WALLA WALLA -- "Stay-tuned, folks. This one's guaranteed to be a real tear-jerker."
Bob Blumer holds a water-eyed grin for the television crew packed around a stainless steel counter in Whitman College's Prentiss Hall. When the take ends he drops his face toward a cutting board full of chopped onions and inhales deeply to work up a few more tears before filming resumes.
"So here's my challenge," he begins again. "I've got just five days to become the baddest onion-peeler on the planet."
The food adventurer and host of Food Network Canada's series "Glutton for Punishment" is on a mission to break six Guinness world records in the fifth season of his show. This weekend's 26th annual Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival will be the backdrop for two such challenges.
In one, Blumer will attempt to break the 1980 record set by diner employee Alan St. Jean by peeling 50 pounds of onions in less than three minutes and 18 seconds. In the other, he will try to eat an onion in less than 48 seconds. These are hot onions, mind you. Not the Walla Walla Sweets known for being so mild they can be eaten like an apple.
Nevertheless, the festival that honors Walla Walla's signature crop -- not to mention the official state vegetable -- seemed like the perfect place to attempt such a feat. In the five days before the main event Sunday on the lawn at the Walla Walla County Courthouse, Blumer and the crew and a host of local residents will be filming shots that for the show. Wednesday morning's initial shoot paired Blumer with Christian Chemin, the executive chef for Whitman's catering operation Bon Appetit. Chemin's task: To train the purportedly peel-perplexed Blumer in the finer points of paring onion skin.
As Blumer explains his task to the camera, a tuxedo-clad violinist serves as a musical heckler. Whitman College student Jonathan Spatola-Knoll draws his bow on cue for Massenet's "Meditation From Thais."
"They told me they wanted a violinist to play some sad music while the host cuts the onions," Spatola-Knoll explained after his cameratime.
The Olympia resident and music history major, initially contacted about the role by associate professor of music Dr. Edward Dixon, chose that particular piece for its melancholy nature. It's one the musician won't soon forget since it's now linked with his television debut.
"It's an odd gig," Spatola-Knoll said. "I've played at parties before but never actually during a shoot."
In addition to the onion records, Blumer will attempt this season to make the largest bowl of salsa and crack more than 1,800 eggs in one hour, according to a fact sheet on his record-breaking attempts.
The fifth season of the show he co-created is expected to begin airing on Food Network Canada in early 2011. In past episodes he competed in a coconut-husking contest in Hawaii, a gumbo cookoff in Louisiana, a goat-milking competition in Pennsylvania and a nettle-eating competition in the United Kingdom, to name just a few of his adventures.
But none of those could have compared to the scrutiny of Chemin, recruited for the show as an expert onion-peeler.
As filming picks up, Blumer attempts to demonstrate his skills to the French chef. It takes over four minutes for Blumer to work through just 10 pounds of onions.
"Chef, tell him what he's doing wrong," a crew member filming the shot directs. "Be very critical."
The words appear to come easily to Chemin.
"Look at your mess," the chef scolds. "If you were working for me I would fire you."
With a few tips, however, the story could be one for the record books.
Stay tuned, folks. There may be tears of joy.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.