He might be an out-of-towner, but so far, Andy Ricker hasn’t found much use for the PR firms employed by most of this city’s biggest restaurants–the Portland restaurateur’s reputation preceded his Big Apple entrance, and since landing a year and a half ago, he’s had no trouble netting press or crowds at the Lower East Side’s Pok Pok Phat Thai (originally Pok Pok Wing), Pok Pok Ny (127 Columbia Street, Brooklyn, 718-923-9322), or recently opened Whiskey Soda Lounge Ny, just a half-block from his restaurant on the Columbia Waterfront.
Now one of the most prolific members of the national restaurant scene, Ricker got a less-than-glamorous start in restaurants in Vermont. “I was a dishwasher at a fondue restaurant,” he explains. “That’s a ridiculous way to enter the industry, scrubbing baked on cheese off pots. But the town I grew up in was a ski resort, and I could either do that or go work at a gas station.”
He’d later skip town for another winter destination, and he spent a few years living as a ski bum in Vail, working in restaurants before the now iconic destination was much more than a potato field and a few lifts. “I got a job in the deli, and my choices were cook or be front-of-house,” he says. “I cooked because you got a free ski pass.”
He left Vail to travel the world, working everywhere “from a Hooters-style place in Sydney to super high-end fine dining” along the road. When he settled in Portland, he landed in the kitchen at Zefiro, a now-defunct spot from a couple of guys from San Francisco that Ricker says was “a whole new breed of Portland restaurant” where many current eateries trace their roots back to.
That was his last job as a cook, and after a short stint as a bartender made him realize that watching people eat made him feel sick, he took an eight-year break from the biz and worked in construction. That job gave him plenty of time to travel, and he soon fell in love with the food of Chiang Mai in northeastern Thailand. So in 2005, he returned to the restaurant world with Pok Pok, the impetus for a bicoastal empire with a fervent following.
In this interview, he talks about what he wasn’t prepared for in coming to New York, a person he thinks gets too little credit, and why food blogging is destroying restaurant reviewing.
Tell me about the inspiration behind Pok Pok.
It didn’t spring fully hatched from my forehead. I came this close to opening a Mexican place, a Yucatan place, and I had this other idea that’s still in the back of my head that I still think could work in Portland (I can’t believe no one has done it yet). But I was really into this Thai stuff. I found the space, and I decided I couldn’t be a painter anymore because I was way over it. The only other thing I knew how to do was restaurants. When I opened Pok Pok, I thought, we’ll open this shack, it’ll have a small menu based on some restaurants I’d been hanging out at in Chiang Mai, and in six months, I’ll open a dining room and have a bigger menu. I’ll be able to make a living and travel in the winter. It took a few months, and then it just sort of blew up. I had no idea I was going to end up owning seven restaurants.
Why New York after Portland?
I like it here. I’m from the East Coast, and I lived in New York back in 2003. I would come here after the James Beard, after the restaurant started getting media attention. I’d get invitations to come here and cook for events, and people would ask, “When are you opening in New York?” I’d say, “I don’t know, when am I?”
There’s a certain legitimacy that you get by being successful here. I didn’t think I deserved to win the James Beard. I didn’t feel like Pok Pok was a weighty place. We were shooting to be a good restaurant. Thai food is badly represented outside of New York, and I’d much rather talk about the food than all this other bull shit. Being in New York lends weight and legitimacy. And Portland’s a small town. I have talented people who’d been with me since the beginning, and there was only so far they could go. I was seeing people getting restless. So my choice was to open another restaurant that might cannibalize mine or open in another market.
Were you afraid it wouldn’t fly?
I was afraid that by dividing my time, I wouldn’t be able to keep my eye on the quality in both places. It turns out we’ve gotten better and better. And I was worried about what it was going to take to build out. Those were not unfounded fears. It’s a pain in the ass to deal with the city. New York says it’s business-friendly but it’s not.
I wasn’t prepared for finding cooks. We’re always short. Everyone I know is always short. If anyone reads this and is a good line cook, we have a job for them.
Why the Columbia Waterfront?
The concept of the neighborhood in New York is different, and Pok Pok is very much a neighborhood restaurant. You must serve the neighborhood you’re in one way or another. This neighborhood is a neighborhood people have been talking about for years, and it really is changing, even in the last two years. We could have gone to Park Slope or Williamsburg or Greenpoint, but there’s going to be a park across the street from here. There’s a certain vibe that I really like. We’re here because we like it here. We want to be here. That’s why we’re investing in it. We never open a restaurant because we want to be hot and then move on.
You took an online reviewer to task for expecting free rice. Tell me about that.
This speaks to a much bigger problem: People view Asian food as a cheap commodity food. It should be plentiful and cheap and you should get free shit with it. And that’s in our mindset because people who have sold Asian food in our country are just trying to survive. But we all live in the same economic reality. You’re keeping your food cost below 30 percent, so if you’re charging $7 for a giant plate of food, something has to give: labor, rent, or food. Most places aren’t going to be buying natural meats, organic vegetables, top-grade seafood, or even top-grade rice. We don’t make a big deal about it, but we use all-natural meat and high-quality ingredients, and we pay a fair living wage to employees. High-quality jasmine rice from Thailand costs more than $1 a pound, and you have to be careful in how you prepare it. We don’t charge that much money for our food, so I don’t feel bad about charging $2 or $3 for rice. And to top it off, in Asia, you pay for rice. Free rice is an American invention.
Talk to me about authenticity. Does it matter?
We don’t use authentic, and we don’t use traditional; those words are not in the literature. In my new cookbook, there’s an essay on the absurdity of authenticity. Most Thai restaurants call themselves traditional, authentic Thai–to me, that means what you get in an American Thai restaurant. I like that food. Everyone likes that food. It’s fucking delicious. But if you call yourself traditional or authentic, you’re putting yourself in a position to piss people off.
Best bar in the city for a beer
Best restaurant in the city for a special occasion
Best Thai restaurant that’s not this one
Place that doesn’t get enough cred
Person that doesn’t get enough cred
Roberto Santibanez. He’s not invisible, but he knows more about Mexican food than anyone I’ve ever met. You walk into Fonda and think, this is another one of those places that you get a margarita and guacamole. But then you look and see that he’s doing shit he doesn’t have to do. Moles. Chiles. All this different shit. I don’t think people realize how good the dude is.
Doctors Without Borders. They do incredibly good work.
Person you’d most like to cook for you
I get them to cook for me: David Thompson. I just ate at Nahm [in Bangkok] this weekend.
Person you’d be most nervous about cooking for
Jonathan Gold, but I’ve already cooked for him, and I wasn’t that nervous, so I don’t know.
Person you’d most like to cook for
Tom Waits .
Weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten
I was on a flight recently, and I got served this dish, and I don’t know what the fuck it was. It said gnocchi. It was bizarre–gluey and watery. It was like nothing I’ve ever tasted in my life.
Dish you could eat every day for the rest of your life
Thing you hate seeing on menus
I’m kind of tired of the shopping list menus. I don’t hate it, but I don’t love getting a menu that’s a whole series of dishes with five ingredients. I feel it’s kind of lazy. Oysters, lovage, burnt barley, hummingbird ass hole — come on. Tell me what the fuck you’re making.
Thing you love about New York restaurants
Thing you think is weird
Sandwiches are too big.
Best neighborhood for food
Whiskey or beer?
One word on culinary school
Thoughts on the cronut?
I want to eat one. Definitely. Everything [Dominique Ansel] makes is really good, he just happened to hit a home run.
One word on PR
One word on the NYC food media
One word on Yelp
What are your thoughts on the review cycle?
Food blogging is destroying real critical restaurant reviewing in a lot of ways. The reviewers can’t wait four months. And if you’re looking for justice and consistency, don’t look for it in reviews. In the end, does a review have the power to sink for float a restaurant? If you get a good review it helps, and if you get a bad review it doesn’t help. But if you have a good restaurant, and you’re doing a good job, a mediocre review isn’t going to kill you. The news cycle is so frickin’ fast. Nobody even remembers a year later.
Is there any part of the Pok Pok story you think is overlooked or portrayed incorrectly?
Perhaps it’s trying to paint the restaurant with the same stroke–we’re known for our chicken wings, but those aren’t even Thai. I hope to get people in for our wings and get them to try other stuff. I’m more geeked out on this shit than anyone ever will be, and I don’t expect anyone to be as geeked out. In America, Thai food is presented as ultra-spicy, so it’s daredevil shit or a big gloopy mess or weird, because there are all these TV shows showing people eating snakes and bugs in Thailand. But there’s a world there. Thai food is seasonal and regional. There are variations based on family and traditions. What I’m trying to do here is this other stuff. I want people to eat and think, “There’s this other world that I want to know more about.” That’s ultimately my hope.