NEW BERN — For a man who spent years running away from his passion, Gerry Fong seems remarkably at home.
Relaxing on the upper deck of Persimmons Waterfront Restaurant, his fledgling labor of love located on the downtown waterfront in New Bern, Fong pauses as he looks back on his early observations of the food industry.
“I couldn’t stand the restaurant business, actually,” he says, smiling at his own stubbornness as an early spring breeze rifles the table umbrellas being set up by his lunch staff.
As owner and executive chef of the lone waterfront eatery in a city known for its twin rivers, Fong can afford to look back with mirth at his less than decisive route to success.
The son of Asian immigrants—his mother from the Philippines, his father from Singapore—Fong grew up in Laurinburg watching his parents do whatever it took to keep their three Chinese restaurants running, from cooking and clearing tables to paying bills and bargaining with local food suppliers.
Stepping from the deck into Persimmons spacious, sun-lit dinning room, its apparent that, whatever his initial reservations, Fong has taken his parents example to heart.
While scouting locations for his own restaurant in 2009, Fong says he came upon the hollowed out shell of what would become, one year and a lot of hard work later, the vehicle for his unique cultural and culinary vision.
During his apprentice years working at such well-known establishments as the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay, Cal., and Ashten’s Restaurant in Southern Pines, Fong says he began mixing dishes from different cultures with traditional southern cuisine, first experimenting with French and, slowly, adding in Asian fare. “People were like ‘What are we eating here. It’s like collards with ginger and braise.’” recalls Fong. “I think that, just because as a child I ate so much southern cooking, I know how it’s supposed to taste so I’ve just melded it together to make it my own.”
With Persimmons, Fong said he’s come close to perfecting what he describes as “global cuisine from a southern perspective,” incorporating fresh, seasonal vegetables, meats, and seafood with his staff’s local knowledge and his own flair for uncommon combinations.
Fong is equally proud of another aspect of the restaurant that blends the modern with the traditional. While dredging the Neuse River around the buildings foundation in preparation for remodeling work, workers came across the 12-foot trunk of a 300-year-old Sap Gum tree, sometimes referred to as liquid amber. They also pulled up what would prove to be, for Fong, the answer to a nagging problem: a piece of a smaller, and slightly younger, Persimmon tree. “I was stuck for name ideas for the restaurant, and Persimmons just fit perfectly,” recalls Fong, who says his decision was sealed when he discovered the tree is native to two regions near to his heart—the eastern U.S. and China.
Drawing inspiration from the native woods, Fong decided to incorporate them into the restaurant: each tabletop as well as the bar was fashioned from the Sap Gum. The restaurant’s namesake, meanwhile, was used for the hostess stand.
Like the fine grain, exotic wood that runs through his restaurant, Gerry Fong may have taken a little time to find his true calling, but the final product, as he’s more than happy to tell you, was well worth the wait.
After graduating from high school, Fong set out on a path of what he describes as “soul searching,” working on a hog farm briefly before traveling to the Philippines, where he spent 10 months exploring the culture and landscape of his ancestors. After returning to Laurinburg, Fong took up vegetable farming with a group of friends. “I wouldn’t even call it work,” he remembers. “It was more just trying to learn a little bit about the earth. I was just trying to see what was out there.”
One day while working on the farm, says Fong, he looked up from the row he was tending and realized eight years had passed since he left home. “I knew I needed to make a decision, but I just wasn’t sure which direction,” he remembers.
Shortly afterward, Fong’s parents surprised him by presenting him with two options: take over the family business or apply to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Though Fong says he initially resisted—“I wasn’t a chef; I didn’t want to be in restaurants”—he now recalls his final choice as the crucial turning point of his life. “I just decided to go live in New York and try it out.”
Once immersed in the culinary life, Fong says any doubts concerning his future direction were set aside. “I know it sounds weird, but I didn’t realize I hated my passion until that moment,” he says, looking back with a mixture of amusement and wonder. “I needed that time away from it to really gain some perspective. When I came to it the second time, I fell in love.”
In addition to his newfound passion, Fong gained another permanent addition to his life while at the Culinary Institute—his wife, Mariah, who is currently taking a break from the restaurant business to be a stay at home mom for their three-year-old daughter.
As the temperature inside the cramped kitchen rises into the mid-90s, Fong wipes at a bead of sweat that’s escaped from beneath his backwards baseball cap, scanning the restaurant’s kitchen impassively while calling out orders, requests, and the occasional rebuke, the calm center amidst a whirlwind of chefs, waiters, and hostesses.
As the Wednesday night dinner rush gets into full swing, Greg Lamson, a Chicago native who moved to New Bern in 2011, takes a seat at the bar and scans the menu. Lamson says he eats at Persimmons 2-3 times a week, coming back for the relaxing, riverside atmosphere as well as the quality food. “I especially enjoy the pulled pork with collards and the duck is great, too. It’s just a really good overall menu,” he says.
Outside on the waterfront deck, Avery Corning enjoys a pre-meal drink and cigar. Corning, an avid outdoorsman, says the restaurant has the best location in town and the food to match. “The fried oyster appetizer is great, and you’ve got to try the sausage plate if you’re an outdoorsman. It’s very unique to here.”
Watching a small boat as it pulls up to the docks beside the restaurant, local business owner Johnny Britt says Persimmons has filled a niche in New Bern’s dinning scene. “I like the way he’s put it together, the Asian-fusion thing,” says Britt.
Taking time out from his chef duties to play the role of host, Fong steps out into the main dinning room to greet customers, shaking hands and inquiring about the quality of the night’s specials, playing out a scene he witnessed hundreds of times as a boy determined to escape his destiny in the restaurant business.
“This is what I live for, but it’s hard sometimes, putting yourself out there for criticism,” he says, heading back towards the kitchen. “But this is what I love; I put my heart on the plate every day and every night.”