By Vin McCann
Andy Ricker, Chef-owner of a half dozen restaurants in Portland and New York (Pok Pok, Phat Thai, Whiskey Soda Bar, Noi, SenYai) provided a number of insights on ethnic food and the restaurant business in this week’s edition of Meet The Culinary Entrepreneurs. Ricker is a refreshing mix of creative skills and straight-forward business sense. While he cautioned the room full of students not to strike out into the business as he did (no business plan, self-financed, everything on the line, clueless about marketing), his story and approach to “specific regional Thai cuisine” validates a good deal of what our Culinary Management program teaches.
His keen interest in Thai food, developed through his many journeys through the country—and the equally sharp observation that no one in his market was offering the lesser-known preparations that he enjoyed on those trips—prompted him to develop a unique approach to a generally standardized cuisine. (In fact, Ricker argued that you could take a menu from a typical New York Thai restaurant, travel as far as Chicago, and have no problem ordering off that same menu in another Thai restaurant.) Additionally, his continued appetite for research and product sourcing reflect the need to master one’s product and differentiate it from the competition. Moreover, his leadership style—largely based on proven corporate structure and strategies—promotes trust, teamwork, collaboration, and accountability.
Ricker noted the importance of balancing his creative urges with the need for consistency in operational performance, which, in his own words, “…requires turning off the Chef ego and realizing there is merit [in repetition].” His scaled down perspective on aesthetic design also demonstrated a laser-focus on cost management, both in terms of capital invested and operations. Last but not least, he preached the straightforward value of hard work and learning both the craft of cooking and the fundamentals of the business: two critical characteristics that he clearly possessed and that have bolstered his success in the industry.
Though he dismissed the significance of luck in any success story—his own in particular, which launched with neither a business plan nor secure financing—the practical skills Ricker acquired throughout his restaurant journey intuitively evidenced the educational values taught at ICE. In the words of Chef Virginia Monaco, “[ICE] doesn’t invite the countless entrepreneurs who act in similar fashion and fail within the first year to speak in MTCE program to our students.”