Bartender Mary Connor Jones of Ecco on Overton Park shares her story of family, cocktails and confidence.
Food has always been a very big part of my family. Having Sunday dinner, or any dinner really. If it was a birthday celebration it was known that it was going to be a big feast. The parties were always centered around the food at my house and our life revolved around the dining room table.
For special occasions it would always be something that would be braised for a long time or a sauce that would be on the stove all day. The more effort you put in, the more people get excited about it. It feels like a gift to the occasion. My mother, a Tonole, is definitely an Italian cook. She almost always cooks Italian food. Growing up she always wanted to teach me things. Cooking for her was a big deal. My mom grew up cooking with her mother. I never really got to know my grandparents because they were only around when I was really young. But from what I’ve been told, both my grandfather and my grandmother loved to cook. My family always talks about these staple meals they would cook together. They still rave about my grandfather’s braised veal.
I started cooking when I was about seven-years-old. I was in the kitchen before that, but that’s when I started holding knives and cooking my own meals, or helping at least. When I was about 12, I started making my own dinners. I felt really grown up and independent when my mom would come home, and I was able to say, ‘I already made dinner.’ I always liked that part of it.
I don’t know anything about Italian culture necessarily, aside from visiting a couple years ago, but Italian cooking was a huge part in my upbringing and my family’s life. I feel like in Italian families everyone always has their one dish they love to cook. My mom is definitely a lasagna woman, 100 percent. I loved learning how to make lasagna, and now I’m very proud to say, and she’ll admit this, that my lasagna is better than hers. But, I’m still figuring out my staple dish.
Growing up, I had a group of friends that all loved to cook too, so that is what we would do when we got together. I remember specifically in sixth grade when friends would come over, and we would just cook all weekend.
I still love for my friends to come over and either make a meal with them or have something prepared. I think one of my favorite parts of cooking is having everything set up on the table and people being like, ‘Ooooh wow! Presentation!’ Obviously it feels good to present something to people and see that they are impressed. That definitely carries over to how I feel about bartending.
Also that whole vibe of being around the dining room table with your family and friends — having conversations fueled by the food — is very similar to the ‘bar vibe.’ Everyone is all around you eating and drinking and talking about their food and their drinks. Everytime we have dinners at my house we almost always only talk about the food.
My mom has been in AA ever since I remember, so she’s never drank around me. But, she has always been incredibly supportive of everything I do, even bartending, and even though she doesn’t drink I know that she can understand the flavors. I use a lot of herbs, produce and savory ingredients that she knows and understands. So she still helps me grow as a bartender by relating cocktails to her own cooking experience.
I had a pretty classic ‘started drinking in highschool’ story and I’m pretty sure my first drink was Pink Lemonade Burnetts mixed into a Sonic slush, which is about as far as it could be from what I drink now. I was just trying to get the job done and would prepare myself for the next morning’s hangover.
My first job in the industry was hostessing at Local Midtown on the Square when I was 17. I moved up to serving and then to bartending. But it’s so weird to even think about me bartending there. I made Old-Fashioneds, but the Old-Fashioned I learned there is nothing like I make now. That drink was definitely like the peak of the cocktail arena while I was there. I was mostly slinging beers and pouring vodka sodas. I was probably only bartending out of necessity because there definitely weren’t many employees working there at the time. It felt good to go up the ‘food’ chain.
The bulk of what I learned there was how to deal with difficult customers. I’m happy to say I don’t deal with that many now.
One thing I’ve always struggled with is my confidence, especially when I was a younger bartender. People don’t think I know my shit because I look so young. Like one time this customer condescendingly asked me, ‘Oh, you know how to make an Old-Fashioned? Well tell me then,’ and I told them how I was instructed to make one at Local and they were like, ‘Nevermind. I’ll take a beer.’ I just felt so defeated. I definitely still struggle with my confidence, and, though it's probably all in my head, I think people get this ‘baby-faced blonde girl’ impression of me. I really do like when I can show off my knowledge to people and watch them change their attitudes.
When I first started working at Ecco in 2017 it was definitely a wine-centric bar, and I suppose it still is in some ways. I love wine, so that isn’t a problem for me, and honestly I get a lot of inspiration from drinking wine and developing my palate that way.
In the past couple years we’ve tried to push the cocktails more, and we’ve definitely seen our cocktail sales start surpassing wine sales. People seem more excited about cocktails now.
Even though I pride myself on creating an extensive cocktail list with fun ingredients, people by far will still just ask for classic cocktails like Old-Fashioneds and Manhattans. So I do think understanding the classics is extremely important, but it’s important to be able to tailor things for people as well.
My go-to drink is a Campari Spritz, an Aperol Spritz sub Campari. My coworkers joke that it's my fuel, and it kind of is. After a long night of working it’s just so refreshing. And I just fucking love Campari.
The cocktails I come up with are generally more intricate and time consuming. It’s just the kind of person that I am. If I think a drink can be better, I want to make it better. Something I’ve been trying to work on is realizing that adding another ingredient may not elevate a cocktail to another place. I think simplicity is something that is very important. I'm trying to learn to take things out of cocktails if I feel its masking other flavors.
When you’re making classic cocktails I believe technique is really important. Stirring the right things, so on. But, as far as creating your own cocktails and putting together a cocktail list, I really think creativity is the most important part. I love when people look at the ingredients in a cocktail and say, ‘Wow, how would that even work?’
When I put together a new cocktail, I really try to focus on the flavor profile I’m trying to create. I love to cook, so I really think about the palate and different tastes. I like to look at different cuisines from around the world. Recently, I’ve been trying to come up with a Thai inspired drink that utilizes mangoes, coconuts or Thai red chiles. I think eating certain things or going to grocery stores like Viet Hoa or the Cordova Farmers’ Market and trying atypical produce gives me a lot of different inspirations.
I think there is something really special about growing your own herbs as well. Mainly because when you can harvest your own herbs and use them in cocktails immediately, you're using them at the peak of their freshness. At Ecco specifically, I’m thankful to have Sabine, the owner, who plants this amazing, gorgeous garden with an abundance of herbs. Even going out and looking at the garden gives me some inspiration. But being able to use your own mint or rosemary or sage really gives your cocktail an extra edge.
I really love working at Ecco in general. I think my favorite thing is the amount of creative freedom. They always support me without hesitation when I ask them to special order something, whether it’s produce or spirits. And when things don’t work out they never hold it against me. Ecco has really become my second family, and Sabine is definitely like my second mom. I love her so much, really. Especially during quarantine, they’ve really shown us how caring they are and how they really would do anything for me or the rest of the staff. I’m so grateful to work in a place like that where the people truly care about me.
Quarantine really changed almost all aspects of my life—from family dinners to work. Since I live right around the corner from Ecco, I stayed on staff and helped with to go orders for the first few weeks, and eventually began making the to-go cocktails when the city started allowing it. I’m not crazy about them, but I definitely get it. I’ve enjoyed them myself, but it’s missing probably 75 percent of the whole experience. You’re missing the show of somebody making it in front of you, the conversation about the drink with the bartender, the presentation, the glassware and the freshness. Just having a drink handed to you while sitting at the bar is just a huge part of the experience.I don’t think purchasing it ready to go in a plastic cup really captures that feeling, and I hope people realize that when we open back up.
A Bit of Earth
The whole idea of this cocktail stems from being determined to make a drink with avocados, because I love avocados. It feels like a flavor I’ve never really experienced with a cocktail. Originally I used the Letherbee Vernal Gin from Chicago, which was flavored with bell peppers and pepperoncinis along with the typical gin botanicals. It’s seasonal and is limited in production, so it wasn’t really possible to continue buying this specific gin. I wanted to recreate that flavor, so I infused a dry gin with sweet Italian bell peppers, lemon zest, serrano peppers and cucumbers. It has avocado— obviously—Chareau Aloe Liqueur, lime juice and a little simple syrup. It tastes fresh and ‘green.’ It’s a really easy drinking cocktail for spring or summer.
The name ‘A Bit of Earth’ comes from the “The Secret Garden,” which was a big part of my childhood. My mom used to always call me ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.’ But at one point in the book the character, Mary, asks for a bit of earth so she can watch things grow. I really think the drink tastes like a garden. It is a somewhat time consuming drink, so when I get multiple tickets for ‘A Bit of Earth’, it can be a bitch. At the same time though, it makes me really happy to see people enjoying it! I just feel that the drink is really authentically me, and I’m proud of that.
1.5 oz House made Vernal Gin
0.5 oz Chareau Aloe Liqueur
0.5 oz Simple
1 oz Lime
1/4 of an avocado
Muddle avocado. Hard shake with ice. Double strain into coupe glass. Garnish with 3 olive oil dots of various sizes.
House Made Vernal Gin Recipe
1 bottle of gin
1 cucumber cut into pieces
6 sweet Italian pepper cut into pieces.
Peel of 1 lemon
1/4 of serrano pepper