Restaurateur Ellen Yin opened Fork at 306 Market Street 15 years ago. You wouldn't know it, though, judging by the amount of positive press and attention Fork is receiving in the media in 2013. All of the local critics are chiming in, too, offering up glowing reviews of the food coming from newly-installed chef Eli Kulp, a NYC transfer who got famous cooking at the very buzzy Torrisi Italian Specialties.
Yin's work ethic is legendary, and as the story goes she's only missed one day of work in 15 years in business. Her quiet nature keeps her profile under the radar while her restaurant thrives, no matter how much the economy and tastes of the crowds fluctuate. Eater chatted up Yin—a traiblazer of the farm-to-table movement—about her secrets of success, and how she wooed one of NYC's brightest young stars to move south and help her re-invent a 15-year-old bistro.
Fork has been open for 15 years now in the same location, and stayed relevant throughout Philly's restaurant revolution and renaissance, which is a miracle in and of itself. How many executive chefs have run your kitchen during that time period?
Four. Up to and including Eli, we've had four executive chefs.
Wow. With the amount of turnover in this industry, I never would have guessed the number to be so low. Who was the debut chef of Fork?
Ann-Marie Lasher, which worked out very well, and was like finding a needle in a haystack. She had worked at Pollo Rosso before, and we were introduced by mutual friends. We hit it off, and had a good run, but ultimately our vision didn't mesh. She wanted to be a small neighborhood restaurant, and had no interest in a high-volume place that could do 400 covers in a night. But, she moved on, and now owns Picnic. Thein Ngo followed Lasher, and lasted here about 7 years. After Thien came Terence Feury was our chef for awhile, and now it's Eli Kulp.
Fork's run has been amazing. Can you speak to how you've kept the restaurant thriving for a decade-and-a-half?
Thank you. You know, in the day-to-day, we're always trying to get to that next step and never being content with where we are. When we first opened 15 years ago, our food was novel since farm-to-table wasn't prevalent yet, and I think that gave us a leg up.
But, our philosophy has always been and continues to be to evolve and stay ahead of the trends. For example we focused on our wine program and then our beer program to stay ahead, and then it was the cheese program. We gradually kept working on little parts of the restaurant and the business.
Now, farm-to-table is available everywhere, whether it's a gastropub or a BYOB, and the level of sophistication has increased dramatically across the city, so we had to figure out what would set us apart. You have to be flexible and be able to make minor changes and remain contemporary, even in subtle ways.
So, what were the changes you made this time around for the latest evolution of Fork?
When Terence left, I had faith that the economy was going to get better and people are finally going to have money again. The one thing I heard when diners would walk by and look in at the restaurant was that "this is a really nice restaurant." So, I figured, why not give them what they're expecting out of the space. We re-did the dining room and completely renovated, brought in these stunningly beautiful chandeliers and made it a memorable space.
We're one of the last of a dying breed of grandiose dining rooms. The Striped Bass dining room doesn't exist anymore, and most of the new places are going for simplicity. So, we went all out with the renovations, and I'm proud of the results.
Surviving and thriving in Old City as you have is quite the feat, too, considering the neighborhood has been on a downward trajectory for years. How have you worked around that?
It hasn't been a problem for us at all, actually, because our customers are in and out long before the night crowd shows up. And, some of the best restaurants in the city are here. Amada is here, Buddakan, Han Dynasty, and Chloe are here. These places have developed a dedicated group of regulars, and would go wherever they were in Philly.
What's really changed over the years is the competition in other neighborhoods. Back then there wasn't much. Now, it's everywhere. As our scene gets national attention more restaurateurs open places. When we opened, Rittenhouse Square, for instance was just Rittenhouse Row. Now there are restaurants everywhere in Rittenhouse.
Your ability as a restaurateur to attract top level talent to run your kitchens is quite impressive. After Thien left, you landed critically-acclaimed chef Terence Feury. How did that go down?
Terence and I met at least 7 times, talking about where we see the restaurant going. What the vision is and what resources are required to make it happen. I think for a small restaurant, an independent restaurant, you need to have that clear focus and vision.
With a larger place, a corporate restaurant, you can have an up and coming sous chef that can take over temporarily if something happens, but with smaller places all your resources are with one person and you can't make that space up. That's a huge difference. And with Terry, he is just such a professional, that when he left to open his own place, it wasn't a mass exodus of chefs and kitchen people. He knew that we needed them to keep going.
Ultimately, what mark did Terence leave on the restaurant when he left?
While Fork was probably seen as a neighborhood bistro in the early years, once Terence came, the climate changed. He elevated the food to 3-Bell levels, and his menu was more adventurous, too. Our service was taken up a notch, as well. I think just overall, he elevated Fork beyond what we were for so many years, and can't thank him enough.
Lastly, let's talk about Eli Kulp. He was a known quantity and a fan favorite in New York City, which is considered the center of the restaurant universe. He was happy at his job at Torrisi Italian Specialties, which is one of New York's constantly buzzy restaurants. The future for him up north was extremely bright; he was headed for a breakout role in the food media. And, he ends up on Market Street in Philly at a 15-year-old independent restaurant. While I love Fork and everything you do, how did you pull that one off?
(Laughing) You'll probably have to ask him. We were introduced by mutual friends, but what happened was, once Terence gave his notice, I put up a Craigslist ad, and was immediately inundated with applications. Since Fork was known to be farm-to-table like so many other restaurants, a lot of familiar names came in for the job. And I knew at that point that we really needed to shake up Fork and make some big changes to the restaurant as a whole. We got some professional help for our search an ended up receiving some pretty surprising resumes that came in from across the country.
When you say surprising, you mean some big-time names you never expected to show up, ready to jump ship?
Exactly, we weren't looking just locally. We hired professional help for the search and had feelers out in Chicago, San Francisco, and places like that. I met with at least 12 people for the job, and had phone conversations with another 15, so we did a thorough search.
So how did you settle on Eli and get him on board?
Well, what stood out to me was that even though Eli was upfront about the fact he was happy at Torrisi, he was very engaged during the interview process, and asked us a lot of questions about the restaurant and what we were trying to do, which impressed me. It was obvious that he was a serious chef and was taking the interview very seriously, too. When we asked the chefs what their plans were for the restaurant, so many of them said they wanted to continue the great tradition of Fork, which was not what we were looking for.
After that, we went up to Torrisi and were absoultely blown away. The experience was fantastic. And, even though I knew that he was settled there, I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn't at least ask him if he was willing to do a tasting for us down in Philly, and he agreed. So, we rented out COOK for his tasting, and he absolutely wowed us with everything he presented. Normally, chefs will do like three courses for a tasting like that, but Eli did eight, of course. By the time we finished the tasting, I had already written up the terms sheet and emailed it to him that night. He was everything we were looking for and more.
And, obviously, he agreed. What do you think swayed his decision or what is it about Fork that convinced him to move here and be your new chef?
Well, you never know what it is, but it's not always about money. I'm at that point with Fork where maybe a few years ago in the same situation I would have played it safe, but this time we took chances. We wanted to re-invent the restaurant, and really hit it off with Eli, and sometimes that's all you need. It gives the chef a chance to be a part of the new restaurant. We invested in him and spent a good amount of money overhauling the dining room with a new look, and things couldn't have gone better.
Since Eli has taken over the kitchen, all of the local critics have given nothing but fantastic reviews, and 15 years into the life of Fork, it's a critical darling and one of the buzziest restaurants in the city. Craig LaBan said there is real '4-Bell Potential.' Did you expect all of this attention?
Well you always hope for it, and you work hard at it, but I wouldn't say we expected it. But, it's nice, and we hope it continues, too. I have to admit, next to my husband, I love Eli more than anyone else in the world (laughing.) But, that's because of his cooking.
Thank you for your time, and thank you for leading the charge in the mid 90s, way before the Philly scene was on anyone's radar. And thank Eli for picking Philly over NYC, we're lucky to have him.
Thank you. And I'm glad he's here, too. (laughing).