INTERVIEW: Andy Ricker on bringing northern Thai cuisine to the United States

Since first arriving in Thailand as a backpacker during the 1980s, US-based chef Andy Ricker has pursued a love affair with northern Thai cuisine, an affair that has in recent years returned his devotion in kind.

Ricker has been written up in the New York Times, lauded by a cavalcade of food blogs and received a tip-of-the-hat from the James Beard Awards – the US’s premier gatekeepers to culinary fame.

First at his flagship restaurant Pok Pok and now with five ventures spread between Portland and New York, Ricker has introduced Americans to a Thai cuisine far more nuanced than the Pad Thai to which the country is accustomed.

Despite harboring plans to open two new restaurants and publish a cookbook before the end of the year, Ricker recently found time to take one of his annual sojourns to Thailand, where Coconuts Bangkok caught up with him to ask about his past and future adventures in Thai cuisine.

Coconuts Bangkok: First of all, can you tell me what you’re doing in Thailand right now?

Andy Ricker: I come here about two to three times a year for anywhere from three weeks to two months at a time and typically I bring over some employees when I come to get them schooled, to get their taste buds either tuned or retuned, depending on whether they’ve lived here or not. I do some shopping to pick up some goods for the restaurant, then I spend some time eating, going around and trying new stuff, doing some cooking, trying to do some relaxing. That’s kind of the gist of it.

CB: So you’ve got three restaurants in Portland and two in New York?

AR: That’s correct, yeah.

CB: And you said that you’re still spending a fair amount of time in Thailand so I was just curious about how your schedule is able to accommodate that.

AR: Well, basically, it’s a common misconception when people think of the word “chef.” They think you’re standing over your stoves every night. Now, first of all, once you get past one restaurant that’s impossible, for lots of reasons. Once you get up to around five, or even three, you have to start building an infrastructure…We use things like Skype, Google Chat, Google Docs, Dropbox, Google Hangouts when we do meetings, where I can virtually sit in a room with all of my managers at one time. It’s a different world. When I first started coming [to Thailand] in the ‘80s it was hard to get a good phone line out of the country, let alone be able to talk to someone on a mobile device visually.

CB: Do you prefer it that way? Do you miss being over a grill most of the time?

AR: No man, I’m pushing 50 years old. That’s a young man’s job. I’m serious, it will fuck your body up to be stuck behind a grill. If I only had one restaurant with a small crew, then yes, I would absolutely still be doing that, or I’d be doing it more often than I do. Problem is, number one, I go into the kitchen and I’m in the way most of the time. We’re generally very small restaurants. Also, I’m close to 50-years-old. I don’t have the stamina or the energy to stand over a hot stove for 10 hours a day. I don’t miss that at all. It fucked my body up. I’ve got a bad back, I’ve got bad knees, I can’t hear properly and, you know, I attribute a lot of that to working in restaurants for most of my adult life.

CB: Do you have any thoughts about why you’ve been so successful about bringing these Thai dishes to an American audience?

AR: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. It’s hard to not be kind of cynical about it and say, “Well, it’s because I’m white.” I think there’s a long, complicated answer to that and I’ll try and keep this as brief as possible.

Basically, in order to answer that question you have to ask, “Why hasn’t anyone else really done it yet? Why haven’t the Thai people done it yet?” And I think if you look at that and kind of dissect that, and that’s a long arduous process, but I think that what it comes down to is most people in America who open Thai restaurants who are Thai are doing it for commerce. They need to make a living. And if you’re an immigrant to a country, you may have limited language skills, some of the skills you have may not be transferrable to a new place. One of the easiest ways for you to start a business and make money is to open a restaurant. As a result, a lot of immigrants wind up opening restaurants. And they didn’t immigrate to the United States to make some sort of artistic statement and to bring their culture to a new country, they came there because there’s opportunity there and they want to make money. And there’s an entrenched mentality in America, with Thai people who have lived there for a long time, that American people cannot eat spicy, cannot eat funky, cannot eat what Thai people eat.

Why have we become successful? I think probably because of a couple reasons. Number one, we found a way to present it to people so they can understand it better. We don’t just call something “Evil Prince” or “Broccoli with Delectable Peanut Sauce.” We serve Isaan style larb with catfish. So, I describe it. I tell them what’s in it, how it’s cooked and how you should eat it. I think also I have the advantage of being a farang, of being a westerner, so I think I kind of understand what western people like and what they’re willing to try, whereas a Thai person might not have that same insight. So I’m able to cherry-pick the menu that I think people will like. Even if they sound a little obscure, I know they have the flavors that people will enjoy. Then, I think that we really made it a point to make the food taste good. We go to great lengths to try to keep the food not only as close to its origins as possible, but also to make it actually really, really taste good. That’s our goal. The food must be prepared properly, the food must taste good.

CB: Have you ever felt like there are dishes that Americans just aren’t ready for yet? Are there any dishes that you would like to do but have held off on doing because of your audience?

AR: I would say this: I pick and choose dishes that I think will work with the audience. Yes, there are some dishes that I would like to put on. It doesn’t have so much to do with, “I don’t think people like them.” It’s that I can’t get the ingredients to do it properly, or to do it at all. So my taste leans more closely western than Thai. There’s certain dishes in the Thai lexicon that I just don’t like myself, or I don’t love them enough to think about trying to bring them to the restaurant. Some things I would love to serve that I don’t usually, but on occasion I do. So, like larb in the north is commonly served raw, right? With raw blood, cooked offal, raw meat. It’s absolutely delicious. Can I serve raw pork larb in a restaurant? No. Nobody’s gonna buy it, it’s just not gonna happen. However, that same stuff, if you cook it, you can take it raw and eat it there or you can just go ahead and cook it. And so we just go ahead and cook it and it’s “Larb Khua” or “Larb Suk” and it’s absolutely fucking delicious. It’s the same flavors, it’s just not raw. So that’s how we bypass that sort of problem.

CB: I was curious if you had any restaurant recommendations in Bangkok?
AR: I have to recommend Nahm, of course, because I really feel that what David Thompson is doing there is amazing. The level he’s cooking at right now and the quality of ingredients he’s using to maintain traditions in historical recipes is pretty incredible. But he also has a great creativity. He has the license to be creative with it because he’s been doing this for so long and he’s so schooled in technique and in flavor combination – what works together and what doesn’t.

Outside of that I love just going into Chinatown and eating on the streets and on the side streets there. There’s some remarkable stuff down there…I’m talking about the places where they’re serving Chinese dishes that have their origins probably a couple hundred years back and they’ve stayed alive in Chinatown in Bangkok in these obscure little restaurants and who knows if they exist anywhere else in the world?

CB: Is there anything else that you want to put out there for the good of the order?

AR: To go back to your first question about what I’m doing in Thailand – it’s really important to me to be here, to come back here. It’s how I recharge my batteries. It’s such an interesting country from a culinary standpoint. There’s so much to learn here that I am by no means an expert. I think that I’m just a student. Every time I learn something new – I learn a new dish, I learn a technique or whatever – I learn something about the true history of this region that I didn’t know before. it’s important for people to realize that this country is so much more than that rainbow curry and stir-fried noodles that you get in the west.


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