Andy Ricker, the Most Famous Thai Chef in America, Is Burnt Out
The Pok Pok impresario has closed down his L.A. and NYC outposts and is off to Thailand in search of a simpler life
Some men learn to cook with aspirations of becoming the next great culinary mind. Andy Ricker learned so that he could get a free ski pass to a Colorado resort.
Accolades from food critics was never an aspiration while growing up in Jeffersonville, Vermont, a little town that Ricker once described as “redneckville,” raised by a mother who worked as a pizza cook. Picked on at school and uninspired by his surroundings, Ricker celebrated high school graduation by dropping acid and packing up his car for a new life in Vail, Colorado. Juggling pans as a line cook in a ski resort was a temporary gig with the benefit of free ski access. It would also be the first of many stops around the world, most importantly a 1987 journey to Thailand that sparked a decades-long love affair.
Ricker, 54, is today the chef and owner of Pok Pok, a small kingdom of six Thai restaurants in Portland that’s made him one of America’s most interesting culinary figures. Ricker bloomed into his most defining role late in life, as a 42-year-old with no cash and not much of a resumé. In 2005, he opened a takeout shack in the driveway of his Portland home, selling charcoal-grilled hens and green papaya salad. In 2006, the sit-down Pok Pok debuted, kicking off Ricker’s rise to national consciousness. “There’s seemingly no end to chef Andy Ricker’s imagination,” beamed Portland Monthly.
Five years later, he won the coveted James Beard award for Best Chef in the Northwest. Then came accolades from Bon Appetit (“Ricker opened up a world of flavors — and a world-class cuisine — to a generation that didn’t even know they needed them”) and a Michelin star, a coup given the prize is bestowed mostly on conspicuously “refined” restaurants. “You eat his food and think, Oh my God. I can’t wait to have it again,” Portland Monthly food critic Karen Brooks, who named Pok Pok the restaurant of the year in 2007, says in a documentary about Ricker. “Andy showed that if you invest in what you believe in, genius cooking can happen anywhere.”
Ricker considers Thailand, where he owns a house with his Thai girlfriend, his home and muse — the site of epiphanies across 30 years. The first was a sip of an exotic mushroom soup in the northern city of Chiang Mai, bitter with herbs and hotly spiced. He couldn’t stop eating. “When you show them that you’re not only able to eat their food but that you love it, Thai people are amused on one hand but impressed on the other,” he says. “They think, Wow, let’s see if you can eat this too. It was part of a learning curve. I went into it just curious, and I was lucky enough to connect with people who were willing to show me how to make these dishes I’d never tasted before.”
With Pok Pok, Ricker recreated dishes he had tasted dozens of times across Thailand, using the ingredients and techniques shown to him by rigorous Thai cooks. He didn’t mellow flavors to fit American palates, and chose to list the dishes by their Thai names on the menu. Even most Thai cooks in the U.S. didn’t make these homegrown dishes for the average customers. With Pok Pok, Ricker launched a conversation about the diversity of Thai cuisine, and what it means when a white guy leads the charge.
There have been missteps, too, including the closure of a hyped L.A. restaurant in 2017 and the shutter of his wildly successful Brooklyn spot next month. Ricker announced the latter through a long Facebook post, detailing not just the economic stresses but the emotional ones as he nears his 55th birthday.
I recently spoke to Ricker about his winding path from Vermont to Portland to Chiang Mai, the lessons he’s learned as an influential restaurateur, the prickly topic of cultural appropriation and why the deaths of friends like Anthony Bourdain have made him reconsider the rhythm of his life.
Why did you start working in a restaurant?
I was 15 years old, and I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground. I was raised in Vermont, and your choices were to work at the ski resort, a gas station or at the sawmill. I wanted to go skiing, so I worked at the ski resort. There were a lot of food service jobs.
When I moved to Vail, Colorado after high school, I had two choices: I could either be a busboy again at this ski resort, or I could try to be a cook. If you were a cook, you got a free ski pass, just because you didn’t get any tips. I chose that. I didn’t have to deal with the public, I got to ski, I didn’t have to wear good clothes, so that was that (laughs).
It sounds like cooking was just a means to a paycheck. When did that change?
A few years into this Colorado move, I called in sick to the place I was a line cook at. I wasn’t doing well at that point, because I didn’t have the skills to be a successful, quick-moving line cook, and the chef was giving me a hard time about it. Then I call in sick. I was pursuing a girl, and she was leaving the next week. My only chance to see her was this night. So I lied, and then like a fucking idiot, I went out that night with her. In the 1980s, Vail was one street. And like an idiot, I went with her to a bar that the guys in the restaurant frequented. Of course I walk in and the sous chef sees me. He just tells me, “What the fuck are you doing in here? Do you know how many people you let down by calling in sick?”
I was ashamed. I showed up to work the next day thinking I was gonna be fired. I got sat down by the chef, she read me the riot act and said, “Now get to work.” That night something happened. I started to see the shape, like in The Matrix, of the kitchen. I paid more attention to the patterns of ordering. How to set my station properly. It was off to the races.
You spent four years in Vail, then you moved to L.A. with some friends to DJ and deliver pizzas, then to Australia and New Zealand for a few years… and then Thailand?
That was in 1987, I was a backpacker. And I fell in love with it. But it was really in 1992, when I went back to see some friends in Chiang Mai, that I began studying the food. I’d been introduced to a group of people though my friend Lakhana, who I’m still close with and see in Chiang Mai, close to where I live. They basically just said, “Come hang out in the kitchen.” Some of her colleagues at the university she worked at took me under their wings and showed me stuff. It grew from there. It was first about forming relationships with people, and then taking their encouragement to pursue learning about Thai food. I had no plan of opening a restaurant at this point.
I’d moved back to Portland and was playing in a band and cooking. At one point I was working at this iconic restaurant called Zefiro, like the first truly great restaurant there. This was like 1997. I got to the level of sous chef, and I remember walking into the dining room one night and just having this overwhelming feeling of revulsion at seeing those people scarfing down their food. Fucking milk-fed veal and polenta, or something. I don’t know why I felt nauseous. I just had this feeling that I had to do something else.
The only other thing I knew how to do other than restaurants was paint houses, basically. So I got a bartending job, and I painted in the summer. I was playing in a band, and I wanted to travel three months out of the year. I was going back to Thailand and cooking, learning about this food for years. Eventually, though, I got sick of this painting-houses gig, too. When I first decided to open Pok Pok, my only thought was I can’t be a house painter anymore.
You’ve had a big influence on the way a lot of people think about and talk about Thai food. Did you expect that when you first decided to open your restaurant?
I decided I wanted a business that would allow me to make a living working for myself, doing something that I wanted to do and something that I loved. And hopefully, I’d be able to close down for a month or two in the winter and go to Thailand. That’s all that was on my mind.
By the time we opened in New York in 2012, I had realized that there was something more to this than just making a living and selling food that I thought was good. There was a little bit of a mission to say, “Hey, check this stuff out, it’s not the same shit you see all the time.” With a stage like New York City, we could bring that message about regional Thai food to a bigger audience.
I also remember I said in an interview at the beginning of that project, where I think I said, “Hopefully I’ll be put out of business by Thai vendors who decided they wanna sell this kind of food.” And to a certain extent, that’s happened. In New York, you now have a bunch of places that sell mostly Northern Thai or other regional Thai dishes. Pok Pok can’t take credit for that, but I do think we’ve contributed to that conversation about what Thai food is. There are plenty of places in, say, Los Angeles that have been making the food for a while, just never made it a message.
You spend considerable time in Thailand, but you say you’re still a farang — a foreigner. What was the tension between wanting to assimilate into the local culture, but also very clearly standing out?
Well first of all, I’ll never be assimilated into the culture there. That’s not possible. I can speak the language but not fluently. Unless you were born Thai, you’re never gonna be equally accepted. I know people who have lived there for 20-some-odd years, 30 years, who aren’t fully accepted. You gotta be comfortable with that. There are gonna be times you’re being treated unfairly. There are gonna be times where you question how fucked up the government there is, or how classist society is.
So there’s been a certain amount of acceptance. There’s been a certain amount of suspicion. And there’s been a certain amount of disbelief, that a foreigner can eat like them. Of course, there’s a certain amount of protectionism, too. I went for years to restaurants that had a specialty, and I had no idea. It’s a dish of buffalo fetus in a sour soup. Even my friends, who thought I could eat anything, had figured this was too far.
Were you surprised by how willing people were to show you their cooking?
It seemed natural to me. People having pride in what they do, even if they’re surprised that a foreigner would be interested in this stuff. I also said earlier that most Thai folks view foreigners as incapable of understanding the food or even wanting it. Not being able to eat it. There’s a phrase they’ll ask that basically translates to, “Are you able to?” Not “do you want to?” — are you able?
Why do you think the public’s been so captivated by your story and the story of Pok Pok, as a vessel for learning about Northern Thai food?
I think it comes down to the fact that I’m privileged. I’m an American, and I speak English as my first language. I’ve been around the industry for a very long time. I’ve also spent a lot of time in Thailand. So I’m in a unique position to be able to articulate things in a way that Americans can understand. I can write gaeng hang lay on a menu and then demystify it, whereas a Thai restaurant owner might just write “Chiang Mai pork curry,” and your average American wouldn’t know what’s fucking Chiang Mai about it.
I knew before I opened the restaurant back in 2005 that what I was doing was potentially blasphemous. It’s like a white guy making Thai food. In a cultural way, having spent a lot of time in Thailand already, my understanding was that most Thai folks would think that it’s impossible that a white guy can even do this. Because we don’t know how to eat their food! We’re not capable of eating their food, because we don’t understand it, because we’re not Thai.
So I knew if I went out there and beat my chest and had an ego, or altered recipes into something that it wasn’t, it would be unacceptable. The best route for this would be to make the food as I learned it, try to do the best job I could, present it as it should be and not take any credit for the recipe in any way. Or say I’ve discovered this shit.
You knew the conversation about cultural appropriation would be coming.
If I was hoping to be spared scrutiny or spared criticism, then I would be an idiot. So I get it. I do feel like I should be allowed to cook the food that we do at Pok Pok. Some of the people who are really, really vocal with [criticism] you know, I’ve been alive and cooking this food since before they were born. The harder part is, why should I profit from it? And well, you know, that’s a fair enough question to ask. I guess the answer, for me, is because I’ve busted my ass for the last two and a half decades for it. I don’t come from a rich background. I was raised poor. To me, this is the American dream. I managed to go from being a paycheck to paycheck line cook, to farm worker slash laborer, to…
Whatever I had to do, to being the owner of a small business that’s achieved some sort of success. Having said all that, I understand why people look at me and go, “You know, fuck you, dude. Why aren’t the Thai chefs who make this food the ones that journalists call for stories?” And the answer is, you know, I totally agree with you.
How has it felt to have to shut down Pok Pok L.A. and NYC as well?
I’m completely serene with this decision. Our revenues were down and not sustainable. Six years open in New York is an eternity, anyway. The only part of it that’s problematic for me is just an ego thing. I’m realizing that my life would be a lot simpler without trying again. There are benefits to being in New York that have to do with brand stature and being involved in one of the most dynamic restaurant scenes in the world. But I don’t have any interest in opening a restaurant that’s going to be a nightmare to run, and isn’t going to be profitable.
I’ve never really closed a restaurant and thought my life is ruined. From the very beginning I’ve looked at the restaurant business as this weird thing that on paper nobody should ever be successful at. I guess it hurts my ego a little bit with New York because I feel like we still have some relevance. But the only thing that would make me decide to make a foolish business decision would be my ego. Am I willing to go back into that fray at the age of 55 knowing that it’s going to be three years of extremely hard work to get to the place where we could potentially get the money back from the initial investment? Meanwhile battling dining trends and and rising rents and all other kinds of stuff? Apparently not.
You wrote on Facebook that today, your heart really lies in Chiang Mai, where you have a home, a partner and four cats. How and when did the feeling arise?
It’s probably been for the last few years. It’s always felt like home to a certain extent. I’m very familiar with that area, as much as anywhere else. But it really started feeling that way about two or three years ago when we purchased a house in the village of about 20 kilometers outside of Chiang Mai, next to a rice field. We started fixing the house, planting a garden, getting assimilated into village life. You go to the bank, you go to the market, you deal with getting shit fixed, you ride your bicycle around. It’s my normal life.
In the U.S., at one time I was bouncing around in a triangle from Portland to New York to L.A., L.A. to Portland to New York, in every pattern you can possibly have. When I’m home in the U.S., I have coffee in the morning and then just leave the house. I live by myself, no pets. It’s all about work.
Will you move there permanently?
You know, I can’t picture living in Thailand permanently without coming to the United States. Because I do love it. But could I keep myself living in Thailand for nine months out of the year? Yeah, absolutely.
You wrote about the stress of your workload in the last couple of years, also noting that some of your friends and colleagues have passed away. What have you thought about?
It starts with an old bandmate of mine, Brian Berg, who killed himself a few years ago. A guy that I spent a lot of time with, who I considered a dear friend. He spiraled into alcoholism and depression and finally killed himself. Jonathan Gold died recently. Tony Bourdain. The only thread that holds all of these people together is the fact that they were in their 50s and they checked out. Whether they chose to die or not, they all had a lot to live for. And I’ve just looked at my life, and the last 15 years have just been this insane push of obsessing about work.
I used to be athletic, I used to be a rock climber, mountain climber, cyclist. None of that’s happened lately. I wake up in the morning, and I start work. I come home, I’m exhausted, I go to bed. And it just repeats seven days a week. Occasionally I get a day off. And that doesn’t sound good to me. I don’t have any aspirations to stop working and retire and never work again, that’s just not in it for me. But I do have to find this work-life balance thing. And for me that doesn’t mean 50/50 (laughs). But it can’t be 90/10 anymore. It’s got to skew the other way a little bit.
Closing New York hopefully will skew the whole thing closer to 80/20, and that’s a start. And maybe someday I’ll get 70/30, and maybe 60/40, before it’s too late. I don’t have grand ambitions, really. The furthest I’m looking ahead is like, three months. Most of the time, that’s as far as I can see. Let’s say that my other end goal is to get back into physical shape where it doesn’t hurt for me to bend over and tie my fucking shoelace (laughs).
Do you have any words of wisdom to someone who’s young and thinks that traveling intensively like you did is exciting?
It depends on how they’re viewing it. I’d say there’s nothing better you can do for yourself than travel. It gives you viewpoint about culture, and I can’t imagine having a well-rounded education without travel. If everybody in the United States traveled, we’d have a lot less of this Trumpism going on. But if you’re drawn to the perceived glamour, I’d say that’s all bullshit. Look at Anthony Bourdain. He had what could be considered the best job in the world, and to him, it was a bunch of depressing loneliness.
Having worked with him, I can say that when he gets on camera, he’s really good at what he does. But he gets out of the van, he does the scene, and he gets back in the van. Once he’s back in the van, he’s by himself again. If you think that somehow this is the way to have some sort of fulfilling life, to be on TV in exotic locales, then you don’t understand how TV works. And you’re sorely mistaken if you think that’s a way to find happiness.
But traveling is what allowed me to come out of my shell. When I first left the country by myself, I was painfully shy. I couldn’t stand in front of a group of people without stuttering, sweating and turning bright crimson. But after just a couple of weeks on the road, I realized if I didn’t try to talk to strangers, I was going to have an incredibly lonely time out on the road. So I just forced myself to do it. Travel forced me to think about budgeting. It forced me to think about my health. It really helps you grow up very quickly if you do it with an open mind and an adventurous attitude.
Eddie Kim is a features writer at MEL. He last wrote about how big and small dicks have the same problem—condoms don’t fit them.
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