"To this day I still consider myself a student. I think that I've got a lot to learn."
Chef Andy Ricker's face scrunches when describing a chewy mushroom native to northern Thailand. His voice articulates meaty flavors versus bland, and his hands illustrate the way to most authentically execute a balanced Thai meal. Ricker's spent over 20 years studying Thai cuisine, resulting in three Portland restaurants, a line of drinking vinegars, a James Beard award for Best Chef Northwest (2011) and a slew of good press for his Pok Pok brand.
Ricker recently brought a teaser of three dishes and drinking vinegars to New York with Pok Pok Wing and will soon launch Pok Pok NY, a full-menu restaurant with indoor space and a large garden area in Brooklyn. In said garden, we chatted with Ricker about how Thai food became the thing, what authentic Thai food is, and what he wants us to learn from it.
What blew you away about Thai street food when you first discovered it? Pok Pok isn't street food. That's a title that's been kind of laid on us but that's really not what we do. What we serve mostly has to do with restaurants that are either off the street or street-side. Not fancy places, just everyday places that people go locally.
The "aha" moment was when I got taken to a restaurant [in Northern Thailand]. There's a particular mushroom that comes up there in April called het top. They're not these beautiful floral, meaty, sweet mushrooms: they're kind of like a puffball. They're a little chewy, and have a slightly bitter flavor to them. We had them in this really pungent, bitter, salty, highly flavorful kind of soup. And to me—somebody who'd been to Thai restaurants in America and spent time on the beach in south Thailand eating bungalow food—this was a complete revelation, and it was the first time I really went, "oh, fuck, I don't know why I didn't think of this but of course there's regional and seasonal food in Thailand."
From there I sort of set off on this journey of discovery. And the deeper I dug the more I realized I knew so little about Thai food that it was scary. To this day I still consider myself a student. I think that I've got a lot to learn.
How hard is it to replicate dishes you've wanted to make? Sometimes it's impossible. For instance there's a particular salad I love there called saa yawt makham awn: it's the young leaves of a tamarind tree, which are sour, flavorful, and have a texture like the tender part of an artichoke. It's utterly delicious. But until tamarind trees all of a sudden start growing in the continental U.S. and someone picks the leaves and sends them to me I just can't make it. So we do the dishes we know we can do faithfully and execute well.
Have you discovered any markets or supply stores that New York City offers that can help us bring a little traditional Thai flavor or method into our apartments? Honestly, no. It's been really, really difficult sourcing stuff that we need.
Why did you choose New York City as your first step in branching out from Portland? Pok Pok is in a small market in Portland. There's only so much you can expand doing this before you start cannibalizing yourself. I have a lot of good people working for me, and you can't hold onto them forever. Expansion is one way of giving people an opportunity to step up. Also I like it here and I want an excuse to be here more often.
For better or for worse New York City is the culinary center of the universe and what we're doing specifically isn't really happening here. Maybe, eventually, the Thai food in American restaurants may become more interesting. Thai restaurants may specialize a little bit more: instead of giving you fifty of the same thing, maybe a place will just do Pad Thai. Or only curries—that's my next project! This is the way things are done in Southeast Asia and, for that matter, in a lot of the world. People specialize in one dish and do it over and over and over again. It doesn't matter what the trend is; they do it for generations. And they stay busy and they stay famous because they are known for that dish. I see a lot more honor in that than in coming up with a new menu every week.
Are you keeping the New York City Pok Pok restaurants similar to the Portland locations, or are you adapting them to our restaurant scene? I don't want to have to make my things look fancier and start to use nothing but the highest quality shit and charge $30 a plate. I'm not gonna do that: we're going to do the same thing we do in Portland and try to make the price point similar. Because the food isn't fancy. We don't have any fucking tweezers. It is what it is. I can show you pictures of the same dishes in Thailand and it looks the same as what we do here.
What do you hope we'll learn or take away from your menu? Something pretty simple, I think, which is just that it's not what you've had typically with Thai food, and it's not bizarre; it's pretty approachable. I'm not trying to make a cultural traveling slide show of food here. My primary goal is to put things on the menu that taste really good.
Do you have any suggestions for cooking better Thai food at home? Thai cookbooks push you towards getting the hot, sour, salty and sweet in every dish. That's not the way it works in Thailand. More often you'll have something really rich and hot and salty, and another thing that's bland, and another thing that's sour, and another thing that's crunchy and meaty. Think of it as putting different flavors in play. You can make it happen as you want to make it happen. That's how Thai food works.
Any dishes that you've found in NYC that blow your mind? I think Seamus [Mullen] at Tertulia is doing a fantastic job. He knows the food so well he can make it interesting and new while keeping true to the tradition. I also really like Danji. Hooni [Kim] is doing a similar thing: he knows Korean food really well and the stuff that he's executing is just fantastic. There's a whelk salad that he does up there that's one of my biggest cravings.
Have you identified another cuisine in your travels that you might want to work with someday? Before I opened Pok Pok I was entertaining the idea of opening a Yucatacan Mexican restaurant. It's an entirely different cuisine with really bright flavors. Much earlier on I was really taken with Indian food too. It's another one of those worlds that's so vast and varied that it's going to take forever to learn a lot about it. And, to top it all off, Chinese food, man! Every time I've traveled to another country China is kinda the holy grail of "holy shit."