From his humble beginnings as a dishwasher in Vermont, chef Andy Ricker's frequent travels to Thailand gave him a taste of northern Thai and Isan cuisines. After years of training, the restaurateur adapted the cuisines for his Pok Pok Thai restaurant in Portland, Oregon which would later expand into a franchise across several cities, including Los Angeles and New York. After making an appearance at last year's Mad Face Food Week, he is returning this year as the main chef of Mad Face's Exclusive Private Dinners to introduce his latest interest — Vietnamese cuisine.
You run several Thai restaurants named Pok Pok in the US. When did you discover Thai cuisine? What do you like about it?
The first time I ate Thai food was in the 80s when I lived in Los Angeles. However, I started learning about Thai food seriously around 1992, during my second trip to Thailand. It all happened in Chiang Mai, when I was visiting a friend and the family introduced me to the local food. It was unlike anything else that I had from the bitter flavours, the use of the local and natural produce (jungle food), no coconut cream, to not having much sugar and the use of salt and fermented fish instead of fish sauce. It was really unique and I don't know why but it just caught my imagination. At the end of the day, I like all food from Thailand but northern Thai was the first one to catch my attention.
As someone who has been to Thailand many times, what do you think about the evolution of the Thai food scene?
I would say it has changed for the positive and the negative. The negative being that there's been a rise in the consumption of processed foods, I think this coincides with the rise of the middle-class in Thailand who can afford to shop in supermarkets. It's thought of as clean food. It's not what I recalled eating when I first came to Thailand 30 years ago. More and more young people tend to be attracted to processed foods, they love to eat less vegetables, more meat, not much rice. The palate seems to have shifted towards the sweet side. A lot of food that I used to eat is now very, very sweet.
On the positive side, the new generation of Thai cooks and chefs are becoming more and more interested in the history of their cuisine, the traditions that are still alive and the use of wild and naturally-farmed products. I'm talking about people such as Chef Nhoom from Samuay and Sons. These kinds of chefs are both looking backwards at history and the bounty of the land and they are looking to the future with the way they present their food. It used to be if you go out for a fancy meal in Thailand, you'd have to go for Chinese or Korean. There wasn't really a high-minded, fine dining in the Thai realm. But now that seems to be quite a thing. You have this small number of people who are looking the other way where they are looking for natural, organic ingredients to use.
Andy Ricker Photos: Mad Face Food Week What are your thoughts about Mad Face Food Week in regards to the food scene in Thailand?
Andy Ricker Photos: Mad Face Food Week
What are your thoughts about Mad Face Food Week in regards to the food scene in Thailand?
It's a fun festival. The festival is about the people that participate -- the people who are cooking and organising and the guests who come. If it's well-organised and the vendors all do something good and the people enjoy it, then it's gonna be a successful festival and that's how it felt last year -- there was a great vibe about it. I'm interested in connecting with other chefs because I wanna keep in touch with what's going on, I wanna know what people are doing. The event is a great opportunity for cooks to meet, chat and network but it's also a great chance for the guests to come and sample this really broad experience of food -- anything from hamburgers to curry to my recreation of the cha ca la vong [turmeric fish with noodles] from Hanoi.
What can we expect from you at Mad Face?
I've built a cafe in the Chiang Mai village we live in. Eventually we're going to feature mostly Vietnamese food. At Pok Pok and at another restaurant I used to own called Ping, I've always cooked Vietnamese food, it's my second favourite cuisine from Southeast Asia. One of the best experiences I've had in Vietnam was at a restaurant called Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi, which is one of the most famous restaurants in the world. I love that dish very much so when I got back from that trip 15 years ago, I attempted to make it. I worked on it for a very long time and had a version that I thought was pretty close to the original. For about 12 years now, we've been serving this dish at Pok Pok.
The centrepiece of the meals that I'm doing will be this dish, done the way it's traditionally done at restaurants in Hanoi. We will also have a handful of other Vietnamese dishes, including our now-famous Ike's Vietnamese fish sauce wings, the dish that Pok Pok is most well-known for. It's gonna be a big feast.
As somebody who has run many restaurants, how do you handle the pressure from social media critics, positive or negative?
Obviously, I'm not Thai, I'm a white guy. I'm cooking a cuisine that I didn't grow up with. I've kinda been the poster boy for cultural appropriation my whole career and I'll never be comfortable with it. I don't like it but I understand why people say that. I do my best to be respectful to the culture and cuisine that I'm cooking and not claim it as my own. I try to cook my food as accurate as I possibly can, give credit to the people who taught me and learn from them. It's been forever that I've been named the cultural appropriator. I'm very careful to be modest in my ambition and not claim it as my own in any way.
What is the best advice you can give budding chefs?
Put your phone down, put your head down and work. Show up for work, pay attention and don't try to get ahead of yourself. Cooking is a trade, it's not an art. Any kind of trade you have to gain skills by way of repetition. If you're the kind of person who gets bored after doing the same tasks two or three times, don't be a cook. Forget it. Go do something else because you're not gonna make it. g
Mad Face Food Week, which features over 60 food stalls, begins today at the Sermsuk Warehouse in Charoen Krung. Ricker's special meal will be served on Mar 3. Go to www.madfacefoodweek.com for more info.