A food renaissance is taking place in Thailand despite the country’s unstable politics. For years the tourist hotspot’s top restaurants were more likely to serve boeuf bourguignon than traditional Thai food. As Jack Marshall discovered, while that trend still holds true, young and old chefs alike are seeking out heritage recipes for the modern palate.
Although a farang (foreigner), American chef Andy Ricker knows his Thai food.
Ricker first arrived in the Southeast Asian country as a backpacker in 1987 and has been living off and on in Thailand ever since.
In 2005 he opened "Pok Pok", a Thai restaurant in Portland, Oregon, serving chicken and green papaya salad from a shack beside his house, it quickly became popular and picked up the award as The Oregonian’s Restaurant of the Year in 2007, and Ricker was dubbed the “Martin Scorcese” of Southeast Asian street food.
He even won a James Beard award, including Best Chef in America.
But when the Covid pandemic hit, Ricker called it quits and shuttered his then nine restaurants across America.
"I swore when Pok Pok opened that if it ever reached the point where it was all about profit and loss, I would shut it down and walk away," he wrote in a post titled A Farewell to Pok Pok.
"I have far too much respect and love for the food and culture of Thailand for it to be solely about the commercial aspects of the business. So when Covid made it ALL about the bottom line that was my cue to pull the plug."
Married to a Thai woman, Ricker managed to leave the States and head home to Thailand. "Thailand in a nutshell, in my opinion, one of the great gastronomic destinations in the world, and it's not just for street food, it's also for this high-end, thoughtful cooking based on Thai tradition," Ricker said from his home in Chiang Mai.
Just as Fergus Henderson’s London restaurant, St John, gave status to English cuisine with his old school "nose to tail cooking", the same is happening in Thailand.
"It's a great time to be here because there's been a renewed interested in Thai cuisine by Thai chefs,” said Ricker. "I get to witness this renaissance in Thai cooking."
Thai's have a 700-year-old saying, “There is rice in the fields, fish in the water.” In the humid climate if a seed falls a plant will grow. Everything is fresh, everything is green and everywhere is growth.
But Thailand has the same problem as New Zealand: Inequality, and it affects the way locals eat. "There’s a race to the bottom with food. The more expensive ingredients get the more the giant processed food conglomerates offer an alternative," said Ricker.
"People expect to get a plate of noodles for 35 baht ($1.50 NZD). But you can't go to the market and get fresh meat, make your own stock and season it properly, give people a nice portion with nice fresh vegetables that aren't covered in pesticides and charge 35 baht. You just can't do that, you'll lose money."
The economics means the food is becoming increasingly processed. “When you break down all the costs people are serving processed food on the streets from conglomerates. It tastes good because it has massive amounts of MSG and has been processed in all these ways that work to hit your taste buds.
“It happens to be that all the recipes behind it are amazing, so it tastes really good, but the fact of the matter is that people are selling poor food for a dollar are barely making it and they're having to use low quality ingredients to do it." The problem is not the chefs, said Ricker. "They're just trying to make you know? Just trying to survive."
At the same time, chefs charging a higher price point are moving upwards. "There's this group of talented food and chef people who are focused on preserving or resurrecting food traditions here who eschew all the use of processed food."
Chefs are also more sustainable. "There's a move to not use plastic packaging. The high-end restaurants are performing as professionally as anywhere in the world."
Although the food scene is booming, Covid has stunted that growth. “The economy is in tatters,” said Ricker. “It's the same as everywhere else, the ultra-rich are getting even richer, the poor are getting poorer, debt is building, inflation is going coo-coo, and I think the government has finally said we have to let tourists back in, because it accounts for a massive amount their GDP."
Since June last year, the Thai government started reopening the country to bring back tourists to help the economy. In areas like Phuket tourism accounts for more than 90 percent% of the economy and employment, according to Bloomberg. The first attempt at re-opening met mixed results as Covid numbers rose.
Next month it seems the government will try again to resume its "Test & Go" quarantine-free system in an attempt to attract more tourists. But Ricker suggests the crisis is being mismanaged.
“There aren't any clear directives that everybody believes in. There's a lot of dissatisfaction in the country. It's a military dictatorship in my opinion."
But Ricker has no qualms about living in Thailand, "I'd rather be here than in America".
There’s a lot of corruption here. There were cops on the border letting workers in without any testing or quarantine and that caused an outbreak." That was in the early days, and like New Zealand, Thailand managed to stamp the virus out, that is, until Delta. "A bunch of high society politicians and rich guys - all guys - went to a hostess bar and created a super-spreader event which spread back to the slums."
"You have to remember something about Thailand. The political party in power is very closely linked to the Army. There's a massive standing army. I believe there's no reason for there to be military in Thailand. They haven't been in a war for... Ever. They haven’t had to defend their shores since the Second World War."
Regardless, Ricker is at home. "I've been coming to this country for 30 years and for the last eight years of my life I've been here as much as I've been at home in Portland,” he said.
“I've developed a big group of friends here, and they all live here and they're all chefs, so I'm still connected to the restaurant world."
"As a foreigner, you can have a very good life here, you just have to turn off your sense of justice. What is justice of what is just for you and other people. If you can do that, you can have a pretty stress free life."
"The thing about Thailand is, people are resilient here. If you've lived here for a long time your patience is tested a lot and there's a lot of stuff as a foreigner you look at and go, 'well that's unjust,' but as a Thai person you think that's unjust too, but there's not much you can do about it. You do what you can."
And does Ricker miss the big time buzz of the Pok Pok empire back in the states?
"I've got a monosyllabic answer for that: Good. It feels good not to own restaurants."
- Asia Media Centre