The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Ellen Yin is the co-owner of some of Philadelphia’s most acclaimed restaurants — including Fork, which she founded in 1997, and High Street on Market — and is widely credited for helping to define the city as a dining destination. At Fork, which she calls her “second home,” she showed us how to make Vietnamese summer rolls.
Like so many other people in the industry, I got my start by working in a restaurant when I was in high school. I loved it. I was also the oldest child in an immigrant family, and we lived in a community in New Jersey where there weren't very many Asian families. I was always trying to escape and go my own way, which is how I ended up working in a restaurant.
I was always trying to escape and go my own way.
I thought I wanted to go to Cornell, but then when I actually got accepted, I thought it was too cold, so I stayed in Philadelphia! I ended up working at a restaurant while I was studying at Penn — La Terrasse — and made it my home. I met so many people that I'm still friends with today.
After writing numerous business plans for restaurants while I was at Wharton, I realized I couldn't do it alone, at 21 or 22, especially since my parents weren’t going to have anything to do with it. My father was still like, Why don't you be an engineer? And my mom, even though she liked to entertain, wanted me to get a regular job.
My father was still like, Why don't you be an engineer?
So I started my career in marketing and advertising, and then I ended up working in a nonprofit doing fundraising. And then I decided to go back to grad school and get an MBA in health care, but I still felt this tug of wanting to open a restaurant. I started looking for locations, and found the original location of Fork and wrote a business plan. I was looking for financing, and my classmate from grad school and I ended up becoming partners. In '97 we finally opened.
We were focused on staying open for one year — let alone 20-some years. These were the days of Restaurant Row and very upscale experiential restaurants in Philly, and we wanted to create something that was approachable and open to everybody.
We were in the right place at the right time because the city was growing, and it was kind of the beginning of this public obsession with going out, I think. The restaurant has grown under the leadership of many chefs and an incredible team of people who have been committed to what we believe in, which is serving the community. We never imagined in '97 that we would be in Philly Mag as one of the best new restaurants; we just were trying to be a neighborhood restaurant.
I do love to cook, but I don't do it that much for myself. Usually I'm cooking for either my mother or a dinner party. Since the weather is 70 degrees today, I made summer rolls. Even though I'm Chinese, I love Vietnamese food. There's something very clean about Vietnamese cooking that is very fresh and that I really enjoy. My rolls had seared prawns with pork belly and fresh herbs and are wrapped in rice paper.
I love summer rolls because you can make them with anything. I cheat a lot, too, because I have access to things in Fork’s refrigerator. But it’s all about the mise en place. Probably the thing that takes the longest is the noodles. They don't take long to cook, but I like to have them done in advance, and I usually toss them with a little bit of olive oil and scallion.
It’s all about the mise en place.
I will have prepped all my vegetables prior. I like having either a red-oak lettuce, a Bibb lettuce, or something that's soft so that when you wrap it it's not breaking the rice noodle or rice paper. Then something crunchy, like carrots or cucumber. Sometimes I put green papaya in, and you could put shredded beets in, too. Whatever you have.
And then I will have a dipping sauce. It could be lime juice, rice-wine vinegar, and a little bit of fish sauce, or it could be a peanut sauce. Again, sometimes I cheat, and I'll have hoisin sauce in the refrigerator, and I'll mix it with some peanut butter and peanuts.
I’ll also have fresh herbs: Thai basil, fresh basil, mint, cilantro — those types of herbs. And then, once I have all that assembled, I'm ready to sear off my shrimp and pork belly, which you can either do at the same time or do one or the other. But in this case I took fresh cured pork belly, which is almost like bacon but thick cut, and I just seared it for a few minutes. I marinated the shrimp in chili oil, and then I seared it.
Once all that's done you’re almost ready to start making the rolls. Typically, if I'm making this for a group of people, I'll have a large tray with all the ingredients, and then everybody can make their own rolls. You need very hot water, too, because the rice paper needs to get reconstituted in the hot water. Slip it in, put it on an empty plate, and then you can layer whatever you'd like in there.
I usually start with the lettuce, and then I put in fresh herbs, then the slaw, then the rice noodles, then the shrimp on top. I basically roll it up, fold the two ends over, and just keep rolling.