American chef, restaurateur and cookbook author Andy Ricker has been cooking Thai Food in the US since the early '90s, becoming a steadfast legend across America and beyond. With six restaurants, three cookbooks and a variety of TV appearances on Parts Unknown and Munchies, he’s one of the biggest names out there. We sat down with him to talk about his love of northern Thailand, how claiming authenticity is lame, and his curiosity towards the newer, younger generation of Thai chefs that are making a difference while still sticking to traditions.
What brings you to Bangkok this time around?
To do this gig at Siwilai City Club. I live in Chiang Mai part of the year and happen to be in town. I usually stay two to three months at a time depending on business back home. It worked out that Siwilai contacted me about doing a gig here.
Any plans on staying permanently in Thailand?
My wife and I have a house in Chiang Mai, and i live here on and off. I consider it home but I’m not here for more than six months a year. It’s kind of back and forth, I live in Portland and I live here. I’m a slave to my business. I have six restaurants in Portland, a licensing deal in Las Vegas, and I recently had a restaurant in LA and NY, so there’s no precise scheduling.
You’re a two-time James Beard Award winner and previous holder of Michelin stars. Has that had any impact on your approach to Thai cooking in the USA?
No. Those kind of awards are nice to get but they're not why I do what I do. I would cook whether there was such a thing as a James Beard Award or Michelin guide.
We read that you don’t like to use the words “authentic” or “traditional" at Pok Pok. Why is that?
Because those two words are loaded on so many different levels, and I don’t think it’s a very smart thing to claim authenticity or tradition, especially for somebody who looks like me, who's cooking the kind of food that I cook. I don’t have a Thai grandma that I could say “in my mind, definitely, this is how khao soi should taste.” That’s not how I view things. And to be completely honest with you, I don’t think that's necessarily the healthiest way to look at cuisine, because there's no way you can define tradition or authenticity. To me, trying to claim something like that is a moving target. Authentic is what’s authentic to you, traditional is what you believe to be the way you were taught and what you grew up on. The thing is, someone that might live three doors down from you, grew up on different traditions. So if what you say is traditional, is traditional, what does that mean for the person who grew up in the same community right down the street? Who's right, who’s wrong? Nobody. So for me, it’s actually quite liberating not to have to claim those things.
Are you a fan of modernizing Thai food?
I don’t view Thai food as a static thing. I view Thai cuisine as something that’s been evolving over the centuries, steadily. And now it's changing at a more rapid pace because of the internet, foreign cooks and Thai cooks that are traveling. What I will say is that there are people inside and outside of Thailand that are carrying the torch onwards. It's inevitable. You can’t say that Thai food should always stay a certain way. Number one, that’s not realistic; number two, it's not healthy for the survival of the cuisine because it doesn’t leave any room for innovation. What I find really exciting right now are people like Chef Num from Samuay and Sons, Chef Black from Blackkitch, Chalee Kader from 100 Mahaseth, Chef Prin, Dylan and Bo... all these guys and gals and how they are approaching this stuff in their ways. A lot of them have lived outside of Thailand and worked in restaurants doing more elevated cuisine. Instead of coming back thinking, hey I'm gonna do New Nordic food in Thailand, they’ve thought, we can apply these ideas in this place that has an incredible bounty of natural resources around food, traditions and cooking methods that are slowly but surely being forgotten.
You look a lot of ingredients in Thailand, and you see someone like Chef Num, who is particularly fixated on this idea of not letting traditions of cooking, particular ways of gathering wild herbs and vegetables and knowledge, disappear. He’s thinking, I’m going to take this and apply it to what my understanding of what cooking should be and present it like this. Chalee Kader is doing fermented meats, and instead of doing the typical tiny pieces, he’s doing a whole rib rack. To me, that is the salvation of Thai food: going bold. You have these young people seeing that they have these amazing dishes and amazing history and who are not going to let it disappear, but also who are not going to be a slave to the way things were done before. Then you take a look in the US and you see someone like Chef Kris from Night Market who is doing something totally different but equally exciting. His mom's family is from Chiang mai, his dad is from Bangkok, he was born and raised in LA. So he’s more of an LA guy and he’s approaching Thai food like, "hey, I learned from my grandma, but I also learned from my cousins up North, but at the same time, I’m an Angelano so I’m going to make something that makes sense to me." I find that really exciting.
You’ve been cooking Thai food for over nearly 30 years. Do you feel that you still have to prove yourself as a “farang” chef?
I don’t feel like I have to prove myself, I do feel like I have to improve myself all the time. I still consider myself a student of the cuisine. I don’t go around saying I’m an expert. The more you think you know, the less you really know. Things change rapidly, there’s so many different opinions about what's right and what's wrong, you’re constantly learning. I don’t feel like I need to prove anything, but I sure feel like I need to improve myself.
Do Thais accept your cooking?
I don’t know. For the most part, in Thailand, I’m not really a known entity here, except for in certain sectors. I’ve met with less criticism here than in the US but I also don’t operate a business here. This is going to be the first time for me making Thai food in Thailand for the public. We will be serving the same food we make at Pok Pok, and we are just doing what we do in Portland saying, "hey, taste it and see what you think." My understanding of what we do is based on my experiences, not on other people's experience. The only real feedback that I can give is that I'll make food in our tiny village in Chiang Mai for our neighbors and they appreciate it just fine.
Is there any one specific person that really motivated you?
There have been many. Very early on, before opening the restaurant in the mid '90s, I went over to visit my girlfriend at the time and in her lobby there was a glossy food magazine that I picked up and there was a story on Saipin Chutima from Lotus of Siam and they were explaining that she had this restaurant in LA at a strip mall and she was struggling so she moved to Las Vegas and she had this secret northern Thai menu she was offering only to Thais. When I read what was on the menu, I thought, "holy shit, this is what I’ve been seeing in Chiang Mai." I coudn't figure out why no one else was making this food. I was like, thank God. Right about the same time, I got David Thompson's book, Thai Food. So both of these things together, I was like, oh shit, there’s a Westerner who's gone way deeper than I can imagine and there’s this Thai woman who's making northern Thai food in America. Those two things were highly motivating for me to keep on learning and eventually open my restaurant a few years later.
Your new Pok Pok Noodle cookbook goes through making everything from khanom jeen to homemade fish balls. How long did it take to research and test the recipes? Can they be made anywhere in the world?
Research and testing took a decade. The recipes already existed. It was just a matter of turning restaurant recipes into home recipes. The hard part about making this book was figuring out how to get the recipes made for a certain amount of people. You just can’t make a pot of noodles and measure it out for each bowl. It’s a vendor food. It was a constant battle with the publishers to explain that you can't get a specific amount of broth. The idea is to make a big batch, store some in the freezer or plan the recipes around a party. There’s a zillion Thai cookbooks claiming 101 easy ways to make things and this book is not that.
A lot of Amazon reviews are saying it’s too hard. I think your average person who picks up this book will have the same criticism they had with my other books. They can’t find the ingredients or it’s too difficult. My argument is: don’t buy this book unless you just want to read about it or look at the pictures. All the books I do, you have to put the time in, there’s no magic bullet. Some of the recipes are quick and easy but most of them you have to at least read about them, maybe research and try cooking it more than once. The chances that it’s going to be foolproof on the first try are pretty much zero.
With your book and others such as Austin Bush's on the food of Northern Thailand, do you think the international consciousness of regional Thai cuisine is growing?
Much more conscious. Again, we are in times where things change rapidly. People like Austin, this guy is a serious writer, a very good researcher. We bought a truck together and he put 15,000km on it in around nine months driving all over, talking to people, resarching, finding recipes. I helped him test them at my house. I was around that whole process. That type of research and in-depth examination of the food is a little bit ironic because people these days just want a little synopsis or a snapshot. So on the one hand, pretty much everyone in the West know what khao soi is. Fifteen years ago, no one knew anything.
People know because they've seen it on Instagram, read it on menus, Anthony Bourdain ate it for breakfast, but as far as a lot of people know, they see a coconut curry with noodles and chicken in it. But 10 years ago, Austin and I spent five days in Chiang Mai going to every khao soi place, and he found out all the different styles of how it's made, where it came from and the nuances of it. It’s really important that this information is preserved, even if people don't really dig that deep. In the English language, a lot of cultures, like Thai cultures, where folk cooking happens, there's not a great deal of shit getting written down about it and not in a very precise way. A lot of times if there's a recipe written down, it's just a list of ingredients and it relies on the cook to understand the cuisine. Having Austin doing something like his book, where it’s really precise, the food can be replicated by someone who has no knowledge of the flavors. I hope that in some way it has contributed to the conversation and the consciousness around regional Thai cuisine.
Do you have a favorite region?
I’m comfortable in Chiang Mai, and that’s because it’s where I spend the most time. I can say for sure that I love traveling throughout the kingdom. From a culinary standpoint, the place that fascinates me the most right now is the south. I just feel that there’s so much diversity and some crazy shit going on. Really heavy Chinese influence, then you have Malaysian influence and then you have this really hyper-regional cuisine using hyper-regional ingredients where the flavors are off the charts. It’s not just crazy hot curries like most people think. I would definitely like to spend more time in the south.
What are some restaurant recommendations in Chiang Mai?
For northern Thai, Chaloern Suan Aek. It's one of the classic Chiang Mai eateries. They make the entire northern Thai library and the kitchen is run by a bunch of aunties. Every dish they make is freaking delicious and really reasonably priced. Another place that’s interesting is Kao Tom Patom, near Rachapad University. The family has been in Chiang Mai for 50 years and I swear it's some of the best khao tom. They open 7am, close at 1pm and that’s it. It’s consistent and standard dishes that are really well done.
When you’re in Bangkok, where are your go-to spots?
It depends what I’m in the mood for. These days, the aforementioned, 100 Mahaseth. I really appreciate what Chalee is doing with Isaan stuff. Bangkok Bold in Central Embassy is doing an incredible job, especially with Central Thai food, it's really delicious food. I love going to Yaowarat and cruising around to find some old-school spots that are amazing, I especially love Kuaytiaw Kua Kai at Nay Hong. Towards the higher end, if you can get in, Chef Prin's Samrub is an incredible experience. I've been told about some happening places that are getting a lot of buzz like Sorn. I haven't been but would like to try it. I really enjoy going to Jua for snacks and booze, really dig that place. I really like the old Thai cookshops, the Chinese/Western cookshops that make a very interesting ancient fusion between Chinese and Western food—a pork chop or rice with canned peas and liver, super fun and crazy old places.