Dee Laffan spoke to American chef Andy Ricker during his recent trip to Dublin for The Big Grill Festival about his love for Thai cuisine and the challenges of introducing a new cuisine to diners in Portland.
Food trends come and go and each year restaurants and cafés close because they are riding on the coattails of the latest food fad. At some point everywhere a new style of restaurant has opened, to roll the dice as it were, with a new cuisine and experienced the same challenge of making it work and convincing the public that its tastes, while not familiar, are definitely worth every bite!
This is the story of American chef Andy Ricker’s career. Andy has become the quintessential chef’s name linked with northern Thai cuisine. For the past three decades he has fed his obsession, literally, and also fed the masses with his authentic and luscious Thai food. He’s set up an impressive six restaurants and a whiskey soda lounge, not to mention many other food product companies.
Developing a New Concept
Andy’s first restaurant Pok Pok PDX opened in Portland, Oregon in November 2005. Needless to say, there wasn’t anything like it on the restaurant scene at the time, and while many restaurateurs try and fail, Andy not only succeeded but excelled. “It’s a very long story!” he exclaimed when asked how the first Pok Pok restaurant came about. “The short version is that I always wanted to open a restaurant, but was afraid to because of the challenges of the business. I eventually overcame those fears and immediately made some pretty reckless decisions that fortunately worked out, and thus Pok Pok was born!”
“Twelve years ago in Portland, the challenges in opening were mainly: sourcing products. Training employees who may not have encountered the cuisine, and convincing customers to try something new. We were just serving roasted chicken and papaya salad at first. It took a few months to catch on, but then it kinda blew up.”
In the documentary film “Farang: The Story of Chef Andy Ricker”, created by the VICE food channel Munchies, Andy constantly reinforces the idea that he is not a chef, but merely a person who is helping to curate this cuisine in America. His connection with Thai cuisine began when he first visited Thailand in 1987. “I remember my first impression of Thai food. It was in the south of Thailand and I ordered what I recognized from eating Thai food in America. it was similar, but better. I fell in love with Thai cuisine because of the brightness, textural contrasts and flavours of the food which were unlike anything else. However, I now have a much deeper understanding of Thai food and culture and I realize that I was just touching the tip of the iceberg back then.”
“There is no quintessential Thai dish or ingredient. Thailand is not a monoculture and its cuisine is a highly varied, regional and ethnic melange. Every region has its specialties! The food in Pok Pok is the food of the homes, streets and roadside restaurants of Thailand, especially northern and northeastern Thailand. We attempt to create a transportive experience through food, atmosphere and service.”
Since the opening and success of the original Pok Pok PDX, Andy has opened:
- Whiskey Soda Lounge, Portland (December, 2009)
- Pok Pok Noi, Northeast Portland (March 2011)
- Pok Pok Wing, SE Milwaukie Portland (January 2012)
- Pok Pok NY, Brooklyn, New York (April 2012)
- Pok Pok LA (October 2015)
- Pok Pok NW (April 2017)
His extended portfolio of restaurants has not come without it’s trials and errors too. He has closed a couple of restaurants and Whiskey Soda Lounges in some neighbourhoods of New York and LA after deciding to move them or try other projects. Such is par for the course when trying to expand into new markets.
Expanding Beyond Restaurants
Along with being a successful chef and restaurateur, Andy’s empire has also ballooned to include food and drink production – Pok Pok Som Soda. “I found drinking vinegars while shopping in Asian markets for the restaurants 12 years ago and decided to put them on the menu. They are very popular in Taiwan, Japan and China,” he recalled.
“The sweetened vinegar concentrates are essentially the same as a colonial American shrub, which we have seen a resurgence of in the cocktail world of late. Mixed with soda water, they make a great non-alcoholic beverage that goes great with our food and work well as a cocktail mixer. The sodas are just a ready-to-drink version of the concentrate/soda that we sell at the restaurants.”
“We also sell Thaan charcoal, an ebisu binchotan style charcoal – traditionally used by Japanese yakitori and izakaya restaurants on special konro grills – produced in Thailand from rambutan wood. It is very dense, low smoke, long burning and very hot and it works great for grilling. It can be used in a BBQ to supplement wood. It’s great stuff!” he stated.
If you are not fortunate enough to live near one of Andy’s restaurants to try some of his amazing Thai grub, then definitely look for his cookbooks; Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand or Pok Pok: The Drinking Food of Thailand: A Cookbook.
Photo credit for Andy Ricker photos – David Reamer