If you keep up with new music, you probably know Dan Boeckner from Operators, the dark and dance-y synth pop band that consists of him, electro-wiz Devojka, and drummer Sam Brown. (Check out their new album, Radiant Dawn, here and here, and their tour schedule here.) If that doesn’t ring any bells, you’re more likely familiar with Wolf Parade, an indie-rock outfit you just may have spent most of college listening to. But what you definitely don’t know about Boeckner is that he worked extensively in restaurants before this whole music thing took off, and that he has both an extensive knowledge of—and great enthusiasm for—a truly impressive array of cuisines, condiments, and really good potato chips.
Current gig: Singer and guitarist for Operators and Wolf Parade
So for this interview I’m going to shift away from music and focus on food. You mentioned on Twitter that you used to be a chef?
Yeah, I worked in food from the time I was 17 until the time I was in my eearly-to-mid 20s, in Victoria and Vancouver.
What kind of cuisine did you work in?
I only ever worked in a couple of decent restaurants. I managed a kitchen in a regional chain restaurant for about a year—it was probably one of the worst jobs I’ve ever had in my life, and it turned me off cooking. But I worked at a really nice Italian place in Victoria for a long time, which is now out of business due to chronic mismanagement, like so many restaurants. And then I just worked at a bunch of different places managing kitchens and doing menu planning and all that.
Do you cook a lot at home now?
I do. When I was working in food I fucking hated cooking at home. I ate really poorly when I was working in the food industry. I think that may be a common thing.
Oh, it’s super common. Do you do most of the cooking in your household now?
I do. It’s shared between me and my partner, but I generally am the one cooking.
This makes me sound like a stalker, but I saw you tweeted a picture of a bag of MSG—What do you like using MSG for?
I like using MSG for fried rice and noodle dishes—just a little bit. It’s basically the same thing as kombu, or shiitake mushroom powder, which I like to use if I’m making fried rice. I’ve got a really great recipe from Mission—actually it’s a Mission Chinese recipe, I love making it, but it’s a salt cod fried rice.
I live in Quebec and salt cod is super cheap up here because we’ve got the Atlantic fishing industry, and we’ve got a huge Portuguese population in Montreal. So there’s actually a demand for it—for bacalao, basically. I started making this salt cod fried rice thing and I’d use really finely ground shiitake mushroom powder as an MSG substitute. Take dried shiitake mushrooms and then buzz them in a food processor or coffee grinder with a couple pieces of kombu. You kind of get that sort of umami-MSG vibe, but it’s way easier to just throw some MSG in there.
It’s way easier. I have that exact one-pound bag in my cabinet, so when I saw that photo I got really excited.
That’s the secret stash area in my kitchen. It’s basically divided into Szechuan stuff like peppercorns, dried peppers, and then a little bit of random Japanese cooking stuff like dried ume salty plum powder, but also a bunch of Burmese stuff that I found while I was on tour with Wolf Parade. We were playing in North Carolina, and right up the street there was a hole-in-the-wall Burmese grocery store.
I’m not going to name the store because I don’t want to publicly bust them for this, but it’s pretty rad: they sell all these great Burmese products, like the specific kind of chilli pepper that they use, ground chillis, but they also sell the fixings for betel nuts, this sort of stimulant that you chew. It’s a betel leaf, makrut lime leaf, and then the actual nut and quick lime powder.
Oh my god.
Yeah! So I walked into the store and I was like holy shit, this is completely legit. They also sell a really good Burmese curry powder. So I bought a huge bag of stuff and took it in the van and the whole van just stunk like fermented chillis and betel leaves for the rest of the tour.
I’ve always been curious about how people manage to keep themselves fed on tour in a way that’s reasonably healthy. Do you manage that?
You know, I try. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s almost impossible. You’re constantly moving, and most of your day is spent between major population centres, so if you stop and get food, it’s going to be at a gas station. And your time is really restricted—when you’re loading in, and you’ve got soundcheck. Honestly, usually the first thing I do is just figure out where the good food is around the venue, within walking distance, and then block off some time so I can go get a meal, because food is one of the few things you can control while you’re on tour. But it can also be incredibly frustrating.
If I’m at home and I go out and I have a bad meal I’m usually just like, “Oh shit, that was a terrible meal. Oh well, no big deal.” But if you’re on tour and you found a Vietnamese restaurant, you’re thinking all day “Vietnamese food. This is my reward. This is going to be the highlight of my day when I’m not on stage,” and it’s bad? It’s like this crushing blow.
I feel the same way if I’m travelling and I “waste” a meal. I feel like if I pick the wrong place I’ve failed in some way. But I can imagine that’s compounded by the stresses of being on tour.
That’s exactly it. And it definitely depends on the region. If you’re playing in the coastal centres in North America, chances are you can throw a rock and you’ll find a type of food you want to eat, or that conforms to your diet, or whatever. But as soon as you start going more towards the center of the country, it’s really difficult to find food and the food just gets shittier and shittier. Honestly, if you’re touring the Midwest, Starbucks is kind of your best bet for breakfast almost every day.
What do you get?
I usually get a breakfast sandwich and a double espresso. It’s sounds shitty but your other options are going to a Pilot gas station and eating a four-day-old egg salad sandwich or something like like that. When I was younger I would just eat absolute garbage—you know the hot dogs on the little roller rack?
I do. Yes.
Or the Tornados—they’re basically chimichangas. I would eat that or I would eat whatever—a lot of those places have a fried food sort of cabinet—like a bag of chicken nuggets. I would eat that and I would feel terrible and regret it, but now my move is generally to get a small can of tuna and some crackers. That’s a safe bet.
I will say that with the fried food cabinet, sometimes there are treasures.
Oh yeah. Europe is really great for eating on tour generally. Actually, I’m going to exempt the United Kingdom from this because their food is fucking garbage.
You don’t like mushy peas?
It’s just post-war ration cuisine. It’s like they were on the ration system during The Blitz and everybody was just like “Well. Good enough for us. We like this.”
I mean, I know there’s a whole world of “elevated” food in the UK but it costs a million dollars a plate. They do have jerk chicken and really good Indian food. That’s good. But generally, Europe is pretty good for whatever the promoter provides. It’s exciting, if you’re in Italy, to go out and eat before a show.
But the Netherlands—in terms of fried food gas station treats—I mean I’m generalising, but the food there is maybe second to the UK in terms of awfulness. Because it’s a lot of boiled endive with flour sauce on it, and a slice of lukewarm ham. Like real Protestant suffering food—like suffering food. But because the Dutch colonised Indonesia and that entire area, they’ve sort of adopted that food into their eating culture to the point where, if you stop at a Dutch gas station, you might notice these deep-fried cubes of mie goreng, like noodles or fried rice in a perfect cube. It’s amazing. These are some real top-tier fried gas station treats.
That sounds amazing. I did notice when I was in Copenhagen recently that their 7-Elevens were just leaps and bounds better than ours.
Oh totally. You can get spaghetti carbonara at a 7-Eleven.
You mentioned on Twitter that you once rerouted a tour so you could cook in Sicily?
Yeah. I was with my whole band, Handsome Furs, and we ended this tour specifically in southern Europe so we could fly to Syracuse. There’s an open-air, mostly fish market there that’s been going, in one form or another, for probably over 800 years. There’s always been some kind of food trading going on there.
I think it’s the southernmost point of Sicily. It’s almost North Africa in its feeling. There’s a lot of Moorish influence. Apparently the Egyptians were there; there’s a square a town with a pond that has papyrus growing around it, and the legend is that it was it was planted by Egyptian explorers who came to Syracuse. So I went and rented an apartment there with just a basic gas stove. At night I’d go out and eat at these restaurants and try and figure out how to cook the stuff I was eating. Then I’d get up in the morning, go to the market, buy food, cook lunch, and try and replicate what I’d had the night before but for lunch.
How successful were you?
At first not so much, but I did learn how to make pasta con sarde, which is one of my favourite dishes. It’s a non-sauced pasta that’s got bread crumbs, fennel, raisins, pine nuts and sardines.
That sounds great. Worth the trip. When you’re not travelling, what do you usually eat for breakfast at home?
I’ve kind of changed my breakfast diet recently. I used to eat the sort of Scandinavian breakfast where you have maybe some sliced cucumbers, rye crackers, eggs, and pickled herring. I like that. I like that breakfast.
But that’s not what you eat now?
Yeah, it’s not what I’m eating now. Because I’ve been so busy lately making this record (Radiant Dawn), I started making this one-pot Japanese breakfast. You get a can of mackerel, you get some rice—generally sushi-grade rice—and you make the whole thing in a rice cooker. So you put umeboshi, a pickled plum, into the rice cooker, with the rice, mirin, a little bit sake, a little bit of soy sauce, kind of half an inch of chopped up ginger, and the oil from the mackerel can, because mackerel is a super fatty fish. You want to get the mackerel packed in—soy oil works pretty good—and you dump the mackerel in, then you top the water up to the liquid level, and put the lid on. Cook it.
The oil keeps it from sticking at the bottom of the rice cooker, but as it cooks it forms almost a crust like if you were making really, really good fried rice. And when it’s done you fluff it up, put it in a bowl, then I put Japanese pickles on it, like Japanese pickled beef steak plant. I forget the Japanese name for it but they’re sort of like purple-y pickles, and then Japanese pickled cucumber. Put really finely sliced green onion on the top. And then you eat it, and it’s great. It’s a good breakfast because it’s protein, and there’s a lot of fat in mackerel, but it’s not overly heavy, you know? And it’s a single pot.
Those are all really great things: one pot, you don’t have to watch it, you can do something else while it cooks.
That’s usually my morning routine: just throw together the mackerel rice, answer emails, drink a coffee, mackerel rice is ready, eat it, throw the rice cooker liner in the dishwasher, and go to the studio.
What kind of coffee do you usually drink?
I’m generally an espresso guy. My partner and I got an espresso machine last year. I have to really monitor my coffee intake because if it’s around I will just drink it all day.
That breakfast sounds pretty filling. Do you usually find you need to eat lunch or does that keep you full for a while?
It keeps me pretty full—I have a crazy high metabolism for some reason. I’ll usually have some kind of sandwich, or a light salad or something for lunch. Especially if I’m in the studio, just something I don’t have to think about too much.
And is dinner usually a bigger production?
If I’m not doing studio recording or rehearsing, one of my favourite things to do is just take two or three hours to make dinner. I find it really meditative. I don’t get to do it very often, but I love doing it.
Do you have dishes that you come back to over and over again or do you try and make things from different cookbooks?
Last year my partner and I went through the Mamushka cookbook by Olia Hercules. It’s contemporary and older Ukrainian cooking. I absol utely love it. She also wrote a book on cooking from the Caucuses. I think it’s just called “Kaukasis,” but there’s a lot of great stuff in there, and I kind of paired that cookbook with this—it’s funny to pair a cookbook—just to contextualize it.
There’s this cookbook that was published in pre-revolutionary Russia, during the Czarist era and it was a guide for housewives, essentially. I mean that’s basically the title. So it ran down everything from how to make butter, to basic food safety stuff that is incredibly outdated and scary today. How to kill a chicken, shit like that, but also you know…Czarist Russia. The cookbook itself is an interesting artifact in that it’s really aspirational. There are recipes in there for basic things like solyanka, this basic soup that’s got pickles and tomatoes and sausages in it, and it’s kind of a “toss everything in a pot” soup. But then there are these elaborate recipes for what you would associate with the Romanovs. Aspic dishes, like a whole perch in aspic, and deviled eggs inside of it.
So that I have that, and I also have a cookbook that was published as an addendum to it during communism, that was sort of revolutionary. It had cribbed from that cookbook, but then put all of those recipes in kind of a socialist light, and was weirdly aspirational too, because a lot of the recipes in the Soviet era cookbook had ingredients that people would not be able to get in a lot of places.
That’s extremely my shit.
It’s really rad. When I moved back to Montreal, I had to leave a bunch of stuff in California, and one of the things I left was this huge Time Life cookbook set that my mum left me after she passed away. And that set of cookbooks is the thing I always go back to if I’m making anything, really. I’ll just sit there and read through those books. I think it’s Time Life Cooking of the World? It’s like a 26-volume set, and it was published in the late ‘60s and it’s incredible. You bought it on a subscription basis I think, and it was probably the way a lot of Americans interfaced with other cultures, especially in the Eastern Bloc.
The volumes they have on Yugoslavian cooking, Polish cooking, Russian cooking—they had unlimited access to these countries that were ostensively just closed off from the West. Some of these volumes are almost a Socialist International project. They debunk a lot of the myths about food scarcity and the sort of blanket idea that all of those countries lived in a grey, dismal food situation. I think Magnus Nilsson references those books in that Nordic cooking volume that he put out.
I love that like kind of internationalist approach to it, because I do feel like particularly with Russian cooking you get this anti-communist rhetoric along with it.
Oh, for sure. Same with China. People’s cultural and racial prejudices are really weirdly baked into the way they talk about food. Maybe not so much anymore, but even with Chinese cooking, you know there’s that sort of misunderstanding.
Do you watch Chef’s Table at all?
I do. I haven’t seen all of them but I do watch them.
Did you see the Russian episode [with Vladimir Mukhin, who applies modern techniques to pre-Soviet cuisine at White Rabbit in Moscow]?
Yeah, I did. I did. That was insane.
What do you think about that one?
I have a lot of Russian friends, and I’ve been there many times to play shows. But I feel like that entire scene is representative of a very small class of Russians, and actual Russian cooking is light years away from what was being represented there. He was incorporating traditional Russian cooking, in a way that was, I guess “elevated” but inaccessible to, like, 99% of the population.
I think that’s a really good way to put it! You take something and you “elevate” it, but you do so in such a way where the people who came up with it can’t access it.
Did you read any of those articles that came out last year about ajvar? Ajvar is like a south Balkan sort of roasted pepper and garlic dip.
I did not.
It’s one of the big national foods of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. I go there frequently—my partner, Devojka’s is Macedonian, and a lot of her family lives there. We eat a lot of ajvar, and I was shocked to see these articles about ajvar come out. I think it was Vice’s food blog— this British chef is just basically like, “I’m going to make ajvar essentially cool, but like very expensive and desirable,” and it’s fucking hilarious because ajvar has almost no nutritional value, and it is super labour-intensive to make. And it’s really just a delicious snack to have with rakia, the local hard booze. It’s funny to see what’s basically peasant food being repackaged and sold at like hundreds of times its actual value to Westerners.
Yeah. And that happens within the West too. It was years ago, but I once saw SPAM on a $US200 ($289) tasting menu. [Editor’s note: It was $US135 ($195).]
What the fuck? Really?
Yeah. And in a way you’re trying to say that it’s a good ingredient, which it is. But to charge so much for it….
Was it presented in a Hawaiian—was it SPAM nigiri or something?
I think it may have been a fried rice. I wish I could remember more details but this was like, five years ago. It was a white guy doing it.
It always is. There’s an almost macho quality to that shit that I really don’t like. It’s hard to explain, but it’s sort of like “Yeah, we’re a fancy restaurant but you’re going to fucking eat SPAM! Can you believe it??” It’s like the cooking equivalent of being an edgelord. It’s like a weird class division thing. You’re appropriating something that was made out of necessity for poor people and making it inaccessible to them.
It’s wild stuff. Kind of shifting gears here: Do you have any studio snacks or practice snacks?
That’s a good question. I’ve been eating a lot of these these very expensive and delicious potato chips. Speaking of elevated food.
Torres brand truffle potato chips. They also have Mediterranean herb flavored potato chips, and they are just fucking delicious.
Are these made with truffle oil or are they truffle flecked? Describe the truffle chips to me.
They have truffle oil in them. I mean they’re not that spendy. They’re not an eight-dollar bag of health chips. But yeah, they taste very truffle-y. I think they cook them in olive oil, so they’re just really delicious. I’ll make an egg salad sandwich, then put a layer of these potato chips on it, and a pickle. That is a good sandwich.
How do you make your egg salad?
Boil up the eggs, chop them, mayonnaise, pickles—very important—green onion, and dill.
Do you have a particular brand of mayonnaise that you like?
Yes, I do. It’s Thomy mayonnaise. It comes in a tube and I think it’s a Balkan product, but it might be an Austrian product that’s super popular in the Balkans. But every time my partner and I go over there, we try and bring back Thomy mayonnaise because it’s just…there’s just something about it. It’s good. It’s kind of eggy in a way that I like. I’m not really sure if it’s technically “good” mayonnaise, you know? I mean, it tastes good. It does the job. I’ve never really looked at the ingredients, but I fucking love it.
What other condiments do you have hanging around?
I have doenjang—fermented bean paste, which I like using a teaspoon or a tablespoon of with steamed vegetables, like Chinese broccoli or bok choy. You steam it really quickly, put it aside, and then put a little bit of oil in the wok, melt the doenjang into the oil, and then just lightly toss the vegetables, and that’s a good snack.
Are you a hot sauce guy?
I’m not super crazy about hot—I mean, I love a good hot sauce, but I’m pretty good with the classics. I like Cholula a lot. It’s kind of tangy. But I really like the Szechuan hot sauces and chilli oil. I use a lot of chilli oil.
The Szechuan sauces have that tingly feeling to them, right?
Yeah, they have the Szechuan peppercorn, which has a kind of numbing flavour. That’s my default. If I’m out in a city in North America and I have a day off, I’ll try to find either a Serbian restaurant or a Szechuan place.
I imagine that would be harder to find once you get to like the middle of the country?
I think over the last half decade, the options for eating have gotten way better in the Midwest. Although the Midwest has some real old school classics. I’m a fan of Culver’s butter burger. It’s good shit. If I have to have fast food in the Midwest, that is good. But you can find weird Amish restaurants. I’ve been to a couple in Ohio and Wisconsin and Indiana. You know, some old school Amish cooking—it’s basically German home cooking, but buffet-style, and that’s always fun.
When it comes to fast food, I’m in no place to judge. I eat McDonald’s because I’m garbage, but those butter burgers are really good.
They’re really good. And A&W in Canada is actually a constant tour meal if we’re touring Canada. The stretch of road between Montreal and Toronto is maybe one of the bleakest drives. It’s so boring. It’s like Hanna-Barbera sort of recycled background. You kind of go into a trance because it’s so monotonous and shitty. They have these en-route sort of travel plazas and they all generally have the same restaurants. They’ll be a Tim Horton’s a Starbucks, and an A&W. The A&W in Canada is great; the Buddy Burger is a great burger.
It’s different than the A&W we have in the US?
Yeah, it is. I’m not exactly sure how, but it just tastes different. The vegetables are better.
That sounds about right. Do you keep any frozen or convenience foods around for moments where you can’t cook?
Yeah, I do. I don’t have a microwave in my house so…but there’s a really great Polish restaurant in Montreal that’s close to my studio called Batory, and they have been making sort of grandma-style, in-house pierogis for as long as they’ve been open. You can eat them at the restaurant, or you can actually buy giant frozen bags of them. They’re incredible.
Spicy cod roe is another quick, easy thing. Asian supermarkets usually have it—mentaiko. You get these packages of cod roe and oil and some spaghetti. Put the cod roe in a pan with some butter and a little bit of cream. You can add garlic but you kind of don’t need to. Use a bit of the pasta water to thicken up the sauce at the end. Then toss the pasta in this cod roe cream concoction, put some green onion on top, and it’s delicious. Have you ever had bottarga before? It’s like a Japanese version of that really simple bottarga pasta. It’s in an un-refrigerated prepackaged little bag. I ate it last night.
Can we see inside your fridge?
Fridge is pretty grim, Claire.
Do you have any favourite hungover meals?
If I’m really hungover I’ll do my own version of budae-jigae, which is Korean army stew with hot dogs and SPAM. That meal is totally delicious. Or I’ll do like a Japanese curry, from the Gleico brand—just throw-everything-in-the-pot curry. But the —If I’m really hungover I’ll just use whatever’s in the fridge, and make a giant pot of budae-jigae, the homemade stuff. I always have chicken stock at home, so I start with the chicken stock and Korean chilli powder flakes, and just start adding stuff into it until I think I got something good going. Then I cook some ramen, and add poached eggs on top. That’s good. Eggs are a cure-all, I think.
Are you a cocktail person or a beer person?
I like wine a lot. Yeah, I’m a wine guy. I kind of had to stop drinking beer after music and touring became my profession, and then also after I turned 30, because If I’m on tour for two months and I drink an average of four to six beers a night, I’m just going to get bloated. It’s not cool to talk about but after 30 I was just like “OK, I got to stop drinking beer now.”
That happened to me too, not for the exact same reasons, but after I turned 30 and leading up to 30 I started sneezing whenever I drank beer.
Oh weird! What do you think it was?
I don’t know. I even tried to keep track, because it wasn’t like every one that made me sneeze, but I couldn’t isolate what it was. So I just switched to gin.
I love gin.
Gin is so good!
So I need to say that Devojka, from Operators, her other thing is she trained with all the guys from Attaboy in New York. It’s like a speakeasy. It’s probably my favourite bar in New York. She ended up training with them on and off for the last couple of years and has mastered making cocktails. They have a drink app and some of her drinks made it on the app. She’s been hosting these these “Pink Panther” speakeasy nights at the apartment. So I’m totally spoiled for cocktails, basically.
My favourite cocktail is the Gibson, which is basically a dry gin martini with a pickled onion in it. She’s totally mastered that, but also has mastered a bunch of other way more complex cocktails. It’s dangerous, because we were just getting shitfaced every night. That’s basically what happened during the writing period for Radiant Dawn—the new Operators record. We would work on stuff and then when we were back at the apartment, Dev would be like “OK, I’m working on a new menu for Pink Panther. Try this. Now try this. Try this.” And then, you know, I’d just be absolutely doomed.
Do you have a particular brand of gin that you like?
I think The Botanist. is really good. I grew up in small rural town on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, a big island off the coast of the mainland. Recently, that province sort of de-restricted distillation lines, so there are all these private distilleries starting up, and a lot of the Vancouver Island gin is weirdly really great. I would say it could compete with international gins. Ampersand is one of them.
Some of them are obviously, like, a little too “tis’d out,” like “artisanal.” Too much infusion. There’s one gin from Canada that I actually love—it’s a Defender Island. It comes in a dark, almost like a fifth bottle, like a mickey. I think it’s from British Columbia, and it’s made with juniper and rosemary, but burnt juniper and burnt rosemary. It’s like a smoky gin.
If you could only choose one source of salt, one source of fat, and one source of acid which would you choose for each category?
Salt—I would go like like unrefined sea salt. Fat—I would have to go with lard, like pork fat, because it’s totally delicious. I’m a big fan of čvarci. It’s like little roasted pieces of lard that you eat as a snack. And for acid I’d just say lemon. I like a nice, medium-tart lemon juice.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.