The Power of Pok
Give Chef Pok Choeichom a few simple ingredients, and alchemy ensues.
Outer Banks locals and Food Network junkies know Phongkrit Pok Choeichom as Chef Pok, the über-talented, multicultural and meticulously groomed executive chef who makes the food magic happen at Outer Banks Brewing Station in Kill Devil Hills.
I know him as the kid from the hood who done good.
Pok and I first met when he was 8 or 9 years old. I was a wee bit older and working one of my first Outer Banks jobs at the bastion of alternative culture that was Mex-Econo Restaurant and Bar. Just across the parking lot was, and remains, the Thai Room Restaurant, owned and run by Pok’s immediate family. As a grommet Pok would often spend afternoons escaping his family affair by skateboarding across the parking lot to Mexi’s to play pinball and video games, and we initially bonded over the breaking of dollars into quarters.
Fast-forward almost 30 years, and we find that we still like to hang out in restaurants and share and exchange, though we now prefer to break bread, especially if it is homemade.
Born in Thailand and raised on the Outer Banks, Pok is a mostly self-taught chef with inspiration from his family and world travels. He has trained with Chef Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque in New York City as well as with Chip Smith, nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef honors, and formerly of Carolina Blue Restaurant in Southern Shores. After Carolina Blue closed, Pok became the executive chef of Outer Banks Brewing Station, where he has been for eight years.
As a longtime culinary entrepreneur with a passion for food art, I admire Pok’s work immensely. His presentation photos from his time working in Waikiki have invaded my dreams. So when Outer Banks Magazine asked me to profile him, I leapt at the chance and knew immediately how I would do it. I wanted to see what he would do on the fly. I would arrive with a basket of locally sourced ingredients of my choosing and let him take it away.
Locally sourced, real food, also known as Slow Food, is an enthusiasm we both share, and Chef Pok constantly focuses on new sources for ingredients. It is notable that the entire team at the Brewing Station supports local, sustainable harvests — though when we say local we really mean regional. Acres of agricultural crops and shared watersheds such as the Chesapeake Bay estuary remind us that oysters and shrimp are not really interested in state boundaries and maybe we shouldn’t be either. As a basic guideline, I am pretty comfortable with my definition of local being within a half-day’s drive.
Pok and I had shared a few emails about our time cooking together and agreed that our goal was simple: Each of us would bring a few ingredients to his kitchen to be Pok-ified. I would assist and take notes, and then we would eat. No problem, I thought. A really fine plan, indeed!
Well, yes, the plan was fabulous. It was the pressure I placed on myself to find the holiest of local food grails that caused a bit of consternation. Only a bit, though, until I heard a FamousTVChef exclaim that collards might be the new kale. Hello, old school.
Soon enough my visitin’ basket was filled with local, organic collards, sweet potatoes and kale. Pamlico Sound–harvested shrimp was my protein of choice. Naturally, I brought my own creation, Outer Banks SeaSalt, and as a bonus I added a jar of Island Jams’ Strawberry Sparkler Jam — it has a bit of a kick from locally sourced jalapeños.
Pok and I both have great respect for the early morning energies, so that seemed the perfect time to be together to share and create. Arriving at the Brewing Station back door just before sunrise, we hugged hello and then almost wordlessly moved around his kitchen, aware of each other and our own tasks, trading nods of approval as we gathered and presented the ingredients we planned to share for our cook-along.
One of my first clues about Chef Pok’s ingredients was received via the olfactory — oh, what an aroma. I didn’t need to see them to know there were truffles in the house. If you didn’t know it, here is a news flash: North Carolina can rock a truffle. True story, and Pok was in possession of black truffles. Oh, this was getting good.
A quick perusal of my basket, and Chef Pok disappeared into his massive new walk-in and emerged with an entire pasture-raised pork loin and a slab of sliced bacon, both freshly butchered by our mutual friend Uli Bennewitz and his team at the Weeping Radish Farm Brewery in Grandy. Also in hand were some delectable micro greens grown at Carolina Eco Greens in Shiloh.
We were blessed with almost an hour of uninterrupted time together before the outside door opened again. As the sun enveloped the dining room, the restaurant owners and magazine photographer began to arrive. They were followed in short order by a plethora of kitchen staff, bar managers, fryer filter cleaners, linen specialists and an assortment of salespeople. Our early morning serenity was transformed into production mode as the restaurant and brewery staff prepared for a hungry lunch crowd. Creating our own space, Chef Pok and I continued our mission.
Risotto, coconut milk, fresh ginger, sweet onions, yellow corn and sweet peas were mise en place as the two meals Chef Pok was planning to cook were formulated. Both were simple, flavor-packed dishes intended to highlight the virtues of each ingredient.
The sweet potatoes would become a pavé after being baked with coconut milk, ginger and a few grinds of black pepper. The pork loin would be simply grilled and served atop a mess o’ collards, bacon and sweet onions. We would use the jam to make a straightforward gastrique, and then plate enough to share.
Our second dish would feature creamy, black-truffle risotto with sweet peas, corn and Parmesan topped with grilled green-tail shrimp and garnished with crispy kale and Outer Banks SeaSalt.
Simply speaking, the menu-creation process was enough to inspire outbursts of hallelujah from this Northern transplant. We were in the South now, baby, and we were cookin’ with gas.
As we chopped and stirred, Chef Pok shared stories about his winter escapades in Hawaii, where he joined the kitchen crew at Trump International Hotel Waikiki Beach Walk. The work ethic amongst his co-workers was intense, Pok said: “It took me about a week to realize that everyone came in three to four hours before they were scheduled. They had all their prep done by the time I got there.”
He also learned a lot of new tricks, from the simple to the sublime. “Do you peel ginger this way?” he asked, using an ordinary, flatware spoon to remove the outer layer of the spicy root. I did not, but I do now.
We made the decision to plate and eat the dishes consecutively instead of concurrently so we could truly appreciate each individual component. We started with the pork and pavé.
If you have never eaten pasture-raised pork loin, you owe it to yourself to question the reason. As with all animal products from the Weeping Radish farm and butchery, these animals have not been genetically modified; they were raised with respect, honored for life sacrifice and slaughtered humanely. The taste is clean, and the meat tender and dense and lean.
Chef Pok and I quickly ate our way through the first course. The fruity and spicy gastrique was the perfect foil to the grilled pork, especially after a bite of the creamy pavé. Everything was so yummy standing alone, it was hard to imagine it could get better, but it did. Alternating tastes, I tried to combine everything I possibly could. I tried the salty bacon, collards and onion with a bit of pork, then a bite of pavé, then a dipping of the fork tines into the gastrique. As we had hoped, the melding of flavors hit all five taste dimensions — salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami. Perfect!
I could have stopped there but held onto my fork. We had black-truffle risotto and local shrimp on the way.
Stepping back into the kitchen, we finished the black-truffle risotto that we had started earlier. The shrimp were quickly sautéed, and the kale was dropped into the fryer. In minutes the second dish was plated and we were on our way back to the table.
Delicious is an understatement. This was a testament to the power of umami. As I mentioned, the truffles were already in my head, and one bite of creamy, earthy risotto and it was all over. That is until I added a bite of sweet Carolina shrimp. Oh. My. Goodness. I couldn’t have stopped eating even if I’d wanted to. We cleaned our plate in record time.
With satisfied smiles, we reluctantly pushed back our chairs and rubbed our bellies. We still had the full day ahead of us, so we shared another hug and promised to do it again. Pok was off to play golf, enjoying a weekday off from the Brewing Station kitchen, where creating such culinary wonders is his everyday job.
story by Amy Huggins Gaw
photographs by Jay Wickens