This self-taught Thai chef, whose culinary career started in a Vermont kitchen as a dishwasher, won the James Beard “Best Chef Northwest” award in 2011, bringing him to the attention of the culinary world stateside. Last week at Mesamérica in Mexico City he came on stage to introduce David Thompson of Nahm, Bangkok and then participated in a conversation about Thai street food and its history. This dialogue between two of the foremost experts of Thai cuisine known to the Western world was one of the highlights of the second day of Mesamérica, which this year had focused specifically on street food culture in urban environments.
Ricker is an articulate, intense man, intelligent and obviously well versed in the subject of Thai cuisine, its history, and culture. Just a few weeks ago he snagged his second James Beard honor in the “Book, Broadcast and Journal Awards when his piece in Saveur won in the “Cooking, Recipes, or Instruction” category.
He spoke candidly about his career in the world of restaurants that began in his teenage years and has now brought him the well-deserved success and recognition as a chef-owner of a seven restaurant empire. It is easy to like this trail blazer, focused on his work, who seems to take the adulation of his fans, praise from food critics, and accolades in stride. There is no a sign of an ego or a sense of self-importance, which is so refreshing in a world where success seems to instantly inflate egos and move people away from their own reality.
When did you sign up for the restaurant business?
I have been in the business since I was 15 and I am 50 now. I started the same way that most people did then, as a dishwasher, busboy, banquet waiter, short order cook, line cook, then a line cook in a nicer place, then a cook, even outside the United States, then becoming a chef as a natural progression. That’s how you did it in in those days when you started at the bottom and ended up as a chef.
What are your views about the reality TV shows and instant rise to stardom for young cooks or chefs? Are they prepared for the profession not having gone up in the ranks so to speak?
It’s a tough question to answer. I think it’s OK for some people if that the way that you want to do it. The system I knew growing up does not really exist anymore; it’s all changing very rapidly. It may very well be that the future is this new way. There are of course a lot of negative things about it as people are cooking for different reasons than why I am cooking. Thank god that the kind of food they are cooking is not what I grew up cooking but they are welcome to their ways.
How important is social media in the food industry right now?
I think it’s vitally important, in a lot of ways social media has leveled the playing field. In the old days the publicity you got came from either straight up advertising, being featured in magazines, TV shows and stuff like that. Now you can get the word out about your product and your place for free using various different platforms. You can reach a lot of people really quickly. I see nothing wrong with this.
Do you think it’s also an opportunity to uses your voice when you have that status to get involved in social conversations like some young chefs are doing these days?
Yes if that your choice but I don’t think there is any obligation to do so. The reason that you see these young chefs is because they are on social media. There are a large number of people who don’t get the same attention because they are not on social media even though they are doing very good work. The competition is very, very stiff these days and in a number of ways having social media presence helps you survive. The cost of doing business now is getting so prohibitive that to keep your restaurant going you have to find alternative ways to get the word out.
How do you run a successful restaurant?
First you have to offer a good product, have good service and ambiance, have a clear idea about what you are doing, and have a passion; not the kind like “my father died of cancer and now I have a restaurant in his memory,” that’s the kind of bullshit invented by TV shows. I mean the passion that keeps you at work for 60-80 hours a week and doing everything from washing dishes to cooking to serving. There is no glory in that, there is nothing fun or interesting about it and you don’t see pictures on social media of people laying underneath the sink, or cleaning grease traps because it’s not sexy and a lot of people don’t even know they have to do that.
When you speak of people who have been around for a long time and have learned in a certain way and then you look back at people before us whom I learnt from, they also used to complain about what was happening then with the younger generation. It is the similar talk now about what kids these days are doing. The new generation and the old generation are always at odds. In the end there is sustainability involved in this business and you cannot sustain it just by going to culinary school for two years and then even if you have your mama’s money you are not going to survive unless you do something remarkably good. You might make a splash initially and might be around for a while depending on other good people in your kitchen. In the end when you cannot find good help in the kitchen then the chickens come home to roost and you can’t survive and keep your restaurant.
What is the future of this business?
I think whatever phase we are in right now we will ride it out and it will end up different than it was before, and we don’t know exactly what the future will look like but it will be different. There are so many forces outside, there is economics, people’s tastes and preferences, and other such things that we cannot control like swine flu, salmonella outbreaks in the chicken supply; there are so many things and this is a very fragile business.
It’s in an upward spiral right now because entertainment has become a big part of it, and anyway it’s a changed world and we are never going back to the way it was before. I believe that if you know what you need to, do your best, and if you are successful that’s great, and if not get out and do something else.
Any more restaurants coming up? Any projects out of the country?
No, right now I have seven restaurants and I am not thinking of adding any more and as for expanding overseas it would have to be a pretty special project for me to consider it.