In recent months, I've made Pok Pok and its chef Andy Ricker the target of much of my public antagonizing. The statements themselves are half-joking, but the sentiment is real. A friend recently asked me to explain why I dislike Ricker and Pok Pok so much. Was it an issue of "authenticity"? The fact that he is White? The food itself? As with all things, it's an intersection. I try to explain below:
I've been to Pok Pok in Portland and was very much underwhelmed. It's competent and adequate, but not much more. That in and of itself would be fine, however, Ricker has a James Beard award for it, and has built a bicoastal restaurant empire from his reputation.
It's not the "authenticity" in a vacuum so much as who gets to benefit and receive acclaim. Ricker is a White guy from Vermont who decided to travel to Thailand and decided that he'd bring back this food he tried to much fanfare. He sells the idea that he managed to journey out there and bring back this authentic cuisine—and is rewarded for mediocrity and Columbusing.
For decades, Southeast Asian Americans (Thai Americans as well as other communities like the Lao American community) have run countless Thai food restaurants in order to support their families and communities—not just to prove they can cook a new cuisine. Some of them are superb—rich, diverse, regional, personal. Some of them have had to adapt to survive: making take-out Chinese foods to supplement sales and making more common regional foods they're not familiar with, only to be judged negatively for it in this era's foodie culture.
I think it's fine for people to make and enjoy food from other people's cultures and stuff. The difference is how much you get to center yourself and take the spotlight in that practice in comparison to that community. How I feel is that Ricker succeeds just for the sheer act of making Thai food despite being White—while tons and tons of people who've been doing it forever get minimal to no recognition.
Ultimately though, what really burns me is that Los Angeles has the largest per-capita Thai American community in the country. Thai folks sometimes nickname LA an extra province of Thailand. We have an inconceivable amount of Thai restaurants of all sorts of regions, styles, and price ranges. And yet, it is Ricker's Pok Pok's arrival in LA that made many go, "finally, Thai food has arrived in LA." That aggravates me to no end.
Even the Wat Thai temple in North Hollywood had to significantly scale its food market operations down in the past several years because neighbors complained about it; but then folks turn around and welcome Ricker with open arms.
Instead of going to Pok Pok, go to Siam Sunset, Darabar, Pailin, Lacha Somtum, Sapp, Isaan Station, Rodded, Ruen Pair, Yai, Pa Ord, Hollywood Thai, Palms Thai, Sanamluang. Go to your local Thai strip-mall place and realize that even if they're not super fancy and will never make Eater LA or LA Weekly or Jonathan Gold's list, know that it's supporting someone doing it because they have to. And order from their specials board instead of "a dish you judge every Thai restaurant by." You're bound to be pleasantly surprised.
Heck, even go to Jonathan Gold popularized places like Jitlada. Go to hip spots like Sticky Rice in Grand Central Market. Even if one thinks they're overrated, at least they come from the community.
And if you want hip thoughtful culinary takes on northern Thai cuisine at fancier prices, go to Night+Market. Kris Yenbamroong is Thai American, an Angeleno, and a second generation LA Thai restauranteur. He's someone who goes beyond just doing the cuisine at all and getting his award for it. He takes dishes and thinks about how and why he wants to do them and makes them his own without having to play the game of "I managed to be authentic despite being White."
In a way, Pok Pok is "authentic" to the spirit of its name. Do you know what "pok pok" means in Thai? Nothing. It's an onomatopoeia for the sound of making papaya salad because folks thought White foreigners couldn't handle the term "som tum."
Ultimately, do and eat what you like. Experience, judge, and consider all these factors for yourself. But by sheer fact of being a Thai American from Los Angeles who cares a lot about food and cooking, I can't help but think about all these things.
[Editor's Note: an earlier revision of this piece mentioned unsubstantiated rumors about taking recipes from another chef; that portion has been removed to bring the focus away from unfair rumors and more on the context of the rest of the piece.]
Suggested further reading:
Food, Race, and Power: Who gets to be an authority on 'ethnic' cuisines?