Community, connection, hospitality: James Beard "Outstanding Restaurateur" award-winner—and new Real Woman of REALM—Ellen Yin shares the secrets to her success.
My first encounter with Ellen Yin was many years ago at her now legendary restaurant, Fork, in Old City, Philadelphia (the neighborhood I have long called home and where REALM is headquartered). I watched Ellen circle through the dining room, greeting each of her guests as she made her way to our table. She approached with a warm smile that made me instantly feel like we’d known each other for years. As we chatted and laughed, I knew it was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
Since then, I have learned that we have much in common.
Just as REALM Fine + Fashion Jewelry is a jewelry company that's about more than jewelry, Ellen’s company, High Street Hospitality Group, is a restaurant group that's about more than food. For both of us, community, connection and hospitality (in the sense that the American Heritage dictionary defines it as "reception and entertainment of strangers or guests... with liberality and kindness") are at the heart of everything we do, in business and in life.
When you dine at Fork (or a.kitchen + a.bar or High Street Philly), every dish is scrumptious and beautifully plated; the décor is the epitome of casual elegance. But the truly magical ingredient is the genuinely warm and welcoming service that makes you feel like a treasured part of a family and brings you back again and again. That brand of hospitality is a secret Ellen learned from her mother, much as I learned from mine. It is, I believe, the secret to her 26+ years in business, community of loyal fans, slew of rave reviews, four James Beard Award nominations and the ultimate honor: winning the James Beard Foundation 2023 Outstanding Restaurateur Award.
I hope you savor getting to know my favorite restaurateur: Ellen Yin, our newest Real Woman of REALM.
Ann King Lagos
Founder + Designer
Q + A with Ellen Yin
ABOVE: The gorgeous interior of Fork Restaurant in Old City, Philadelphia. (photo by Windborne Co). BELOW: A sampling of dishes from Fork. Photos courtesy High Street Hospitality Group.
Ellen, you describe your role at your award-winning restaurants as “the service.” What does great service mean to you?
To me, service and hospitality go hand in hand. I would describe a great dining experience to be warm, confident, informed and well-paced, with evidence that your server is passionate and having fun.
How would you translate that into entertaining guests at home?
My mother was a great entertainer and inspired me to cultivate spaces that make people feel at home; when hosting guests anywhere, I aim to create that sense of belonging from the moment they enter. I like to plan parties where the guests do not need to bring anything, but if someone offers, I always accept, as it makes guests feel included and a part of the fun.
The past few years were so difficult for restaurants. Now that we’re all back to dining out, does it mean something different to you and your guests?
First, thank you to our diners and diners throughout the Philadelphia region for supporting our city’s restaurants. They sustained us, and now that visiting restaurants feels comfortable again, I’m thrilled to see dining rooms full of the energy that comes with re-connecting with each other whether that be family, friends or business.
Congratulations on your 2023 James Beard “Outstanding Restaurateur” award. Tell us about that experience.
Being named Outstanding Restaurateur at the 2023 James Beard Awards was an amazing achievement, but having my leadership team by my side was the most rewarding element. It felt so fulfilling to see so many Philadelphia chefs and teams recognized and confirm that Philadelphia is a world-class restaurant scene on such a large scale.
What do you love about REALM?
I love that REALM is a woman-owned company and that Ann King Lagos, the founder, is about building a community, similar to how I built my business. Additionally, her style is classic, elegant and sophisticated.
Who wouldn’t want to wear it?!
— Ellen Yin
Is there a REALM collection that particularly resonates with you?
My favorite collection is Empire, which represents possibility, promise, destiny.I have been fortunate enough throughout my career to be able to follow my own vision and pursue what I love to do. At the beginning of my career, that was a risk because it went against the advice everyone (parents, mentors, friends) was giving me.
What does it mean to #BeYourBestSelf?
As an entrepreneur, being your best self means being a thoughtful empathetic leader. No one is perfect, and I have made many errors throughout my career, but this mantra means we all are constantly improving. It takes learning from our mistakes to get there, but being your best self means being focused on the journey.
— Ellen Yin
Get Ellen's look: choose your color and silhouette from REALM's boldly feminine Corset Cuff collection.
Tell us about Sisterly Love Collective.
It started as a Zoom call that began shortly after the shutdown in 2020. A group of women in Chicago invited me to be part of their monthly call brainstorming how to help each other survive. I met and learned from a diverse network of women from throughout the country. Meanwhile, our group here in Philly was hosting food fairs, mission-driven dinners, cocktail parties and educational workshops. We’re now Sisterly Love Collective, an alliance of women restaurateurs and food entrepreneurs founded with the belief that women are stronger together. Co-led by me, Jill Weber, Jen Carroll and Sofia Deleon, we help small women-owned businesses grow via networking, mentorship and collaboration. Working with such inspirational women has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.
Would you share a personal favorite recipe with us? (Something simple and stylish we can whip up at home.)
I don’t actually cook much because I’m usually at work so late. But I do love entertaining and often it’s on the fly. The key is having quality ingredients. I typically run to DiBrunos or another corner store and grab staples like seafood in a tin (I love this because it is not only delicious but healthy as well), olives, marcona almonds, crostini or fresh bread, maybe tzatziki or some other spread.
I also love communal dishes. One of my all-time favorites are Vietnamese wraps. During the summer, I love grape-leaf wrapped whole fish, with dried rice paper, lettuce, fresh herbs, shredded carrot and beet, lime juice, fish sauce and some olive oil.
Ellen Yin: Restaurateur + James Beard Award Winner + Real Woman of REALM
What advice do you have for women in business... and in life?
Know your worth. In hospitality and in life, there will be opportunities for growth where you will need to push yourself, but there also be people who are willing to benefit from your efforts without compensation. Walking the fine line between the two is an instinct strengthened over time, but so valuable.
Get Ellen's look: the REALM Python Collar in 18K Gold Vermeil