What Two Decades as a Restaurateur Has Taught Me
The owner of Philadelphia's iconic Fork and High Street on Market talks about defying expectations and the team that helped shape her success.
Photo by Catherine Karnow.
I opened my first restaurant, Fork, in Philadelphia in 1997. When I think back on what makes me most proud, it's getting to work and learn from hundreds of talented staff that I have been fortunate enough to have pass through my place. I sound like a mom, but that's what I consider my biggest accomplishment—seeing the many people who have successfully grown through my restaurants. Building a community together with them and our customers has been a big part of my story as a restaurateur.
Besides the obvious young cooks or servers who have gone on to become chefs or managers or opened their own restaurants, it is rewarding to see people express their love of food and hospitality in many ways. For example, an eight-year old son of a patron grew up to fall in love with wine and is now Fork's dining room manager. A former busboy, who started here in college, became the art director of his own company and is helping us with branding. A porter from Mali who didn't speak English worked with us for six or seven years and became a cook. We sponsored him for a green card. Sadly, he moved, and we ended up losing contact. But ten years later, I received a letter from him thanking me for everything and updating me on his life. These are the kind of corny stories that bring me joy. So many things intertwine, and to an extent, you become interdependent on all of the amazing folks who have entered your life.
It never struck me that I couldn't pursue any career. If I wanted to be a restaurant owner, I could be a restaurant owner. Why not?
Personally, I've never considered what I do a job. It's more of a lifestyle. In addition to Fork, my other restaurants are a.kitchen + bar (at AKA Rittenhouse Square), High Street on Market, and lastly High Street on Hudson in New York City. I'm involved with each place every single day, no matter what, either in person, by phone, or via email. And after 20 years, I still enjoy the thrill of a busy dining room. I love service, being in the weeds, and being the host of the dining room. And that struggle for day-to-day survival I felt early in my career is still there, too. I'd like to think that some day I'll reach a place where it's no longer like that. But restaurateurs get bored easily, so once you get to that point, you miss the exhilaration of opening a new place or changing things up. A lot of times, a new restaurant kind of reinvigorates everything for your organization. It brings a lot of excitement, with new team members and fresh energy—so that's something that I love. But then, while I'm in it, I might think, Oh my God, why am I doing this again?
Failure has never been an option for me. It's not in my vocabulary. I grew up in a household where my father's expectations of me were extremely high—always wanting me to be the top student in the class, always having to be the best at whatever I did. It never struck me that I couldn't pursue any career. That mentality of not being bound to anything liberated me from the pressures of any stereotypes. If I wanted to be a doctor, I could be a doctor. If I wanted to be a lawyer, I could be a lawyer. If I wanted to be a restaurant owner, I could be a restaurant owner. Why not?
I'm American. I was born and raised here. It's in no way strange for me to open and own American restaurants, but a lot of people expect me to have Asian-influenced restaurants instead.
And that's also been the foundation to my approach in life. I've never seen myself as a woman competing in a man's world. I'm a competitive person by nature, and want to compete with the best, no matter who they are or whatever field it may be. This has been true while I've worked in other industries that were male-dominated as well, and attended business school back when there were a lot fewer women. And as an Asian-American woman who grew up in a suburban town, I'm used to being in the minority. Maybe that's why it didn't affect me much.
Asians are all over the food scene now, but when I started, there weren't many in the segment I was in. The majority back then worked in Asian restaurants or possibly family businesses. Over the years, people have been surprised when they've met me or learned I was the owner of Fork.
And that's the thing: I'm American. I was born and raised here. It's in no way strange for me to open and own American restaurants, but a lot of people expect me to have Asian-influenced restaurants instead. But I guess that is American food, too!
I get a lot of young people asking me how can they get into the food business, and my advice is to make sure they work in a restaurant if that's where they want to be. Find somebody you want to be like, a sponsor, and don't be shy about introducing yourself. I didn't make it 20 years by doing it alone. People helped me, so it's inherent in me to try and make connections for others. Ultimately, that's what a restaurant is: a community of like-minded people.
As I celebrate a landmark anniversary of 20 years in the business, I've learned that you have to accept change because you can't control it. You have to just be able to adapt. And what I've realized is the longer I'm in the industry, the less I really know. When we opened, I thought we were just going to be a little neighborhood restaurant, so it's really an honor to have been named a semi-finalist for Outstanding Restaurateur by the James Beard Foundation this year. It's not something I ever considered in the realm of possibility. To get into that category, you need an amazing team, period. I rely on smart-thinking, talented people who have the same vision to help bring it all to fruition.
And of course, I'm looking forward to having a huge blowout party with everyone this year! It's going to be a big celebration, to make sure that all of the people who've helped us along the way know how much we appreciate their support and business.
As told to Tae Yoon.
- a.kitchen + bar
- High Street on Market
- High Street on Hudson
- Ellen Yin