done, or would have been comfortable doing, in 2013. There was one that I’ve made, the Every Breath You Tikka Masala Burger—you wouldn’t expect this pairing of beef with tikka masala. You essentially make an entire tikka masala dish and put some on top of a burger.
There’ve been a few others where the burgers have just become a lot more complicated, and the flavors are much more unique. Why are you putting fig jam on a burger? Well, because it’s delicious. Or recently I’ve gotten a big kick out of putting green apple on burgers. That’s not something I’d had before. Apple and honey on a burger—that flavor works really, really well, but you wouldn’t expect it.
It isn’t a Burger of the Day per se, but Bob’s culinary masterpiece is undoubtedly the Meatsiah, the most difficult burger of all time. Have you ever attempted it?
I’ve thought it, but it is impossible. The Meatsiah is beef tartare, inside a hamburger, inside a beef wellington. Beef tartare is raw beef. Cold, raw beef. You can’t put that inside of a cooked hamburger because it’ll cook, and then it isn’t beef tartare. Then, if you put that inside a puff pastry to make a beef wellington out of it, you have to bake that in an oven, which’ll also cook the beef tartare.
I’ve thought about putting it in a syringe and then squirting it into the middle of the hamburger right before you serve it, but I don’t know how well that would work. I might try it one day. I’m still trying to figure that out. It’s not in the cookbook, but it’s definitely my most requested burger. The Meatsiah is only for burger experts.