Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that nobody has influenced my love for cooking more than my mother. I grew up eating homemade bread at nearly every meal; not knowing salad dressing and chicken stock could be purchased at a store; and thinking there was nothing unusual about seeing enormous pans filled with spanakopita and moussaka scattered around the kitchen.
After college, I decided to pursue my love for cooking and spent several years working at various catering companies and restaurants in and outside of Philadelphia. The two years I spent in the Fork kitchen first as a prep cook and ultimately as the sous chef for Thien Ngo most notably have shaped what and how I cook today. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about something Thien taught me — how to dice onions into perfect little diamonds; how to make the crispiest fingerling potatoes; how to peel and cut oranges; how to create the prettiest lemon wedges by cutting straight down around a lemon’s center.
With the exception of a few traumatizing experiences — working the Sunday brunch omelet station (for a year), for example — I had a ball in that kitchen. I often dream about the fried egg sandwiches with Chinese sausage on just-baked rolls Thien would whip up as a morning snack, a reward for knocking out our to-do list; and about squeezing fresh lime juice over fresh papaya and then scooping out its flesh, the perfect breakfast; and about sipping full-fat cappuccinos made with La Colombe espresso beans, the best in the city; and about wrapping tinga in tortillas topped with Isidoro’s guacamole, the staff’s most requested family meal; and about wine and cheese dinners when Max MacCallman came to town, the most fun night of the entire year.
I had a ball outside that kitchen, too, mostly in Chinatown on my bike following Thien to various restaurants and shops inevitably returning to the restaurant with live Dungeness crabs squirming in my backpack and fresh rice noodles digesting in my belly. Thien introduced me to the Vietnamese sauce mam nem and to green papaya salad at Nam Phuong; to snails with black bean sauce, steamed live shrimp, pan-fried noodles, and stir-fried crab with ginger and scallions at Tai Lake; and to tacos de lengua at La Lupe. Thien made the most memorable braised chicken curry, romaine salad with sauce gribiche, and pan-seared duck confit. He drank only grenache wines, specifically Gigondas AOC wines, and at dinner hour was rarely seen without a glass in hand.
I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to work at a place that continues to thrive after 15 years. Fork’s owner Ellen Yin was the first to introduce me to the mantra “buy fresh, buy-local”, a concept the restaurant has been committed to since opening its doors and one that has forever shaped how I cook. If ever you find yourself in Philly, be sure to stop by Fork for a meal — it’s a wonderful place.