True Thai Cuisine
Andy Ricker’s obsession with Thai food was born out of a backpacking trip he took in the 80s, when he discovered that the gloppy noodles he’d been eating stateside were not representative of the diverse culinary traditions he found in Thailand. In 2005, Ricker opened his first restaurant in Portland, Pok Pok. Turns out there was a demand for authentic Thai food. Fast forward to 2013, Andy’s received a James Beard award (not to mention notoriety as the country’s foremost Thai expert), he has four successful restaurants in Portland, two in NYC and a couple more on the way. We chat with Andy about his favorite cities in Thailand, his ambitions and advice for cooking Thai cuisine at home.
AndrewZimmern.com: What drew you to Thai cuisine in the first place?
Andy Ricker: I was traveling in Thailand as a backpacker in the mid 80s and ate the food that you would in that situation, ie: at bungalows and guesthouses and environs. I thought I was having a definitive Thai food experience and it took a second trip in 1992 to visit an old friend in Chiang Mai to realize I was not. It turns out that Thai food is incredibly varied and not the just 20 or 30 dishes we know from eating in tourist spots in Thailand and Thai restaurants in the West. Like any other great cuisine there are seasonal, regional, ethnically diverse food traditions, the vast majority baring little resemblance to the rainbow curries and gloppy noodles that we have come to identify as Thai.
AZ.com: How often do you go to Thailand? What are your favorite food cities?
AR: I come to Thailand (I am here now) at least twice a year staying for up to two months at a time. My favorite food city is Chiang Mai, but Bangkok is truly amazing. Mae Hong Son has a very interesting and delicious cuisine that is unlike the rest of Northern Thailand. Udon Thani is a great food town in Isaan with plenty of Vietnamese influence, and I really enjoyed Phattalung when I was down south last year. Thing is you can’t really go wrong here, you just need some local beta!
AZ.com: How do you go about recreating dishes and flavors you find while in Thailand?
AR: I taste as many versions as I can, attempt to make them in Thailand if I have time, and if not I write everything down, ask questions and then recreate upon return. At this point I have a pretty solid knowledge of ingredients, a pretty tuned palate and enough Thai vocabulary to ask the right questions.
AZ.com: After the wild success of your restaurants, do you still get crap for being a white guy cooking Thai food?
AR: Of course, and I always will. I find it a bit ridiculous though, considering the same people who blow this kind of hot air have no problem eating at Italian restaurants helmed by Irish guys without questioning it at all. If you can tell me the difference without sounding or actually being completely ignorant, racist or naïve, by all means do!
AZ.com: Why did you decide to open an outpost of Pok Pok in NYC?
AR: There seemed to be a demand. I really like NYC and wanted an excuse to be there more. I wanted to do another Pok Pok but Portland is a small town and I did not want to cannibalize my own business. I have employees who have been with me for a long time and I wanted to give them further opportunities to grow instead of stagnating, and finally, if you do well in NYC you have a bit of a podium to deliver a message if you have one. And I do. See question number 1.
AZ.com: Do you plan on adding more restaurants to this growing empire?
AR: We have two due to open before summer of 2013: Whiskey Soda Lounge Ny (down the street from our Brooklyn store) and a Thai curry-on-rice joint called Lat Khao, just up the street from Pok Pok in Portland. After that, I don’t know but I am ambitious and have a bunch more ideas, so it is likely.
AZ.com: Best advice for home cooks wanting to create an “authentic” Thai meal?
AR: Forget about the word authentic! It means nothing substantive, it’s entirely subjective and has come to mean the food you get in Thai restaurants in America (every Thai restaurant seems to use the words “authentic” and “traditional” on it’s sign or menu), which in my mind is an entirely new genre of food (a delicious one but, as American or Western as General Tso’s chicken). If you want to make something that is true to it’s origins, find a good cookbook (any by David Thompson) and do not make any substitutions either in method of cooking or ingredients.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
AR: A sixpack of beer, some Pok Pok Som drinking vinegar, an unopened package of Kewpie mayonnaise and an apple.
Check out Andy’s recipe for Aep Samong Muu (a.k.a. pig brains grilled in a banana leaf).
Andy Ricker visited Thailand the first time as a backpacker in 1987. He has spent several months each year since his second visit in 1993 traveling, eating, cooking and studying food culture in Thailand and neighboring countries. He is the owner, executive chef and landlord of the award winning Pok Pok Restaurant in Portland, Oregon, which opened in 2005. Prior to Pok Pok, he spent a good portion of his life working in restaurants all over the world before settling in Portland in 1990. A semi-retired rock musician and fully retired housepainter, he spends any spare time he has catching up on sleep and traveling when possible. In late 2008, he opened Ping, a neighborhood eatery in Portland’s Chinatown which received the honor of being named Rising Star of the Year 2009 by the Oregonian newspaper and one of the Top Ten Best New Restaurants in America 2009 by GQ Magazine, Whiskey Soda Lounge, a bar/lounge featuring the drinking food of Thailand across the street from Pok Pok opened it’s doors in late 2009. Chef Ricker’s Pok Pok Noi, a small to-go joint featuring the menu of the original Pok Pok shack, opened in March of 2011 in Northeast Portland. In 2011, he won a James Beard Award for Best Chef, Northwest. In early 2012 he opened two new restaurants in New York City, Pok Pok Ny and Pok Pok Phat Thai.