The Giving Chef

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Chef, restaurateur and Hawaii Regional Cuisine champion Peter Merriman has an appetite for giving back. Charla Photography photo

Chef, restaurateur and Hawaii Regional Cuisine champion Peter Merriman has an appetite for giving back. Charla Photography photo

Long before he became one of Hawaii’s culinary all-stars, Peter Merriman was voted MVP of the kitchen by his high school football team.

Throughout the season, Merriman’s teammates would gather in his family’s kitchen and watch with anticipation as he whipped up dishes like Steak Diane, gazpacho, onion soup and nicoise salad. “It was about as exotic as you could get at the time,” he laughed.

Born and raised in a steel mill town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Merriman grew up surrounded by food. His mother was an acclaimed food writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; his grandparents cooked what they harvested on their Pennsylvania farm. And, he says, “I was hungry all the time. I’ve always had a big appetite.”

Merriman’s foray into chefdom began at the age of 16 when he landed a gig as an unpaid kitchen assistant to Ferdinand Metz, head chef at the Pittsburgh-headquartered H.J. Heinz Co. When he wasn’t peeling carrots, dicing onions or scrubbing pots and pans, he was studiously observing Metz as he taught evening gourmet cooking classes.

Soon after, Merriman began preparing lavish meals for his family, friends and teammates. By that point, he says, there was no doubt in his mind that he would become a professional chef — but only after taking a four-year detour to the University of Pennsylvania, where he played football (and yes, he cooked for his college teammates, too).

In 1978, with a bachelor’s degree in political science under his belt, Merriman switched gears and started an apprenticeship with RockResorts, a hotel brand founded by Laurance Rockefeller. In the years that followed, he worked in resort and hotel kitchens in Vermont; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.; Washington, D.C.; and Frankfurt, Germany.

Then, in 1982, his phone rang: The newly opened Mauna Lani Bay Hotel on Hawaii island needed a cook. Merriman had never been to Hawaii, but eager for some adventure, he pounced on the opportunity. Within days of arriving, though, he was astonished to find that the cuisine was no different from the style he’d been cooking on the East Coast.

“It was the same continental style,” he recalled. And then there was another startling discovery: Pantries were loaded with canned food; walk-in freezers were stocked with frozen fish; and restaurants were at the mercy of weekly barge arrivals.

A few years later, as the newly minted head chef of Mauna Lani Bay Hotel’s The Gallery restaurant, Merriman staged a culinary coup: He decided to build his menu around locally sourced fish, meat, fruits and vegetables. After placing a classified ad in the newspaper — which catchily advertised “if you grow it, we will buy it” — Merriman began to partner with local farmers, ranchers, fishermen and backyard gardeners (something he continues to do today). While the effort may appear to have been rooted in altruism, he says there was a single driving force at the time. “Fresh food tastes better,” he explained. “The benefit to local farmers and the economy was an added bonus.”

It wasn’t long before food critics began to laud Merriman’s regional style and other chefs started to follow his lead. In 1991, three years after opening Merriman’s Waimea (his first signature restaurant), Merriman invited 11 award-winning chefs from across the state — Sam Choy, Mark Ellman, Roy Yamaguchi, Bev Gannon, Roger Dikon, Amy Ferguson Ota, Jean-Marie Josselin, Philippe Padovani, George Mavrothalassitis, Alan Wong and Gary Strehl — to a symposium on Maui. After a series of meetings and farm tours, the 12 chefs went on to pioneer Hawaii Regional Cuisine, a culinary movement characterized by locally sourced ingredients and a fusion of ethnic flavors.

In 1994, Merriman moved to Maui to open Hula Grill Kaanapali. Since then, he’s opened a number of restaurants — too many to list here — on Maui, Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island. On Maui, Merriman’s Kapalua made its debut in 2008, followed by Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman in Wailea three years later. In 2018, Merriman and his staff will commemorate two milestones: Merriman’s Kapalua will turn 10 and Merriman’s Waimea will celebrate its 30-year anniversary.

To say Merriman enjoys being a chef and restaurateur would be an understatement. “I get to meet and work with so many great people,” he said. “And I get throw a party every night.” All of his restaurants share the same motto: “Do the right thing.” It’s a maxim that Merriman personifies: Apart from hosting fundraisers for local nonprofits at his home and in his restaurants, he has given his time, talent and treasure to a number of worthy causes over the years.

He currently serves on the Hawaii Culinary Education Foundation’s advisory committee, and for the past 17 years, the eponymous Merriman’s Culinary Scholarship program has awarded annual scholarships to students pursuing a culinary arts degree on Hawaii island, Maui and Kauai. A former Boy Scout (who, at the age of 14, won a Boy Scout Camporee contest for cooking a perfect eggs Benedict over a campfire), Merriman has been an ardent supporter of Maui’s Boy Scouts. And since 2010, he has served on the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust’s board of directors, working to protect Hawaii’s lands — an endeavor that’s never far from his mind.

On a flight to Hilo last winter, Merriman struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger, Pomaikai Kaniaupio-Crozier, the conservation manager for the Pu’u Kukui Watershed Preserve, a native forest not far from Merriman’s Kapalua. By the time the plane touched down on the runway, Merriman had devised a plan. Today, Merriman’s patrons can adopt a native tree — koa, ohia or ‘a’ali’i shrubs — to be planted in the preserve through the restaurant’s Plant a Tree, Preserve Our ‘Aina membership program. Program participants will receive an annual invitation to visit Pu’u Kukui and take part in reforestation efforts. The restaurant also donates $1 from every Caesar salad sold to the Friends of Pu’u Kukui Watershed Preserve.

Merriman is clearly devoted to Hawaii’s land, people, food and traditions; he says giving back is a source of pride. “It’s a great honor to give back to a place that’s given me so much,” he said. “Hawaii has been good to me, so I want to be good to Hawaii.”

To learn more about the Plant a Tree, Preserve Our ‘Aina membership program, email eventsmaui@merrimanshawaii.com.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.

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