My guest on Special Sauce both this week and next week is chef-restaurateur Andy Ricker. I have to say I didn't know all that much about him, but his Pok Pok restaurants in Portland, Oregon, and in Brooklyn introduced me to the joys of Northern Thai food.
Ricker says he was raised by hippies in northern Vermont, and he first started helping his mom out in the kitchen as a way to avoid doing dishes (he still has an aversion to doing dishes today). He started working in restaurants as a teenager, and then worked at a variety of places as a line cook, all to make money to support his passions: fishing, rock climbing, playing music, skiing, and, importantly, traveling.
But then, after working his way up to sous chef at Zefiro, the seminal Portland restaurant, he decided to leave—to become a house painter. "I remember walking out into the dining room and just looking at all these people just shoveling this food into their mouth. It looked repulsive to me. I knew that if people eating the food that I've been involved in making is repulsive to me that I've got to get the hell out of the kitchen for a while," Ricker says.
There's not much call for house painters in the winter months in Portland, so Ricker's lifelong wanderlust led him on multiple backpacking adventures, including many return visits to Thailand, where he'd fallen in love with the food and culture on a visit years earlier. And then one day in 2005 he decided to buy a funky old house with a sushi shack in the front yard and open up Pok Pok.
Like many chefs who make the transition to restaurateur, he thought it was going to be easy. "Talk to any cook. They all think that they should have their own restaurant because they know how to do it better than the people they've worked for. They think they've got it figured out. I was exactly the same way, I was like, 'I'm going to to do it my way. I had no idea what it really meant to do that."
It turns out that he was just a wee bit undercapitalized. "I took a second mortgage on my house. I applied for a loan, [the bank] said no, but then they gave me a credit card with a $50,000 spending limit. This was the time when you could get a credit card by burping. I applied for like three or four credit cards and maxed them out all at the same time so they wouldn't have time to catch up to my game." The banks ultimately caught on and Andy had to ask his hard-working mom for a loan so he could make his first payroll.
When he opened, Ricker didn't call Pok Pok a Thai restaurant for a variety of reasons. I'll leave you here with just one of them: He didn't want people saying, "You're a white dude. How dare you claim tradition and authenticity." For the rest of them, you're just going to have to listen to both this week's episode and next week's, as well, when Andy and I take a deeper dive into the issues of authenticity and cultural appropriation. Don't worry. It will be time well spent.
Editor's Note: The title of this post has been changed for clarity.
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