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35th Hale ‘Aina Winner: Peter Merriman is Hawai‘i’s Restaurateur of the Year

Thirty years after opening his first restaurant in Waimea on the Big Island and sparking the most influential food movement in Hawai‘i, chef Peter Merriman is just getting started.


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Chef Peter Merriman

Chef Peter Merriman makes a point to visit the farms—including MA‘O Organic Farms in Wai‘anae—from which he sources ingredients. His commitment to local agriculture is one of the reasons he earned Restaurateur of the Year.
Photos: Steve Czerniak

 

The first thing chef Peter Merriman does when he sees Gary Maunakea-Forth, the co-founder and operations manager at MA‘O Organic Farms in Wai‘anae, is hand him a wooden cutting board.

 

And before Maunakea-Forth can ask anything about it—what is it, what’s it made from—Merriman flashes a smile.

 

“Let me tell you a story.” The chef immediately starts talking about Tane Datta, a farmer in Hōnaunau who started growing cinnamon trees. “Way back in the ’80s, Tane heard there were cinnamon trees growing in North Kohala. So he went up there and started scratching trees for the smell,” Merriman says, then laughs at the thought of what he just said. “Anyway, he found some trees and started planting them on his farm. And they’re growing like crazy!”

 

Merriman explains how the cutting boards at Merriman’s Honolulu, which opened this summer in Kaka‘ako, are made from this cinnamon wood. If you smell the boards, you’ll catch a hint of the warm spice.

 

SEE ALSO: 35th Annual Hale ‘Aina Award Winners: The Best Restaurants in Hawai‘i

 

The conversation between the chef and farmer meanders the way of old friends, moving from quick updates to old stories to even a lesson on the history of community-supported agriculture boxes. (According to Maunakea-Forth, it may have started in Japan back in the ’60s, with people paying small local farmers upfront for a season’s worth of produce.) As good as Merriman is in the kitchen, he’s even better with people. His affability and sincerity—and that great laugh—have helped build solid relationships with local farmers, ranchers and fishermen, and he works with dozens of them on every island. Some grow crops exclusively for his restaurants.

 

When Merriman and his partners at Handcrafted Restaurants opened Monkeypod Kitchen in Ko Olina in 2013—his first restaurant on the island—he immediately searched out local farmers and purveyors on O‘ahu, including MA‘O, for fresh ingredients. The same partners launched Moku Kitchen three years later, then he opened Merriman’s Honolulu this summer, and his connections with island farmers are stronger than ever.

 

“It’s really about the kind of relationships you have with people,” Maunakea-Forth says. “You bullshit with each other, then you become friends. That’s always how it starts.”

 

“There are chefs who are good about it, but they’re not as rabid as Peter. Peter wants everything to be local. There’s no one quite like that.” — Gary Maunakea-Forth, co-founder and operations manager at MA‘O Organic Farms in Wai‘anae

 

For his three O‘ahu restaurants, Merriman has weekly standing orders at MA‘O for at least 100 pounds of kale, 10 to 20 pounds of cilantro, up to 100 pounds of citrus and bok choy each, plus lettuce, parsley, radishes, turnips, green onions, bananas and seasonal fruits. Monkeypod chef Jose Gonzalez-Maya, who lives in Wai‘anae, visits MA‘O often and texts farm manager Kaui Sana to ask what’s available that week.

 

A lot of chefs talk about farm-to-table, even build their entire reputations around a commitment, real or exaggerated, to local farmers and ranchers. Merriman is the real deal.

 

“Not all restaurants are doing what Peter is doing,” Maunakea-Forth says. “There are chefs who are good about it, but they’re not as rabid as Peter. Peter wants everything to be local. There’s no one quite like that.”

 

His unwavering support of local agriculture, his successful expansion of O‘ahu restaurants in the past year and his all-around nice guy attitude are a few of the reasons he earned the title of Restaurateur of the Year in the 35th annual Hale ‘Aina Awards.

 

Merriman’s Honolulu

Merriman’s Honolulu: Some of the most popular dishes at Merriman’s latest restaurant on O‘ahu.

 

His Roots

 

Raised in Pittsburgh, Merriman made his first foray into the culinary world doing prep work for master chef Ferdinand Metz at H.J. Heinz Co., a job orchestrated by his mom, a food writer for the city paper. (Metz later went on to become president of the Culinary Institute of America for 21 years.) After earning a degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania, Merriman enrolled in a three-year chef apprentice program with RockResorts, a brand of luxury resorts, and cooked across the U.S. and Europe.

 

In 1983 he had just quit his cooking job at an upscale hotel in Washington, D.C., when a friend told him about a job opening at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel on the Big Island.

 

“I had been unemployed for 15 minutes, then I got a job in Hawai‘i,” Merriman says, laughing.

 

He had never been to the Islands before. So he went to a library and borrowed a few books on Hawai‘i. Immediately, he was curious about how the diversity of cultures would affect the culinary scene and was excited to start his new job in such a wild and foreign place.

 

“I thought it was going to be so cool, with all these different ethnic groups,” he says. “But at the hotel we were serving continental cuisine. Boring as shit.”

 

He joined the Kawaihae Canoe Club, and that experience—the post-race potlucks, the backyard get-togethers—exposed him to local flavors and ingredients.

 

It changed his culinary life.

 

After two years at the Mauna Lani Resort, he was promoted to executive chef of its new Gallery Restaurant. There, he found his chance to infuse the variety of local flavors he had come to love.

 

But there was a problem: Merriman wanted fresh ingredients—and that was something difficult to come by back then.

 

“You couldn’t find fresh basil in Hawai‘i in 1986,” he says. “Basil! I swear! Only Kumu Farms was growing it on Moloka‘i and we were flying it in to the Big Island. Of course, now we know you can just grow your own. But back then, finding fresh basil was out of this world.”

 

He ran classified ads in the local newspaper, asking for local ingredients. “If you grow it or catch it, I’ll buy it,” these ads said.

 

This was about the time when he hooked up with Datta, the Hōnaunau farmer. While Merriman was building a menu focused on local ingredients at the Gallery, Datta was planning his 7.5-acre farm. They worked together to determine what the restaurant needed and what the farm could supply. The rest Datta would pick up from other farmers, transporting produce in coolers in the back of his station wagon to the restaurant. That became, in some ways, the origins of Adaptations Inc., Datta’s company that serves as a distribution center for produce and fruits from more than 100 organic farms all over the Big Island. His own organic farm, located in South Kona, has been growing a variety of crops—edible flowers, herbs, salad greens, avocados, medicinal plants—for more than 15 years.

 

“His genuineness, enthusiasm and respect for other chefs and small growers gave everyone a chance to shine. It also helped all of us to work together, and that has been his impact.” — Tane Datta, Big Island farmer

 

“Peter is very sincere in starting with local ingredients,” Datta says. “He’s curious and truly appreciates people as individuals. He’s willing to try new crops and give people time to develop quality and consistency. His genuineness, enthusiasm and respect for other chefs and small growers gave everyone a chance to shine. It also helped all of us to work together, and that has been his impact.”

 

Back then, Merriman made a point to visit farmers and ranchers, to meet them in person and talk story. Not many chefs, if any, were doing that.

 

“You would meet these really cool people. Smart as can be, hardworking, humble, really good folks,” he says. “You make a connection so easily with these people. What I quickly discovered was I would go to the farm for one reason, but I’d always learn something different, maybe a new product they had or a concept they were working on. Those are the best days, the days you visited the farmers.”

 

SEE ALSO: 35th Hale ‘Aina Winner: The Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Hot Pot in Honolulu

 

Moku Kitchen

Moku Kitchen Happy hour runs from 3 to 5:30 p.m. daily, with half off small plates.

 

Starting a Movement

 

Merriman had quickly developed strong friendships with farmers. Now, he needed to connect with fellow chefs.

 

Back in the late ’80s, restaurants would host guest chefs for special events or dinners. This was one of the few times chefs from other islands would see each other and eat together. Merriman wanted to spend more time with his colleagues, and, he says, that was really the origin of the group that started the Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine movement.

 

“In urban centers [on the Mainland], chefs would get together at some bar,” Merriman says. “But here, since we’re an island state, it was a little hard. Originally, when I put the group together, it was just supposed to be a symposium where we would eat and drink and talk about food.”

 

In 1991, 12 Hawai‘i chefs, led by Merriman, met and did just that: They ate, they drank and they talked a lot about food. On the group’s second meeting, this time on the Big Island, Merriman organized a field trip to Kealakekua to visit farms. It was a first for many of the chefs, who in the past had been too busy working in kitchens to make the trek.

 

Merriman had no idea he was starting a culinary movement in the Islands that would impact the way chefs planned menus, farmers grew food and consumers made choices.

 

“Peter has always been known for his use of local ingredients,” says James Beard Award-winning chef Alan Wong, one of the original HRC members. “He was one of the first to use local produce and put the farmers’ and farms’ names on the menu. Because he did it, other restaurants followed, and that has helped raise awareness for local agriculture in Hawai‘i.”

 

SEE ALSO: 35th Hale ‘Aina Winner: Herringbone Waikīkī is Hawai‘i’s Best New Restaurant

 

Bar at Merriman’s

The décor behind the bar at Merriman’s Honolulu pays homage to the IBM Building across the street.

 

Walking the Walk

 

That movement, though started more than two decades ago, still holds sway in Hawai‘i restaurants. And Merriman is still at the forefront of this farm-to-table revolution.

 

He pays attention to everything, from the quality of lettuce he uses in his salads—the menu declares dirt-grown greens are better than hydroponically grown ones, though he’s starting to change his mind about that—to the details in décor in his restaurants.

 

We’re sitting in one of his booths at Merriman’s Honolulu, his latest venture in Kaka‘ako, and he’s pointing out things I hadn’t noticed: noise-reducing panels in the ceiling and around the bar, a wall design behind the bar that echoes the nearby IBM building, the palaka-patterned tile on the bathroom walls. He cares about all that stuff.

 

“When I first started [in this industry], I thought it was only about the food,” says Merriman, now 62. “Then I realized that service is every bit a part of the dining experience, possibly more important. And even more recently, we’re starting to pay attention to the environment that we’re in, the décor. It’s not all about the chef.”

 

He spends just as much time cultivating stellar service at his restaurants as he does ensuring they consistently deliver high-quality food. It started when he opened his first Merriman’s in Waimea 30 years ago. “We couldn’t afford a manager. It was just me and I was also cooking behind the line,” he says. “So I had to have a pre-service meeting every day.” He had to rely on his waitstaff to essentially manage and train each other. “This has been central to our company culture.”

 

Thirty years later, every restaurant he’s part of implements the pre-service meeting, now common in restaurants—at least the ones that care about service—here and across the country.

 

“The one thing about Peter is that he’s made me a better cook, a better chef and a better person,” says Neil Murphy, Merriman’s corporate chef who moved from New York City to work at the Waimea restaurant 12 years ago. “I thought I was the best at everything, period. But Peter made me a better chef because of the culture [at his restaurants], in the way he runs his restaurants, and the waitstaff’s ability to tell the chef that a dish is no good. He taught me to really take a look in the mirror and, if you want to be better, you have to listen to the critique of others and be mindful of how that critique can improve your cuisine. That will improve your business and make you a better cook. That’s a really hard thing for chefs to do.”

 

Murphy, who has worked with Merriman since moving to the Islands more than a decade ago, echoes what many people in the industry—both in restaurants and agriculture—say about him: Merriman truly walks the walk, and he puts his money behind it.

 

“One thing about Peter is that when it comes to paying the bills, the farmers always get paid first,” Murphy says. “To him, it’s so important to make sure the farmers get their money because nobody is making millions of dollars farming here in Hawai‘i.”

 

SEE ALSO: 35th Hale ‘Aina Winner: How to Help Yourself at a Self-Serve Wine Bar

 

Exterior at Ward

 

Not Slowing Down

 

Now Merriman is busier than ever, with four Merriman’s restaurants, Gourmet Pizza & Burgers on Kaua‘i, Hula Grill on Maui, three Monkeypod Kitchens and Moku Kitchen in Kaka‘ako. He’s always looking for new opportunities, preferably oceanfront in Hawai‘i, and maybe expanding the Monkeypod Kitchen concept to the Mainland. His three kids are all grown—his oldest, Cody, works at Merriman’s Honolulu—and he travels all the time from his home on Maui, especially for work. He reads a lot and swims in the ocean off Spreckelsville most days. And he loves to cook at home, whipping up a spatchcocked chicken at least once a week. (It’s similar to the cast-iron chicken served at Merriman’s Honolulu.)

 

And he has no plans on retiring anytime soon.

 

“I tell the people who work at the restaurant, if they call me Uncle, they’re fired,” he says, laughing.

 

He’s spent most of his career helping to build the careers of others, from wait staffers to farmers. And he never takes credit for it.

 

“There was a confluence of factors—tourism was growing, sugar was leaving the Big Island, all these new farmers were coming in—and I happened to show up in the middle of it,” Merriman says. “That makes me really, really grateful.”

 

READ MORE STORIES BY CATHERINE TOTH FOX

 

 

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