Andy and the Map
I was a second or third generation Pok Pok hire, the year was 2008.
At the time I was nineteen and attending Portland State for an undergraduate degree in I-still-didn’t-know-what. I was a sophomore, and I had worked my first restaurant job while home for the summer in northern California. Not an internship, not something I could have included on any résumes other than ones for further restaurant work, just a dishwashing job. I loved it. I locked up at the end of the night, dish person being the last to leave, but I left alone. I had capitalized on the trust of the owner and convinced her that my very short commute home made it unnecessary for her to chaperone me. This freed me to smoke a joint in the garden, investigate the walk-in with a spoon and have a little leftover cake or chicken liver paté before my walk home.
Back in Oregon, after a boring semester of sophomore blues and wet pavement, I missed being in a kitchen. I’d moved from scraping plates that summer to pouring water and bussing, which meant I’d transferred to front of house. I found a listing for a food runner on craigslist. It told me to strap on running shoes for a high volume, high energy trail. I didn’t know much about Pok Pok, other than it had recently been named restaurant of the year by the Oregonian. (A “trail” is an uncompensated couple of hours you spend shadowing someone who is currently doing the job you’re applying for. Both an evaluation for you and the employer.) In this case, it meant chasing a maniacal, spritely chick up and down stairs all night, watching her spin plates to tables like she was at a fucking disco. It was a hellish. We hauled gallons of water to different stations in three different dining areas, upstairs and down. We slung ovular trays three feet in diameter over-shoulder, which were racked with dishes whose names were Thai on the menu, abbreviated or in English on the ticket, and then shouted in one decidedly “kitchen” vernacular. When I finally sat down after I was released, I was offered a meal as payment for a couple of hours chasing this probable-triathloner while she let me ask her breathless questions. I ordered a half curried crab, and ate the whole thing, shell cracker snipping. It was a special, not a staple of the menu. It made no sense that I was eating it, and few ate it alone. I cringe to think what the staff must have sniggered while my fingers were coated in egg-y curry, too young to order a beer to wash it down. That dish, and every dish after, was fucking delicious. I understood the hype. A couple days later I was hired.
I had been there about a month when I first met Andy Ricker, the restaurant's owner. I had no sense of pride and I was bad at my job. For several weeks I had been chided for being flustered on the floor, talking back to a line cook, expressing impatience with guests while hurriedly dropping and calling out food on their tables. I ran between the hot line and the grill kitchens, cherry-picking plates from over my shoulder, loaded with soup-y noodle bowls, grilled meats, or dishes whose temperature was characteristically lukewarm and their lifespan notoriously short. I burned my hands bagging steaming hot rice and could never stop sweating (or swearing) as I ran to kitchen calls made via walkie talkie directly to my ear. When the wrong food hit the table, I was so scoured by my servers (who were rightfully captaining me) that I wondered how I had even been hired. It was a thankless position. Maybe that was why I stuck myself in front of Andy’s path as he entered the restaurant and shoved my hand out, “Hi, I’m Morrigan.” I wanted recognition so badly, I wanted to not be the new person. He looked somewhat assaulted. “Hey. Andy.” No magic. I remained in the same rank. My ego wilted further.
I had been hired in March and, as we moved into summer, I began to manage better. My learning curve was steep, but eventually I shifted focus from my needs over to the guests, or those of my coworkers, achieving basics like serving the correct food or giving eye contact and communicating clearly. I became marginally less clumsy (or I just got louder when around corners) and I knew names of every dish, in Thai and in “kitchen,” but when talking to guests about the menu, I could assign flavor profiles, allergens, and the functional purpose of certain ingredients: “add shallots and pickled mustard greens,” or, “do you want more phrik naam plaa?” I didn’t have the depth to understand Thai cuisine on a broader spectrum, no sense of history; I hadn’t done my homework.
Cue Andy’s menu talk. It started with him drawing a crude rendition of Thailand, on piece of scrap paper. He then divided it into four regions of northeast, northwest, central and southern. He started with geography, how a certain style of preparation or ingredient gave nod to the influence of surrounding neighbors like Malaysia, Burma, or China. He sounded out proper pronunciation and basic linguistic rules in Thai: “k” is pronounced like a “g”; the name “pok pok” being an onomatopoeic sound in Thai for when the mortar strikes the pestle. He taught us that an ideal meal strikes a chord of balance between of sweet, salt, spice, and sour. He encouraged us to steer guests toward ordering a variety of flavors and textures that wouldn't leave people’s palates blown out. We talked about the tiny black crabs that were fermented and tossed in one iteration of som tom, papaya salad. He told us how that really bitter, briny flavor is a favorite profile that some Thai love, crave, and that it was a dish that didn't need to sell in order for him to insist its fixture on the menu. It rarely sold. But the satisfaction of the Thai clientele was a 100% guarantee. I imagine perhaps it was like finding really delicious Sicilian marinara in the heart of Bangkok.
Whatever crudeness Andy had expressed in the kitchen, or while maintaining the restaurant, took a back seat as he instructed, with detail and sincerity. He told his story of his travels and mentorships, took questions. He was precise about his favorite version of khao soi, and recalled men and women who taught him to make the dishes he couldn't recreate (for instance, Ike, his friend and longtime employee, helped pin the kung op wun sen: white pepper, and enough to make it fragrant). He wanted us to demonstrate this rich knowledge to those who came to the restaurant, for this out-of-context experience (a tall order for my naïve ass). Seeing the other side of a gruff exterior, there was a deeply sensitive and thoughtful person with a piercing gaze and his work cut out for him. It was the first time I saw Andy as a champion for Thai people, their food and culture. I was surprised by the length of the meeting, the way he covered all this information within the structure of his oddly built menu. It was equal parts geography lesson, language lesson, history lesson, and a how-to on customer service: never dictate or impose, but be helpful when someone needs your help. Simply, it was a lesson on how people eat and managing expectations, packed with a lot of the tenets of Thai cooking.
Anyone who works in restaurants has likely had similar moments of inspiration — perhaps in a different arena: someone who's been line cooking for decades, someone who shows you how to prepare perfect coffee, or break down a fish. Maybe it's a chef telling you their philosophy on food, whether it's serving it or making it or eating it. I have similar moments that give me pause now, years later, when being taught about grapes of the Rhône, or when I'm “walked” through Alsace via tastes of Gewurztraminer or Riesling. Sometimes I gain mentorship from an unflappable manager, or someone who champions for you just because you work hard. There is so much gratitude in these moments.
That talk with Andy forced me to see beyond the physical stress, and the walkie talkie, and try to give people the experience he sought to provide. It let me see the restaurant as more than the sum of it's parts. It was a dawning of appreciation of my coworkers, who shared a little bit of a taste for magic, for their style and knowledge. I had an awe for the cooks and dishwashers that complain little, and bring so much joy to making this food, to serving it. So began our fostered mutual support. That menu talk instilled a sense of pride in me. I decided to rally behind this singular vision. I just wanted to be a part of it, a witness. And, of course, to drink Rainier with my cohorts at the end of a sweaty shift.