Ever since Eli Kulp's Amtrak accident, the position of executive chef was left vacant at the Old City mainstay. But John Patterson, at the time chef de cuisine, stepped up when he had to, and the restaurant never skipped a beat. Says Kulp, "Over the past year, I have watched John use his talent and passion to bring his own voice to the table. He has earned this title."
Before Fork, Patterson came from New York's Gramercy Tavern, and before that, Kennett Square's Talula's Table and Blackfish in Conshohocken — not a bad resume for a person taking over as executive chef of the Old City mainstay. In the restaurant's 19 years, co-owner Ellen Yin only appointed five chefs to run Fork's kitchen—a testament to how seriously considered this decision was.
He moved to New York to expand his horizons, to broaden his experiences. After a few successful years in the big city, the Delaware county native decided it was time for his return home. But before he made the move, he scoped the local talent.
"We just blitzed Philadelphia and ate everywhere we thought was doing something cool, checking out the scene. Fork really stood out. It was probably the one that seemed most complete, where it had a bread program they were trying to push forward, a pastry program they were trying to push forward, the dinner menu was very ambitious and exciting. I remember looking in [the kitchen] and thinking this looks really intense, this is what I want to do."
Patterson says he's not willing to rest on his laurels or become a "clipboard chef." Instead, he was looking to work somewhere "special", somewhere "pushing the dining scene forward." Places like La Bec Fin, Lacroix, and Vetri have cranked out great chefs over the years. Fork, he says, was poised to be next.
"When I came down and staged, Fork had that feeling. It had that collection of really great, unique talent that was coming together at this special moment in time. That really appealed to me. I saw an opportunity where I could contribute to that, and bring what I had learned in New York to a system that was already here, but growing and evolving."
Eli Kulp's accident pushed Patterson into acting chef during his absence. And while he has his own voice and his own talent, Kulp's influence on Patterson's career was substantial:
"Working for him is incredibly inspiring. He is a guy that continues to push, even now, continues to push forward. [Kulp asks], "How are we going to focus on being the best, and presenting something a little bit differently than everyone else?" And to me, that was really inspiring because there are times where you're, you know, tired. Push forward, keep going, and people will be inspired by that energy and that inspiration. That was really amazing to see time and time again, and it's definitely something I want to continue."
So what can you, the diner, expect out of Fork with this new chef-change? Well first and foremost, don't expect too much of a difference. It's still going to be Fork as we all know and love it, it's still going to be Kulp-certified. The only difference, really, is what direction the restaurant is headed:
"I really want to take a look at the sustainability issues. I don't necessarily want to push an agenda on someone, but I want to say, hey, there's some really great stuff here, and we're just not utilizing it. That's sort of where [Our] Terroir menu came from. We wanted to do something that was very regionally inspired and focused, and the challenge, for us, became how to make that exciting. That was something Eli and I worked on a lot. The Terroir [menu], while it's not available right now, we've actually absorbed a lot of it into the regular menu, so that those become the bigger conversation points."
Patterson's especially excited about the launching of his new Wednesday night dinner series. For $55 a person ($90 with beverage pairings), the guest receives four courses of a themed menu. Think motifs like "Flavors of Vietnam", "From the Dirt", or "Off the Coast" — dinners that challenge the kitchen to create.
"We choose a theme, we go by it, and we turn it out for one day, and hopefully it works. It's worked really well so far, but it also has that play of being the kitchen's mind's eye." Basically, a micro-glimpse into what Fork's all about; a dinner for you to understand the inspiration and the energy of the kitchen without it breaking the bank.