Carrying on her Cantonese culture, Mary Li and her team at Ginger and Fork set out to bring a dining experience that married great food, a great beverage program and great service. Alas, Ginger and Fork was born, opening earlier this year.
Originally born in Hong Kong, Li recalls her family eventually moving to Los Angeles in 1970 – the city where she grew up. Eventually she transplanted to Chicago in 1984 and then moved to Houston in 1990.
“My family, (my former husband) opened up a restaurant in Chicago,” Li said. “Two of them acutally, but back then I did not have the bar knowledge I have today.”
What Li did learn in that Chicago restaurant, however, was the PR side, the front end of the house and the customer service that goes into building a restaurant.
“After moving to Houston, I started working at Houlihan’s on Post Oak near the Galleria,” Li said. “The General Manager saw that he wanted to train me to become a bartender because he said I had the personality for it.”
A candid Li admits that, at the time, about all she knew how to make was a screwdriver. The General Manager had a simple response for Li: “you can always train the knowledge, but you can’t train a personality or even attitude.”
That bar on Post Oak is where it all began for Li.
Houlihan’s eventually broke the word that they would be closing and Li’s General Manager recommended a nearby restaurant for her to submit her application with: Tony Mandola’s. Li followed suit with her application and eventually took a position with the upscale River Oaks restaurant.
“I started out in helping in different areas, but mostly as a bar tender at night,” Li said. “They eventually wanted me to take over the bar program. That is when I started gaining my knowledge and learning to run a bar. I’m very grateful that I had the chance and the experience with Tony’s.”
After being at Tony Mandola’s for 24 years, the last two or three years Li recalls a lot of her friends encouraging her to see if she could put something together on her own. She studied the restaurant scene on what was already out there, what people liked. Something that was missing from the equation was a restaurant that reflected her culture and her love for being behind the bar.
“My love in being Cantonese, born in Hong Kong and growing up and eating authentic Cantenese food, I felt like there was not an authentic style from Hong Kong in this area, especially with a full bar,” Li said. “That is what I’ve found that a lot of my friends have told me. You go eat Chinese food and you just go eat. They would like to have a dining experience, not just with great food, but with great cocktails and a wine program to compliment the food.”
“I’ve done research the past year and a half, prior to the opening, traveling to great craft cocktail bars all over: New York, San Francisco and even to Hong Kong to see what people were doing in the top notch cocktail bars. Together, with everything I’ve gained through the years and my research, I put together a list of cocktails using fresh ingredients, juices and natural flavors to offer the true national craft cocktail.”
There are two worldly esteemed cocktail bars that Li did research at: The Dead Rabbit in New York City and The Lobster Bar in Shangri-La, Hong Kong. Last year, The Dead Rabbit ranked number two in the Word’s 50 Best Bars and The Lobster Bar ranked number 18. The Dead Rabbit ranked number one within the US.
“We became friends with Greg Buda, the senior bar tender at The Dead Rabbit, and he actually came down here to help us play with different recipes before getting the restaurant open,” Li said.
From the cocktail menu at Ginger and Fork, there is a particular cocktail that Li enjoys the most: the Panama Daiquiri. The ingredients are simple, but one ingredient comes from Li’s research in Hong Kong and that is the sugarcane that goes into making their sugarcane syrup. Add the Hong Kong sugarcane, eucalyptus leaf, freshly squeezed lime juice, simple syrup and panama rum and this drink carries into easy summer drinking.