Peter Merriman describes himself as a “young punk shooting his mouth off” when he first proposed the idea of opening a restaurant that focused on regional cuisine. Afterall, the then-28-year-old malihini (newcomer) had just arrived on Hawaii Island, fresh from his native Pittsburgh. Yet, credit Merriman for his chutzpah and youth, and his passion for preparing “great tasting food” that has earned him local and national accolades several times over. And with the recent opening of his first namesake restaurant in trendy Kakaako, Merriman continues, he says, “to do the right thing.”
Do you consider yourself the pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, as we know it today?
Only by accident. When I applied for the executive chef position at the Mauna Lani Resort’s Gallery Restaurant, the general manager asked me, ‘If you could do any type of restaurant, what would it be?’ I shot my mouth off and said regional cuisine. The next day he called and told me I got the job; and by the way, he said, we’re going with that regional cuisine thing you talked about. Me and my big mouth!
Can you describe the early days of Hawaii Regional Cuisine?
It was really exciting. But there were no local products available. We used to have to take out classified ads in newspapers looking for people who wanted to sell any local products to us. Back then, too, chefs were at the mercy of what farmers were growing, not like nowadays when we can approach farmers to grow a specific herb or vegetable. I remember Tane Datta (owner of Adaptations, an organic farm and certified organic warehouse and processing facility on the Big Island) showing us a catalog—it was pre-computer days— of seeds and we highlighted what we wanted. He then went to other farmers in Kealakekua and they determined what seeds would grow best at the different farms.
What’s the history behind a Los Angeles Times writer calling you “The Pied Piper of Hawaii Regional Cuisine?”
This is a funny story. The writer came to eat at my restaurant and at the same time some HRC chefs—whom I won’t name—showed up independently and started taking notes. It didn’t bother me because, as chefs, we all share.
All of your restaurants share a common mission statement: “Do the Right Thing!” What does this mean to you?
Nothing is frozen; we try to source everything local. We want to provide great food without being terribly expensive. We showcase the farmer’s product, not a complicated preparation, so our guests can authentically taste the lettuce organically grown in Waimea; they can enjoy our wonderful, local, vine-ripened tomatoes. I also want people to get used to eating smaller portions of wild-caught fish. We're depleting our oceans of certain fishes so we need to be more sustainable.
People assert that it’s difficult to prescribe to a locavore menu. Do you agree?
I think they’re wrong. In Hawaii, we don’t have this thing called “winter,” so we can grow food year-round. With more Farmers’ Markets sprouting up these days, it’s getting easier to eat locally. I am always eagerly pursuing new technologies in farming, researching earth-friendly restaurant equipment and making any adjustments to lessen any impact that Merriman’s has on the aina (land that feeds). And I really want to encourage people to get used to eating smaller portions of wild-caught fish. We're depleting our oceans of certain fish so we need to better manage what we need versus what we take from the ocean.
What do you think of the next generation of chefs?
You mean the Gen Yers? They’re the real thing. Guys like Ed (Kenney, Town) and Sheldon (Simeon, Tin Roof and Lineage on Maui) have fully embraced regionalism. When we first got into regional cuisine, we did so because we wanted access to fresh food; we weren’t thinking about sustainability or food security. This newer generation of chefs is totally committed to using local ingredients whenever possible. They truly are doing the local thing. And that’s the right thing to do.