Why Ellen Yin is Selling Dumplings to Make a Difference
The Philadelphia restaurateur is drawing inspiration from her mother to fight anti-Asian hateSarah Maiellano
May 19, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the restaurant industry, permanently shuttering 17 percent of restaurants nationwide, and revealing inequities and vulnerabilities baked into the foundations of these businesses. But there is hope on the horizon, as vaccines roll out and more food professionals are immunized. At the James Beard Foundation, we’re looking forward with optimism, while also striving to provide resources and tools to help the industry recover and rebuild with equity and sustainability at its heart.
Below, Sarah Maiellano explores how the pandemic and recent spike in anti-Asian hate has shifted Philadelphia restaurateur Ellen Yin's perspective on her role in her businesses and the industry at large.
When Ellen Yin was growing up, she’d help wrap dumpling after dumpling for family gathering, but was more interested in McDonald’s than her mother’s classic Chinese cooking. As part of one of two Asian families in her suburban New Jersey town, Yin just wanted to fit in.
At 16, her parents helped her land a job at a Chinese restaurant, but Yin quickly left to bus tables at a fine-dining French establishment. Even though she graduated third in her high school class, her father insisted she’d have been number one, if not for that distracting restaurant job.
“I was adamant about finding my own way,” she says. And she did. Yin came to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania and then earned an MBA from Wharton. She opened her landmark restaurant, Fork, in 1997, then launched a.kitchen in the AKA hotel in 2011 and the all-day cafe High Street in 2013.
Though the menus at Yin’s restaurants may incorporate in Asian ingredients and techniques, she's always positioned them as serving American cuisine. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has the three-time Beard Award nominee thinking more about her Chinese roots.
A front-of-house fixture, Yin jokes that she never cooks but says, “the one thing that my mother did teach me to make was wontons.” A few months ago she made a batch for her staff and the team started talking about opening a wonton-centric ghost kitchen.
For the last few years, Yin says she’s noticed a rise in anti-Asian sentiment and violence—something that the pandemic has only heightened. As an Asian kid, she experienced “the standard name-calling and whatnot.” And as a business owner, she notices racial biases, like people assuming she’s the wife of the chef or mistaking her for Susannah Foo, a renowned Philadelphia chef, who is also Chinese. Yet, she says: “Relative to violence or discrimination in the workplace, I personally have been extremely lucky and have been able to flourish.”
But after the horrific shootings of six Asian women in Atlanta in March, Yin was ready to act. “I felt like maybe I didn't do or say enough in all these years that I've been successful,” she recalls.
Then she saw Chicago chef Beverly Kim's Dough Something project, where chefs sell dough-based dishes and donate the proceeds to organizations that advocate for civil and human rights, as well as groups that teach bystander training to protect the Asian American community from violence.
Yin decided her would-be ghost kitchen was a perfect opportunity. She launched The Wonton Project in April and put her mother’s original wonton recipe to work. The proceeds benefit Asian Americans United and Asian Americans Advancing Justice until at least the end of May, which is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Available steamed or fried, the wontons are filled with Pennsylvania-raised pork, shrimp, scallions, and cabbage—with broth on the side.
“There's an opportunity right now to change a lot of things,” Yin said. “Hopefully, we don’t just go back to everything pre-pandemic. Hopefully, the restaurant industry and society will improve.”
Sarah Maiellano is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. You can find more of her work at sarahmaiellano.com and follow her on Instagram at @sarahmaiellano.