Quote Unquote: The Scoop on Chef Peter Merriman’s First O‘ahu Restaurant

The popular Big Island restaurant, Merriman’s is opening a second location on O‘ahu next year.
Photo: David Croxford

For more than 25 years, Peter Merriman, award-winning chef, restaurateur and a founding member of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, has championed local food producers. At 59, he runs six restaurants—with more opening soon. He penned his first cookbook, Merriman’s Hawai‘i, The Chef, The Farmer, The Food, The Islands, last December and will open two more O‘ahu locations—Moku Kitchen in March and O‘ahu’s first Merriman’s in 2017, both in Kaka‘ako. He’s even blogged about politics for The Huffington Post. Seriously.


IN THE EARLY DAYS, when we were just starting Merriman’s in 1988, some people told me I was crazy. People didn’t get it. I think there was a little bit of an inferiority complex in Hawai‘i in the ’80s. People felt like we had to get as close to continental cuisine as we possibly could, to bring in those same ingredients. I remember I once told one of my cooks that I got a farmer to grow fresh English peas, because I love those. And he said, “There’s no such thing as fresh peas.” That’s a true story!


MY GUILTY PLEASURE? I love mayonnaise. On everything. And if I don’t make it myself—it’s so easy to make—it’s gotta be Best Foods. I always have a big jar of that in the fridge. I’ll dip Triscuits in it like a dip. I do all kinds of things with mayonnaise. I mix it with sambal and shoyu. I have to try and think about what I don’t put it on. I don’t put it on cereal.


MY FAVORITE ingredient I’m using right now is vinegar. If I’m making something that uses red wine, I’ll often put a splash of red-wine vinegar right at the end. You won’t know it’s vinegar and it will burst the red-wine flavors.


THE ONE THING I will never eat is raw liver. It’s called ake in Hawaiian. That one’s not going to work for me. I’ll eat liver and onions only if I cook it myself—or if I really trust the cook.


MY FAVORITE DISH from my childhood is Swedish meatballs. My mom used to make them. The caraway and the sour cream and the sauce; it was just a broad range of flavors. I grew up in Pittsburgh and it’s cold and this was wholesome.


I LOVE THAT my job is constantly different. We have to do everything, from being creative as an artist designing and developing the food, to being an accountant and mechanical repairman and psychologist. It’s really fun to be able to move through all these different aspects.


IF I WEREN’T a chef, I’d be an architect. Architecture is about design, and food is a lot about design. Architecture should, to me, be evocative and tell people how to act in a space or building. Food has some similarities. Do you eat with your hands? Do you eat off a white tablecloth? It’s about the interface between the human interaction and the art you provide. I think all restaurateurs are frustrated architects.


I REALLY WANT to encourage people to eat smaller portions of wild-caught fish. We’ve tried it, and it just hasn’t caught on. Think about if you have a six-ounce portion of fish and you only serve three. You’re doubling your supply. It’s as simple as that. A lot of our customers are accustomed to that (larger) fish portion, so we try to pair three ounces of wild-caught fish with three ounces of something grown in aquaculture like shrimp from Kaua‘i. We need to manage our fisheries better. That’s what I really want to do. 


Did you know? Merriman took home his 18th consecutive Gold Award for Best Big Island Restaurant at the 2016 Hale ‘Aina Awards.