In the long interregnum between his celebrated reign at the Niagara Street Café (RIP) and the much anticipated opening of GwaiLo, one of the more cool things chef Nick Liu has done in the past year or so was to bring Danny Bowien and Andy Ricker up to Toronto to cook, late last fall. In the video interview at the bottom of this post, which I shot as the three chefs were prepping their pop-up dinner at the Soho Metropolitan, Ricker explains his approach to Thai cuisine: traditional.
That approach and reverence for authenticity has made Ricker a successful restaurateur, and a James Beard ‘Best Chef’ winner. Pok Pok, his orginal restaurant in Portland, Oregon has begat an eponymous location in New York City (Brooklyn, of course), so that American foodists on both coasts now happily line-up to experience his idea of what Thai food might be on this side of the Pacific, including his famous chicken wings.
Pok Pok, the book, written with J.J. Goode (who previously co-authored April Bloomfield’s well received A Girl and Her Pig), is a document and history of Ricker’s rise, and thorough reference to the ingredients and techniques of his beloved Thailand. He gives us his Road to Damascus moment when he decides to devote himself to Northern Thai cuisine unknown to most Americans, and recounts how he had to sell his house and risk all to open a restaurant that wasn’t much more than a shack. It’s a great story, but the real worth of Pok Pok the book is its slavish attention to detail on the recipes, which typically involve many steps and explanations of both procedure and cultural context for each dish.
Pok Pok the book is, I think, really for pro’s or heroic amateurs. This is a collection of recipes in the vein of Naomi Duguid: they are fascinating to read about, and inspiring in their exoticism, but daunting. My copy has spent more time in the parlour, where I am pleased to read Ricker’s description of he came about the recipe for his Burmese-Style Pork Belly Curry or Isaan Minced Duck Salad, than in the kitchen working on actually making the dishes.
The idea of cookbooks that aren’t used (at least by most) as actual guides to cooking is not new. The French Laundry Cookbook comes to mind, but there must have been examples of the phenomenon before that. Ricker’s book is more than a museum piece for his restaurant, though. It’s a window into a cuisine and a culture, and it certainly provokes appetite (the recipes look really, really good). The first purpose of any book is to be read, and in this respect Pok Pok the book delivers nothing but pleasure.
Can’t see the video? Click here.
Malcolm Jolley is a founding editor of Good Food Revolution and Executive Director of Good Food Media, the company that publishes it. Follow him at twitter.com/malcolmjolley