Andy Ricker is passionate about changing how Americans think about Thai food. So passionate that he was willing to go deep into debt for it.
Ricker spent the better part of a decade eating in roadside restaurants, noodle stands and home kitchens across Thailand before opening his first restaurant, Pok Pok, in Portland, Ore. Eight years later, Ricker has seven restaurants in Portland and New York City, and he's just written his first cookbook.
"I want to have some kind of voice to say, 'Look, there's much more to Thai food than just Pad Kee Mao and rainbow curries and Pad Thai,' " Ricker says. "Thai food, in my opinion, is one of the great cuisines of the world. It should get its due."
Ricker still remembers the exact moment that realization struck him more than 20 years ago. He was visiting a friend in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, when he ordered a bowl of soup made from a local puffball mushroom. "It was unlike anything I'd had before," Ricker says. "It was herbaceous. It was bitter. It was salty, a little bit spicy. That was the kind of the slap in the face."
Back home in Portland, Ricker wanted to cook the food he had been eating in northern and northeastern Thailand. But Ricker couldn't find any recipes in English. So he slowly pieced them together by picking the brains of street vendors and other cooks in Thailand.
For almost a decade, he split his time between Oregon and Thailand, where he traveled all over the country, eating and cooking obsessively. Finally, in 2005, Ricker started selling charcoal-grilled game hens and green papaya salad out of a takeout shack on a residential street in southeast Portland.
The shack soon had a devoted following, but Ricker was broke and deeply in debt. He maxed out six credit cards and had to borrow $7,000 from his mother to open a sit-down restaurant in 2006.
Acclaim followed pretty quickly. And then Karen Brooks, who was the food critic at The Oregonian, named Pok Pok restaurant of the year in 2007. He was out of debt by the end of the year.
Brooks says Ricker's cooking tasted nothing like the mild Thai food Americans are used to.
"It marched into your mouth like sour bombs, and fire, and like more funk than a James Brown record," says Brooks. "It was infectious, and there was no cure. There was no going back."
Ricker doesn't look like an obvious ambassador for this cuisine. He's 6 feet tall and blond, and grew up in Vermont. Perhaps that is why he's careful to avoid using words like "traditional" and "authentic" when talking about this food. "Both of those words are banished from the restaurant[s]," Ricker says.
What Ricker would rather talk about is accuracy — in the book, he calls himself a "proud copycat" of Thai food. "The reason why I think that the food at Pok Pok is special is because we actually go through the process to make food the way it's made in Thailand," he says. "We don't use food processors; we don't use blenders."
Ricker's cookbook, which is also called, simply, Pok Pok, is equally demanding. To cook his food at home, you need at least one mortar and pestle, a sticky rice steamer and a flat-bottom wok. And there's the long list of exotic ingredients like kaffir lime, tamarind pulp and shrimp paste. But for Ricker, there are no shortcuts.
"We go the extra step because that's really the only way to arrive at the flavors," Ricker says. "So when we set out to write the book, it wasn't like, 'Oh, we'll do an abbreviated version of all the recipes that we have at Pok Pok.' "
This cookbook will teach you how to make Pok Pok's most popular and addictive dish: Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings.
"Really, [Ricker] could do nothing but open fish wing joints from here to eternity, and probably become a billionaire," says Brooks, who's now a food critic at Portland Monthly and the author of The Mighty Gastropolis: Portland, a book about the city's food scene. "That's what kind of everybody wants. But that's not what he wants."
What Ricker seems to want most is respect. Not for himself, necessarily, but for the food he loves.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Andy Ricker wants to change the way we think about Thai food. Mr. Ricker spent years eating in roadside restaurants, noodle stands and home kitchens across Thailand. He brought those bold flavors back to the U.S. when he opened his restaurant Pok Pok, in Portland, Oregon eight years ago, and now he's written his first cookbook.
It's part instruction manual, part travelogue, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The name Pok Pok isn't a real word in any language. It's actually a sound, the sound of a stone mortar and pestle in action.
(SOUNDBITE OF MORTAR AND PESTLE)
ANDY RICKER: We're going to make this as pretty spicy one. You can make it less spicy by cutting the seeds out of the chilies.
ROSE: Andy Ricker is making lunch in the kitchen of the Whiskey Soda Lounge, the newest of his three restaurants in New York. Ricker starts by smashing green chilies, garlic and shallots in a granite mortar and pestle.
RICKER: Stone age cooking implement that's still in use today, you know, 'cause it's the best technology for doing this. I mean, you can already smell it. You can smell the garlic, you can smell the chilies, you can smell the shallots in there.
ROSE: Ricker puts the smashed mixture in a wok, then he adds shrimp paste and slices of fall squash and tosses it together.
RICKER: And you can try this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING WOK)
ROSE: A few moments later, lunch is served. This is fantastic.
RICKER: Does it taste like Thai food to you, quote/unquote?
ROSE: No. It just tastes good.
RICKER: There you go.
ROSE: Andy Ricker doesn't look like an obvious ambassador for this cuisine. He's six feet tall, blond, and grew up in Vermont. But Ricker remembers the moment he fell in love with Thai food more than 20 years ago. He was visiting a friend in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, when he ordered a bowl of soup made from a local puffball mushroom.
RICKER: It was unlike anything I'd ever had before. It was herbaceous, it was bitter, it was salty, and a little big spicy. So that was it. That was kind of the, you know, slap in the face, like, hey, you know, it's not just these coconut curries and these stir-frys and stuff. There's this whole other world.
ROSE: That was not Ricker's first trip to Thailand. As a young man, Ricker lived in New Zealand, Australia and Southeast Asia, working odd jobs in order to get by. But mostly he was a cook and what he wanted to cook now was Thai food, especially northern Thai food. But back in Portland, Oregon, where Ricker had settled down, he was running into a dead end.
RICKER: The problem was that the books I was reading didn't have the food that I was eating. I was looking for recipes for stuff that I was eating in Chiang Mai and while I traveled through Isaan, and the books that were here in America just didn't have the recipes for that stuff.
ROSE: So Ricker collected his own. For about eight years he split his time between Portland and Thailand, where he traveled all over the country, eating and cooking obsessively. Finally in 2005, Ricker was ready to open a restaurant. He started selling charcoal-grilled game hens and green papaya salad out of a takeout shack in Southeast Portland.
KAREN BROOKS: Pok Pok did seem like a suicide mission.
ROSE: Karen Brooks is the food critic at Portland Monthly magazine and co-author of "The Mighty Gastropolis," a book about the city's food scene. She says Ricker maxed out his credit cards and sold his house to get Pok Pok off the ground. And as soon as she tasted the food, Brooks says she knew why.
BROOKS: It marched into your mouth like sour bombs and fire and like more funk than a James Brown record. And it was infectious and there was no cure. There was no going back. Restaurants rarely have the power to really change our perception of what a cuisine can be, and Pok Pok was one of them.
ROSE: Brooks named Pok Pok restaurant of the year for 2007 when she was food critic at the Oregonian, Portland's daily newspaper. Ricker started six more restaurants in Portland and New York. He added a James Beard Award to his resume in 2011, but Ricker still seems ambivalent about playing the role of the celebrity chef. He prefers the more modest title of cook. Two other words he doesn't like are traditional and authentic. Ricker says he is aiming for accuracy.
RICKER: The reason why I think that the food at Pok Pok is special is because we actually go through the process to make food the way it's made in Thailand. We don't use food processors, we don't use blenders.
ROSE: The Pok Pok cookbook is just as demanding. In order to do this at home, you're going to need at least one mortar and pestle, a sticky rice steamer and a flat bottom wok, plus a long list of exotic ingredients like kaffir lime, tamarind pulp and shrimp paste. But Andy Ricker says there are no shortcuts.
RICKER: We go the extra step because to me that's really the only way to arrive at the flavors. So when we set out to write the book, it wasn't like, oh, we'll do an abbreviated version of all the recipes that we have at Pok Pok just so people can get it on the plate. That's completely, you know, against everything that we do at the restaurant and everything I believe in about this food. So, it was a no-brainer.
ROSE: This cookbook will teach you how to make Pok Pok's most popular and addictive dish: Ike's Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings. Karen Brooks says those chicken wings alone could make Andy Ricker very rich.
BROOKS: Really, he could do nothing but open fish wing joints from here to eternity, and probably become a billionaire. That's what kind of everybody wants. But that's not what he wants.
ROSE: What Ricker seems to want more than money is respect - not for himself, necessarily, but for the food he loves.
RICKER: I just want to have some sort of voice to say, look, there's much more to Thai food than this. It's not just pad kee mao and rainbow curries and Pad Thai. Thai food, in my opinion, is one of the great cuisines of the world. You should get it to do.
ROSE: Andy Ricker's restaurants are trying to make that case every night of the week. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.