A Q&A With Chef Franc, A.K.A. Poi Dog Pondering’s Frank Orrall

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You know Frank Orrall as the charismatic founder and frontman of Poi Dog Pondering, or maybe as percussionist and singer in Thievery Corporation. If you’re especially fortunate, you also know him as the inventive and talented cook known as Chef Franc, who will come to your home with groceries and his guitar, and prepare a feast for you and your friends. If your group is large enough, he’ll bring along one of his sous chefs, like Susan Voelz or Robert Cornelius from Poi Dog, and when dinner is done, the guitar comes out.

Paste caught Orrall before an autumn string of shows around the U.S. with Thievery Corporation and Poi Dog Pondering. The later are promoting a new release, Everybody’s Got a Star, and celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Pomegranate, a favorite of Poi Dog fans. At three consecutive shows at Chicago’s Vic Theatre in October, the band will be playing Pomegranate in its entirety, along with select material from their back catalog and the new album.

Orrall values the good life. When he is on tour he prefers going hungry to settling for mediocre food, and doesn’t mind blowing his per diem on a special dinner. He talked to Paste about some of his more memorable meals at home and on the road, his penchant for making cappuccinos at gas pumps, and his recent “dark night of the soul” in an Arkansas food desert, where he resorted to cobbling together quesadillas from the shelves of a Wal-Mart.

Paste: You’re at a truck stop, you’re starving, and you have five minutes to assemble a meal. Describe that meal.

Frank Orrall: Hahahahaha! That’s the classic dilemma. In the early days of Poi Dog Pondering touring, truck stops had mom and pop restaurants attached and I’d just get a simple grilled cheese sandwich. Now that the main artery truck stops are all conglomerate, there’s really nothing worth eating in them. If I absolutely have to…nuts. String cheese. Water. But I’d rather sleep through all that. Interstate America has been taken over by fast food pirates. They cut the heart right outta the thing.

Paste: When you’re on tour or traveling, what food from home do you crave?

FO: My girlfriend’s cooking. She’s from Japan, and she does really interesting combinations of Japanese and Western flavors. We take turns cooking for each other, we sit outside, open a proper bottle of wine. To be honest, we enjoy our own cooking better than 90 percent of the restaurants we happen upon.

Paste: When you’re home, what do you miss about eating on the road?

FO: Dinner with my band mates. The adventure of discovery. In both Thievery Corporation and Poi Dog Pondering, there are a few of us who love to get together and blow our per diems on very good food and wine. On the road, I eat once a day, and it’s gotta be good.

Paste: What’s the most important item in the Poi Dog Pondering rider?

FO: French Champagne or Loire Valley white wine. That goes a loooong way to make a band happy and feeling delicious. Personally, I don’t really care for food on the rider. Susan does like her chips and salsa from time to time. She eats, like, three of them!

Paste: Is there anything special you like to eat before playing a show, or anything you specifically avoid eating before playing?

FO: I like to go on stage hungry. Italian, Mexican, and especially Indian food before a show will just take you outta the game. My favorite time to eat on tour is either before sound check (2-3 p.m.) or after the show (midnight).

Paste: What’s your funniest on-the-road food story?

FO: Back in the late 80’s/early 90’s I carried a stovetop espresso maker (like a Bialetti), and when we stopped for breakfast at the old truck stop restaurants I would load it up with water and coffee in the bathroom, then ask the cook if they would put it on the griddle for me until it bubbled. They thought I was crazy, but they let me do it about 60% of the time.

When the small espresso machines came out, like the Krups, we were all over that. We used to pull up for gas, find an outlet, plug that thing in and make cappuccinos right there at the pump. Froth the milk, everything. We were stoked!

Paste: What about your worst on-the-road food story?

FO: This past summer, on a Thievery Corporation tour, we played at the Wakarusa Music Festival in Arkansas. We got booked into some terrible “America’s Best Value Inn” in a depressing little town with nothing but a Taco Bell/KFC combo “restaurant” and a Love’s truck stop. That was it. I swore off fast food places a decade ago, so I was pretty much fucked. I went through the Love’s truck stop and tried to do what you asked about in your first question. Everything looked disgusting. And depressing: kids and grown-ups drinking giant sodas, eating microwave pizzas.

I asked if there was a grocery store around and walked the two miles to a grocery at Wal-Mart. There were no vegetables. No fruit. That was what they had for a grocery store!? So sad. I bought some tortillas, Monterey Jack cheese, and tinned jalapeno peppers, walked back to the hotel, and made quesadillas. That was a dark night of the soul, ruminating on how the USA is giving up the keys to corporate food, and letting them run things.

Paste: What’s the best meal you’ve had lately?

FO: When I’m in Chicago, I always have a beautiful time at La Sirena Clandestina, Avec, or Lula Cafe. Those are my go-to restaurants. I love them.

On the road, the last one that stands out was Root in New Orleans. Delicious food, farm-to-table’esque, nose-to-tail’esque, inventive and fresh.

I was in Barcelona recently, and the way they eat there stood out to me: casual, open air, walking from place to place to have a bite here and there, lots of people on the street at night enjoying themselves, eating and drinking well and not breaking the bank to do it. They know what they’re doing there.

Paste: What’s your favorite thing to cook right now?

FO: I am loving working with farro grain lately. It’s a hearty grain, with a nutty flavor, and really versatile. You can undercook it so it’s tough and has body, mix it with chopped olives, basil, marcona almonds, and shaved Manchego cheese, or with whole fresh fava beans and mint. Or you can cook it longer, like risotto, stir in butter and grated dry Italian cheese, add herbed sautéed mushrooms. It’s a satisfying grain. My body feels good eating it, and craves it.

Paste: There’s a podcast called “Food is the New Rock.” What do you think? Is food the new rock?

FO: That is so funny! My band mate Max used to say, “food is the new indie rock.” I think it’s sorta true. Hipster, snobby, cliquish, partitioned by genre…

Food is relevant to everybody. We all need to eat. People are just giving it more care and attention now, which is great, and it’s important for our health and for the way we think about our farmers. I love it. It makes for great dining, better shopping, healthier ingredients. It’s all for the good.

Paste: You’re a chef and a musician—what are the connections between food and music?

FO: I think the main connection is that they are things you do for other people. I do sit around and play guitar alone sometimes, and sometimes I cook for myself, but it’s way more fun to do these things for and with other people. It’s a social communication thing.

When I was a little kid, we lived in Sac Peak, New Mexico, population 200. There were no restaurants or bars. Our folks would have dinner parties, cook lots of food, kids would be running around, parents drinking and talking. After dinner, the instruments would come out of the cases and we all sang Carter Family, Roy Rogers, Johnny Cash, and Woody Guthrie songs. I loved that. Those nights have everything to do with why I started cooking with my band mates, and the Chef Franc thing came directly out of those meals.

Freda Love Smith is a drummer and writer whose food memoir, Red Velvet Underground, is forthcoming on Agate. She blogs at lovesmiths.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter.