You wouldn’t expect a six-foot-tall native Vermonter to serve as America’s premier Thai food buff. Not until Ricker rolls up his sleeves to get to work, that is: his arms are inked with a traditional clay mortar and wooden pestle, bird’s eye chiles, and stylized Thai herbs. But his dedication to the cuisine is more than just skin-deep.
Sugary pad thai and chicken skewers with candy-sweet peanut sauce may have shaped America's understanding of Thai cuisine, but Andy Ricker is setting out to change all that. As the chef-owner of Pok Pok restaurants in New York City and Portland, Oregon (where he's now based), he cooks food that tastes like it's from half a world away—because it is. He's been traveling to Thailand for over twenty years to bring its true flavors Stateside. His phat thai, speckled with salted radish and redolent of sour tamarind water and palm sugar syrup, boasts a precise balance of sweet, tart, and umami-rich flavors. His kai yaang, brined whole and stuffed with aromatics, was inspired by an old friend in Chiang Mai who spent 30 years spit-roasting young chickens alongside a wall of glowing charcoal.
His first visit to Thailand was simply one of many stops he made while backpacking around the world, picking up odd jobs from New Zealand to England to support his travels. But his second trip there marked a watershed moment in his culinary career. He still remembers the one dish that blew his mind: a Northern-style mushroom curry. “It was like seeing an entirely new color," he recalls in his best-selling cookbook, Pok Pok. "From then on, my eyes were open.”
Ricker dedicated himself to language lessons and befriended home cooks and street vendors, talking his way into their kitchens. His flavor quests became more systematic: he’d taste something outrageous, then try versions of it everywhere he could to understand how to recreate it. At times, his love affair with Thailand made him a hard hire back in the States, because he’d return every year. Eventually, he decided it was time to open his own restaurant.
Ricker’s ambassadorship of Thai cuisine has boomed into an empire over the last two decades: in addition to his Pok Pok restaurants, he’s the founder of Pok Pok Som (a drinking vinegar company) and managing partner of Pok Pok Thaan (a charcoal importing enterprise). He’s also a two-time James Beard Award-winner and best-selling cookbook author.
Even after decades of traveling to Thailand, Ricker doesn’t consider himself an expert: “I'm a student like everyone else who's interested in Thai cooking," he says. "My experience with Thai cooking is concentrated heavily on northern Thai food. Central Thai is something I'm learning more about. Southern Thai is almost an entire mystery to me.” His approach to Thai flavors is nearly sociological, and his devotion to ingredients keeps his dishes very close to their source.
Ricker may not consider himself an expert, but he's undeniably a chef who’s passionate about creating food that tastes like it’s straight from Thailand. In his cooking class, you'll learn not only about the flavors and ingredients that define Thai cuisine, but the techniques, as well—the unique way street vendors shred green papaya for a classic salad, for instance, or how to use a traditional clay mortar. With every palate-piquing bite, you’ll understand anew why this is a cuisine that could spark a lifelong obsession.