Last week, we did a five-day pop up at Ah-Ma's Taiwanese kitchen, and the menu was inspired by Austin Bush's James-Beard-nominated "The Food of Northern Thailand" cookbook. I thought it would be a good time to tell the story of how Rod and I met Austin Bush and Andy Ricker, two people incredibly knowledgeable about northern Thai food, while in northern Thailand.
Andy Ricker, chef/owner of Pok Pok and other associated restaurants, is somebody I've been looking up to for a long time. I've been connected with Andy for a while, and a few years ago he helped me get stages at many of his restaurants in Portland. Austin Bush did the photography for all of his cookbooks, and he knows a ton about Thai food himself. I have followed Austin's blog since 2011.
But there is nothing like eating a meal at a makeshift restaurant in the burbs of Chiang Mai with Andy, Austin, and his friends.
Last June, when Rod and I were in Thailand with a few of our friends, we saw (through the 'gram) that Andy Ricker was going to be in Thailand the same month Rod and I would be there. We asked if we could meet and have dinner, and he agreed - but didn't provide a place or time to meet.
We went on our trip, eventually making our way to Chiang Mai. We were trying to find things to do while we were there, and settled on seeing a Muay Thai match. My friend Nob was kind enough to drive us there.
On our way, we got a text - Andy had gotten back in contact with us, and was asking if we wanted to meet him and his crew at this restaurant. We immediately dropped what we were doing and drove out to the rural country to meet them at this shack on the side of the highway. We arrived early, so we got some cold Leo beers and a snack.
I have seen Vice's "Farang" documentary, about Andy, at least 20 times. I didn't piece it together until I saw the cooks delivering the food, but I immediately recognized them.This restaurant was heavily featured in that documentary (Restaurant was called Paa dang jin thup 41:40). I knew the food too - they brought out the grilled pig tits! I started freaking out inside.
Andy arrived with his girlfriend, one of his managers, and Austin, and we started ordering.
The food was so simple, yet super satisfying. I got to sit next to Andy, which allowed me to pick his brain while very nervously nursing my beer. It was weird that I knew so much about these people but they didn't know me. I don't usually drink beer, but I was drinking a lot to give myself something to do - my career hero was sitting beside me, and of course I was jittery.
We spent the evening talking about the amazing food in front of us and the perception of Thai food in America. Afterwards, Rod told me that I "seemed cool 85% of the time". At the end the dinner, I "fanboy"-ed out with Austin, telling him I had been following his blog for like seven years. I'm not sure what they thought of me, but this dinner was amazing, and important, to me.
Some highlights of things I learned from Andy, while sitting next to him:
Florida has all the best Thai produce in the US. Since I am Thai, it may be easier for me to build a relationship with these farmers.
Don't force yourself to learn. Let the knowledge wash over you, you'll get there when you get there.
Kanom Jeen is a waste of time. People won't appreciate it and it takes a lot of labor.
Employees may not be fluent in Thai food and culture, and sending them over to Thailand probably isn't the answer. You need to adapt.
Anyway, this past week, cooking out of Austin Bush's cookbook, Rod and I kept reminiscing about that awesome night. It's very cool to meet your career heroes, and it's even cooler to share a meal with them. We hope everyone who came to the pop up last week enjoyed the food inspired by Austin's book. We're looking forward to incorporating northern Thai influences into our restaurant menu.