By CHELSEA JENSEN
Stephens Media Hawaii
Twenty-five years ago, Chef Peter Merriman opened the doors of his flagship restaurant, Merriman’s Waimea, embarking on a journey that has helped transform the culinary landscape in Hawaii.
Initially, introducing the Hawaii Regional Cuisine-based restaurant in the upcountry paniolo town presented some difficulty, Merriman said. He’d only introduced the concept that melds Hawaii’s unique variety of cultures with the bounty of fresh and delicious foods found locally through simple preparation less than three years earlier at a resort restaurant.
“We were a little slow at the start because people needed to understand what we were trying to do,” Merriman said. “In those days, every restaurant had prime rib — it was the standard way of doing restaurants and we weren’t doing that.”
But things gradually turned around after the Dec. 21, 1988, opening when Merriman figured out just how to get people in the doors to try the relatively new style of cuisine. He took standard continental prime rib and put a “local twist” on it, using Parker Ranch prime rib, cooked over kiawe wood and served with fresh local corn.
“We found different ways to take traditional dishes that people were comfortable with and add a local twist,” Merriman said. “We prepared prime rib in a way that they hadn’t seen before that’s still really good — and they learned to trust us.”
Then, the Waimea gem made the big leagues: a New York Times writer reviewed the restaurant, putting Merriman’s and Hawaii Regional Cuisine on the worldwide culinary map, Merriman said. The New York Times raved, “Everything at Merriman’s features the freshest local ingredients paired in exciting ways.”
“That was a turning point in 1990 when the New York Times stumbled upon us,” Merriman said. “It was enough to keep us going. People were coming to us.”
When he was 16 years old, Merriman, raised in Pittsburgh, began performing grunt kitchen work at H. J. Heinz Co. for chef Ferdinand Metz, who later headed the Culinary Institute of America. After earning his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played football, Merriman headed right back into the kitchen for a three-year apprentice program under the auspices of the American Culinary Federation that took him to various places in the U.S. He also worked at various resorts in Europe.
“I love to eat. Really, I love food and I’m just tantalized by flavors and seeing how great things can taste and I love the process of cooking,” Merriman said about opting for a culinary career. “To me, it’s like a craft, like pottery. Cooking is really an interesting craft.”
The opportunity to come to Hawaii Island came in the early 1980s. At the time, Merriman was a cook at the Four Seasons in Washington, D.C., when he landed a job as a cook at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel when it opened in 1983. There he served the island standard: continental cuisine, featuring French and classic dishes.
In 1985, he applied and was appointed executive chef of the Mauna Lani Resort’s Gallery Restaurant. During his interview for the job, he was asked what type of food he wanted to feature. Without hesitation, he answered, “regional cuisine,” a reflection of the taste he’d gained for local favorites such as chicken long rice, which he enjoyed in the employee cafeteria at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel.
“I’d thought of it, but no one was doing it at the time so it had to be invented, defined,” Merriman said about the new form of cuisine. Merriman would become president of the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement. “It was a really exciting time.”
Hawaii regional cuisine “uses the influences of the local cultures applied on the food that is raised and gathered here,” said Merriman. “It’s any culture that reflects the community.”
However, he soon discovered there were almost no local products available, especially those that could be delivered consistently to support a restaurant and menu. To find local suppliers, he advertised in newspapers and went to the farms, ranches and docks.
“If you locally produce goods and want to sell, I’m interested in buying,” he remembers telling producers. “I did anything it took get something local.”
He believes the partnership to bring local products into restaurants has benefited both Hawaii’s culinary landscape and the producers.
“Location operations are not just continuing, there are new operations springing up,” he said. “There just wasn’t the demand back in the day to help do that.”
Merriman, a self-proclaimed “locavore” — “someone who appreciates eating things that have been grown in the local vicinity” — puts an emphasis on food being raised and gathered here. At his restaurants, his menus are 90 percent locally sourced from Hawaii with Hawaii Island providing the majority of those items.
“Because the quality of the agriculture goods in Hawaii is so incredible it just creates a fantastic dining experience,” Merriman said. “I just love the flavors from Hawaii.”
Only items he cannot get in the state does he source from farther away. Nevertheless, he is open to working with producers to ensure even more of the items that go into his dishes come from local sources.
“We just can’t get enough potatoes,” Merriman said. “And, we can’t get any locally raised poultry.”
More than two decades later, Merriman has been involved with or opened an array of restaurants in Hawaii. He and the restaurant are also major players in supporting the community and various efforts.
He first partnered with TS Restaurants in 1994 to open Hula Grill on Maui before embarking on a journey that has resulted in him opening four restaurants bearing the Merriman’s name: Merriman’s Mediterranean Cafe in Waikoloa, which opened in 2003, Merriman’s Kapalua on Maui, which opened in 2008, and Merriman’s Fish House and Merriman’s Gourmet Pizza and Burgers, which both opened in 2009 in a two-story building located in Poipu, Kauai. That’s in addition to Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman locations on Oahu and Maui, which opened in 2011.
“It feels great,” Merriman said about reaching the 25-year milestone. “I’m lucky — I feel so fortunate to have been able to open a restaurant on the Big Island and have been a part of the whole thing to do business in Hawaii and work for local people and all the wonderful people that we’ve worked with over the years.”
Looking back at the past 25 years, Merriman offered the following advice to anyone who wants to run a successful restaurant: Master the basics of cooking and don’t do something just because it’s currently trending.
“We weren’t trying to create a new phenomenon, we were trying to serve the best tasting food possible and we happened to believe locally sourced food tasted best,” he said. “We didn’t do it because it was cool we did it because it was the best possible thing we could serve to people.”
With the success, came the will to “do the right thing,” said Merriman, noting that is the restaurant’s mission. He is active in the community both on his own and with the restaurant, through a variety of means including making donations, participating in fundraisers and offering for about the past 10 years an annual scholarship covering one year of tuition, approximately $2,000, at an island college for a student interested in the culinary arts.
Looking to the future, Merriman said he has plans to bring his cuisine to more people.
“I want at least one more location,” he said, noting specifically the island of Oahu as a potential site for the “resort-concept” restaurant.
While he hasn’t ruled out expanding Merriman’s to the mainland, particularly the West Coast, he said “we’re not actively pursuing that.”
On Dec. 14, Merriman’s Waimea — known today as “The Home of Hawaii Regional Cuisine” will host an “All Big Island Grown” celebration honoring Big Island farmers, ranchers and the community and will donate $25,000 to five designated local charities: The Food Basket Inc., Hawaii Island United Way, Merriman’s Culinary Scholarship, The Hawaiian Island Land Trust and Kahilu Theatre Foundation.
In conjunction with the silver anniversary, the Waimea eatery is offering a special “All Big Island Grown” menu starting today through Friday. The three-course anniversary menu features grass-fed beef, lamb and local produce, all grown or raised within a few miles of the restaurant.
For more information, visit merrimanshawaii.com or call the Waimea restaurant at 885-6822 or the Waikoloa restaurant at 886-1700.
Email Chelsea Jensen at email@example.com.