Chef Andy Ricker's first proper restaurant in New York, Pok Pok Ny, opened about a year ago. The small venture is located near Red Hook, in the Columbia Street Waterfront Disctrict, an area Ricker feels is a lot like the "below the radar" neighborhoods he's thrived in as a restaurateur in Portland, Oregon. As with his restaurants in PDX, Ricker's goal here is to bring what he calls "specific regional Thai cooking" to New York. He offers renditions of dishes you can't find on most cookie-cutter Thai menus in the States. He wants to be didactic through deliciousness, opening diners up to the esoteric without them even catching on. So far, so good, it seems: Times critic Pete Wells wrote a glowing two star review of the restaurant back in June, and the place has become known for the waits you'll sometimes have to endure to gain entry. In the following interview, Ricker reflects on Pok Pok Ny's first year, including the misperception that it's always a pain to get in, the challenges of opening in New York, and the fact that diners seem to be fully embracing the more adventurous aspects of his menu.
What was something you didn't anticipate would happen while you were opening the place?
The thing that surprised me the most — what really took me by surprise — was how hard it was to get and retain good cooks. It is incredibly difficult. I am not alone in this, since virtually every chef I know in New York has this same issue; look at the tweets by David Chang, Alex Stupak, across the board. It was surprising to have to figure this out in a city so large, in an economy that has a shortage of employment.
Is it a question of skill or dedication?
It's really a question of just showing up. Originally, we wanted to follow the rigorous process we do in Portland: one interview round, a second interview round, a stage, a probationary period, and then getting on the schedule full-time. We tried that in New York — starting at the wing shop, believe it or not — and it didn't work. It got to the point where we'd just accept a reply in the form of a résumé, and then the people wouldn't write back to us. Or they'd write back to us, agree to a meeting time, and then no-show. Some would show up for the interview and then not show up for the skills test. The few that did show up for the skills test — a lot of them wouldn't show up for work [laughs]. Maybe it's because of our geographic location, but after talking to other chefs, they said the same things.
Did you figure it out?
What we do now, and I was told this by Brad Farmerie, is that we'll have them come in for a skills test, and if they're good, we'll hire them on the spot. The dirty little secret is that if you have decent skills and a decent résumé, you can work pretty much anywhere. We now have a very solid crew at Pok Pok Ny that I am very happy with, but that took about a year to figure out.
Were there pleasant surprises?
Oh yeah, totally. I was pleasantly surprised by what people ordered here in comparison to what people ordered in Portland.
There are certain things on the menu that I feel are more emblematic of what Pok Pok means to me. In Portland, for instance, we sell zillions and zillions of chicken wings. In New York, when people come out to eat, we sell a huge quantity of northern Thai laab, and to me, that's one of the more esoteric items on the menu. I was pleasantly surprised by that.
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that more than 50 percent of our clients in Portland are tourists who are brought to Portland for whatever reason but have heard of us through the TV shows or whatever, which feature the wings prominently. I think in New York we're still getting the dining crowd. We also have a very high number of Thai diners here.
When I interviewed you last year, you talked about how you felt Thai people could sometimes be apprehensive about you cooking Thai food. It came up again in that great Francis Lam piece.
I was just kind of projecting what I feel in Portland. The local Thai magazine, Thai Voice, did a very comprehensive piece on me about six months ago. All the Thai people in the city read it, and in it, I really had a chance to speak my mind. As a result, the Thai people in New York have an understanding of what I'm trying to do here and what I'm about.
The reviews were mostly very positive. How did you feel about that process?
I think that some people got it and some people didn't. Without naming names, I feel like we got mostly positive reviews. We got one really negative review from a person that I would expect to have gotten a negative review from, given his taste in food and restaurants. I thought that most of the people doing the reviews really got what we were trying to do, for the most part. I really loved Pete Wells's piece. It was very, very nice.
Is there something about what you're doing that you wish people noticed more?
For me, the reason I'm so passionate about the food that we do is that I really am trying to introduce dishes that you are unlikely to see in the United States. As a matter of fact, you're unlikely to find them outside of Chiang Mai, if you're in Thailand. We're trying to do really damn faithful renditions of these dishes, which often aren't crowd pleasers filled with coconut milk and lime juice or anything like that. Those are the things I wish received the most attention. I want to get people interested in that.
What were the big mistakes you made early on?
Oh, I'm sure there's a whole lot. I wish I had had a better understanding of how the city works, as far as Department of Buildings and stuff like that. I think I pulled the trigger on signing the lease on the Lower East Side venture without really fully understanding what I was getting into, as far as getting the space legal. We got through it all, but it was just more costly and time-consuming than it needed to be.
Did you figure it out on your own, hire people, or consult with restaurateurs here?
All of those things, everything. For instance, when I bought the space from Eddie [Huang], neither of knew what would be required to get the hood signed off. I don't blame Eddie for this at all. We just didn't know. The original engineer who had drawn up the plans never submitted them properly — I just wasted a lot of time with the guy who initially started the process. Really, what you need to do is hire a fucking architect and just get it dealt with.
Was it that you were unfamiliar with the process or that it's just more difficult here compared to Portland?
Both. The shit that you need to wade through in New York is so much deeper than in Portland. I'm pretty good at dealing with this kind of stuff as a contractor, home owner, and restaurateur. I've opened close to ten restaurants and have gone through a lot of shit in Portland. I figured New York would be a little different, but the fact that I understood the nomenclature and process pretty well would guide me through. It turns out that it's way more difficult and way more hostile.
When you're dealing with the DOB, you're not dealing with an entity that is trying to help you get things done. Whereas in Portland, they are interested in development and, to a certain extent, want to help you. I now understand why people open restaurants the way they do here. I've always done everything by myself. I did it in New York, but I know that next time, there are going to be a bunch of things that I do before I even sign a lease.
I want to talk about the waits and how you see that whole situation.
First off, we're a small restaurant. As a result, it takes a little while for people to finish their dinner, especially because they've usually traveled to eat here from Manhattan and don't want to just eat and get the fuck out. That is understandable. We end up with a line or a wait sometimes, but it's not like that every night. Often, if you come early, you can just walk right in. When there's a wait during the week, it's usually at the same time that most other places in the city have a wait.
So, how do we deal with it? We do our best to be very clear and accurate with our estimates, but of course, it's not humanly possible to be exact. Second, we try to situate people in the neighborhood as comfortably as we possibly can. If people become irate, we do our best to smooth things out.
How do you deal with disgruntled folks who have been waiting?
Really, to me, all that stuff comes down to good communication and training the hell out of our staff about being clear with guests, taking down the right numbers, and using the right language with guests. We're trying to manage our employees' actions, as well as our guests' expectations, which can be difficult. My director of operations in New York is charged with managing all that kind of stuff, and he's really good.
I think that most of the problems we've had with that have to do with miscommunication. I don't want to put this on customers, since they are the ones that are suffering. Honestly, I wouldn't wait for fucking three hours. I think it's crazy. I really think it sucks when we have a wait. There's an attitude out there where people feel like you are making them wait on purpose or that you are making it difficult to get in on purpose, which makes no sense to me at all from a business standpoint. I want you to sit down and eat and pay me for your meal. Why would I hold a table empty? I don't understand why some people think we are artificially blowing up the line or not letting someone in because they are wearing the wrong shoes. I want people to eat and enjoy.
There's this sense, I think, that businesses benefit from the allure of exclusivity. People want it more and maybe end up liking it more because of that.
I understand that that's common practice in New York — I understand it is at nightclubs. Maybe it's like that with restaurants, too, but I don't really think I've seen that. It doesn't make any sense, you know what I'm saying? I don't have a clear answer to all of this, but I can say that the idea that there's always a three hour wait here is simply not true. If you come at 8 p.m. on a Saturday with five people, yeah, there'll be a wait. But if you come in when we open until about 6:30, you probably won't wait at all, and during the week, it's not really so bad.
What are your goals for the future?
The goal is always to improve the situation we have now in the space that we have now. That's always the goal. As far as expansion goes, we have the lounge opening up, which is old news. But the goal with that is to alleviate the wait. We are going to have a place 50 feet away where they can go and have a seamless experience. They'll have the same cocktails as the restaurant and some nice accompanying dishes.
A potentially sappy question to finish: do you feel like a part of the neighborhood and the community of chefs?
Yeah! First of all, I'm really grateful for how well we have been received. People have been very hospitable. The other day it was a really pissy, snowy, shitty day, and I was walking in the neighborhood, and this guy stopped me and said, "Hey, I live in this apartment right here, and we are really happy that you guys are in the neighborhood. Our kids love going there, so thank you for coming." I seriously almost squeezed out a tear or two. The neighborhood has, for the most part, been extremely welcoming.
As far as the restaurant community goes, I've just been blown away. That's been really, really nice. If you're not from New York, you get this impression that the city is this highly competitive place — people are assholes, they'll take advantage of you, etc.. That's not true at all. People have been super nice, helpful, accessible. As long as you don't ask them for cooks, then everything is cool.