Fork just celebrated their 20th anniversary, and founder, Ellen Yin, invited their most loyal customers and closest friends. The invitation was extended to approximately 6,000 people, clearly showing how many people Yin’s vibrant personality and fresh, local, innovative cuisine have touched. Ellen Yin has been acclaimed the best restaurateur in Philly by various publications, accumulated James Beard nominations, and created award winning restaurants, but she will still make you feel important no matter who you are–even if you are just two Penn students.
In fact, Yin was actually a Penn student herself , graduating from Wharton in ’87 and then again as an MBA in ’93. After graduating, she dabbled in advertising, fundraising, and various corporate positions, but she couldn’t stay away from her passion for food. Ever since she was young, she was drawn to cuisine. She praises her mom’s Chinese cooking for its complex flavors and depth that had taught her what good food is. Combining her business background with her passion, she decided to open Fork. Then High Street on Market (as well as High Street on Hudson in New York), and also a. kitchen & bar, which have all charmed this city becoming essential places for Philadelphia locals who have built memories in them.
Monique Mason, owner of Fork’s neighbor Moko Organic Studio, has said that she admires Yin’s creativity and ability to be “ahead of the curve.” She praises Yin for being a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement, one that hadn’t quite reached Philadelphia when Fork first opened up. As another women business owner, she is proud to see all of Yin’s success in her ventures. As a long time customer, she says the decor and menu have changed, but the heart of the restaurant has not.
Maddy Wille, a current Junior at the Culinary Institute of America in NYC, worked as an extern for Ellen for four months from 11am to 11pm. She loved seeing how fresh everything actually was as she watched the produce come in crates straight from the farmers every, single morning. When Fork claims to be farm-to-table, it’s not just a label they slapped on but a true statement they live by.
Milton Karabell has been going to Fork and High Street for the past 15 years and has made it sort of tradition to go for Sunday brunch. What’s his favorite part about Fork? The pastrami! His friend Goldie follows his answer by explaining how she loves the incredible service and cleanliness of the restaurant. “I like the pastrami,” Goldie chuckles again after she was done venerating Fork and Ellen Yin. I guess the pastrami is a must-order for those who haven’t tried it yet!
Mami Kato and Michael Hurwitz, a beautiful couple from the neighborhood, had met Ellen 21 years ago and was around when Fork first opened. They raved about Yin’s courage to constantly reinvent and reinvest, a key to Fork’s unwavering quality. They bump into Yin coming home from work at the restaurant or going out to do work for the community often.
John Patterson, the Chef de Cuisine of Fork for the past three years, also said the same thing all of the customers have essentially said: Ellen Yin is an incredible woman. Patterson attended the Walnut Hill Restaurant School, right next to Penn’s campus in West Philly. His culinary genius manifest on Fork’s menu of new jersey golden tilefish served with potatoes, cauliflower, ham, and poblano peppers or homemade squid ink rigatoni with crab, lion’s mane mushroom, and a squeeze of lemon. When asked how he creates such exquisite dishes:
“It’s all these guys,” Patterson replies pointing towards his kitchen staff.
Although Patterson (known as JP) has worked at Kennett Square’s Talula’s Table and Conshohocken’s Blackfish before becoming sous chef under chef Michael Anthony at Gramercy Tavern during Anthony’s James Beard Award-winning year in 2012, he reamins extremely humble. He is truly one of the nicest guys you will ever meet. High-fiving all the customers and taking the time to talk to every person that comes up to him, Patterson embodies Fork and Ellen Yin’s true and wholesome energy.
Walking around talking to the guests who were all rushing in to hug Yin and munching away on beautiful hors d’oeuvres, it is clear that Yin has not just created a restaurant, but a whole community.
Congratulations on 20 years of wonderful service and delicious food, Ellen! Make sure to catch her at our Food Summit on November 18th!
Q&A with Ellen Yin
Tell us about one of your first memories of you cooking/eating/entrepreneuring.
Ellen: It goes back to my childhood. I can vividly remember sitting at the kitchen table with my mom and grandmother rolling and wrapping dumplings. They had it down to a science, from the consistency to the cooking method, and I learned a lot just from watching and listening to them.
What other passions or hobbies do you have?
Ellen: Art and music are passions but I often don’t have time to go to museums or concerts. I do really enjoy public speaking and sharing my experiences, especially with those interested in the restaurant industry. In fact, I am going to be giving the keynote speech at Penn Appetit’s upcoming Food Summit on November 18.
All the guests said you were very involved in the Philly community. What sorts of things do you do?
Ellen: Yes, giving back and supporting the community is very important to me. In the restaurant, I always look for local artisans and purveyors to partner because I believe strongly in supporting local businesses. I also serve on the boards of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the Arden Theater Company and the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson Hospital.
Who has been your biggest influence in your career?
Ellen: Wow, where do I start? My mother has been a huge influence, obviously. I have also always admired Danny Meyer, the forward-thinking restaurateur in New York. I have never met him, but I feel like our philosophies are similar. He comes across as gracious and encompassing and his restaurants reflect that.
Where did you even start? And how did your education path lead up to it? Did you know you wanted to be a restaurateur? What sort of student were you at Penn?
Ellen: I think I have always been drawn to hospitality because it’s dynamic and challenging. When I was 18, I entered Wharton to study economics and business, but restaurants kept calling me. I started working in a basement café in Houston Hall and I was hooked. That was right about the time I decided I wanted to open a restaurant after college.
What is your advice for aspiring restaurateurs?
Ellen: You can’t be complacent. Never stop learning and never stop changing. No matter how good you feel about what you are doing, you can always improve. And the most important thing is to listen to your guests and accommodate their needs.
Tell us a fun fact about yourself that people would be surprised to hear.
Ellen: I’m an avid bike rider. A lot of people are surprised to hear that. I often ride from my restaurants in Old City (Fork, High Street) to check on our Rittenhouse outposts (a.kitchen, a.bar). It’s fun and helps relieve stress!
What’s your favorite thing to make? Can you share us the recipe?
This appeared in Forklore: Recipes and Tales from an American Bistro which details the first 10 years of Fork, its inspirations, stories and evolution. This recipe is one that I personally love to eat. Anytime I have a dinner party where I don’t know everyone this is perfect because it is familial and everyone has to make their own wraps. It is also simple and doesn’t require a lot of preparation. The charred grape leaves give lots of flavor. If the fish is too big, you could also roast it in the oven and finish it on the grill.
Grilled Red Snapper in Grape Leaves with Vietnamese Rice-Paper Wraps and Coconut-Lime Dipping Sauce
Serves 4 as a dinner main course
Coconut-Lime Dipping Sauce
1/2 can coconut milk
1 T fish sauce
1/2 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
1 T culandro (see sidebar), chiffonade
1/4 cup lime juice
1 T rice-wine vinegar
Combine all ingredients and set aside until ready to serve. Place into individual ramekins or dipping bowls (one for each diner).
Grilled Red Snapper in Grape Leaves
1 bunch fresh cilantro
1 bunch fresh mint
1 bunch fresh Thai basil
1 large carrot, peeled and julienned
1 cucumber, deseeded and julienned
1 package Vietnamese rice vermicelli, cooked according to instructions
red oak lettuce leaves
bibb lettuce leaves
one 7-pound whole red snapper, cleaned and scaled
1 jar grape leaves in brine, rinsed in water
1 lemon, sliced into thin rounds
4 to 6 sprigs fresh thyme
In a large serving bowl, assemble herbs, carrots, cucumber, lettuce and rice noodles. Allow space for grilled fish.
Preheat grill. Stuff stomach cavity of fish with lemon slices and thyme and season fish with salt and pepper. Wrap body of fish in grape leaves until surface of fish is completely covered. Brush hot grill grates generously with oil. Carefully place fish onto grill. Grill 8 minutes on one side and carefully turn. Grill an additional 8 minutes, or more if necessary. Place grilled fish in serving bowl with herbs and noodles. Serve family style.
1 package dried Vietnamese rice papers (galettes de riz)
1 bowl very hot water
To make a roll, dip a rice paper into a bowl of hot water. Quickly turn the paper so that entire surface comes in contact with water. It will start to soften quickly. Be careful not to leave it in the hot water for too long or it will tear. Place softened rice paper on a plate and arrange several small pieces of fish, herbs, vegetables, noodles and lettuce at one end of the roll. Roll it away from you once. Fold sides over and roll to the end of the paper. Serve with Coconut-Lime Dipping Sauce. After making the first one, you’ll realize how easy this is.
Written by Jennifer Higa
Photos by Justine de Jesus