Famous chefs don’t become known because of their humility. But as it turns out, their restaurants might.
In this episode of the podcast, I spoke with renowned chef Peter Merriman about his unique approach to hospitality in his restaurants. Why is it that a person always feels welcome when they check-in with his hosts? How does Peter motivate his entire staff to entertain like they are “throwing a party every night,” prepare each and every dish like they are “cooking for their mom,” and consistently go above and beyond to “do the right thing” for every customer they meet?
In this episode, we discuss:
Why service matters as much (if not more) than the food
What are his “vital few” that he focuses on with staff?
The key importance of establishing and maintaining relationships
How Peter hires right, then gives his people a chance to shine
What it means to focus on the “internal customers”
How those who are served can get the most out of our experience as customers
The importance of sustainability, and connecting with the source of our food
How customer demand impacts quality
The importance of humility to the success of any restaurant
Links and More Info:
Peter Merriman has been as a culinary pioneer in Hawaii for 30 years. Known as the original “locavore”, Peter is a vocal champion of Hawaii’s farmers, ranchers and fishermen. His restaurants showcase island grown and harvested foods through simple preparations that reflect the myriad flavors of Hawaii’s multiculturalism. Dubbed the “Pied Piper of Hawaii Regional Cuisine” by The Los Angeles Times, he is a continuing inspiration to Hawaii’s thriving culinary scene.
Peter was raised in Pittsburgh, where a passion for food was instilled in him from a young age. His mother, Woodene, was a noted Pittsburgh Post Gazette food writer, and by the time he was 16, he was doing “grunt work” for Master Chef Ferdinand Metz at the H. J. Heinz Co. (Chef Metz later headed the renowned Culinary Institute of America.)
Pursuing the opportunity to play football, Peter attended The University of Pennsylvania and studied Political Science. After graduation, Merriman enrolled in a three-year Chef's Apprentice Program with RockResorts under the auspices of the American Culinary Federation. The apprenticeship program took Peter to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and to Woodstock, Vermont, where he studied at the Woodstock Inn, under the supervision of Chef Hans Schadler. He then went on to various stints in resort areas across the United States and Europe, including a summer working among the vineyards of France’s Champagne region.
In early 1983, Peter was hired as a cook for the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. He arrived in Hawaii with one suitcase and $75 in his pocket thinking he would stay a few months at the most. But he fell in love with the natural beauty of the islands and the rich culture of the people who live there. In 1985, only two years after his arrival, he was appointed Executive Chef of the Mauna Lani Resort’s new Gallery Restaurant.
Chef & Pioneer of Hawaii Regional Cuisine
At his interview for the chef position at The Gallery Restaurant, Peter was asked what type of food he wanted to feature. Without thinking, he said “regional cuisine” and went on to explain how no other restaurants were serving the local fish and produce. Peter believed that to be able to offer fish that was caught the same morning and to use vegetables harvested the day that they were served was essential to providing the best gourmet Hawaii cuisine.
When Peter got the job, he had to deliver on the concept, but quickly discovered there were almost no local products available.
Peter advertised in the newspapers and went out to the farms, ranches and docks to let local producers know he wanted whatever they had.
“We’re in this together,” he told them, “If you grow it or catch it, I’ll buy it, and we all succeed.” Pretty soon he had built solid partnerships
and local producers would try to get or grow whatever he needed.
As he began recruiting other chefs to focus on local foods, “Hawaii Regional Cuisine” was born with Peter as founding president. Peter says it was just the right thing to do. “We were able to serve the freshest, most flavorful food at the restaurant. The bonus is that it benefits the local economy while helping to preserve the land and the agrarian way of life.
In 1988, Peter opened his signature upcountry restaurant, Merriman’s, in Waimea on the Big Island of Hawaii. He was proclaimed, "A gourmet in cowboy country" by Hana Hou!, the Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines. The New York Times raved “Everything at Merriman’s…features the freshest local ingredients paired in exciting ways,” and San Francisco Magazine exclaimed “His Wok-charred Ahi is to die for!”
It was at Merriman’s Waimea that Peter garnered the attention of the James Beard Foundation and as a result, he was a Finalist in the “Best Chef Northwest & Hawaii” category three distinct times.
In 1994, Peter partnered with TS Restaurants to open Hula Grill on Maui’s famed Ka`anapali Beach. Hula Grill, touted “the best fish house in the islands” by Honolulu Magazine, brought the concepts of Hawaii Regional Cuisine to a beachside setting.
Two more fine dining restaurants were added to the Merriman’s Hawaii group in 2008 and 2009 - Merriman’s Kapalua, on the grounds of the scenic resort on Maui’s West Side, and Merriman’s Fish House in Poipu, Kauai. Downstairs from the fish house, Peter offers casual dining at Merriman’s Gourmet Pizza & Burgers.
In June 2018, Merriman’s Hawaii Group opened for the first time on Oahu, bringing Merriman’s Kaka’ako to Ward Village by Howard Hughes.
In 2011, Peter launched a new venture in casual dining, Handcrafted Restaurants, with restaurateur Bill Terry. Handcrafted Restaurants is a multi-concept restaurant company operating four restaurants across the Hawaiian Islands: Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman in Wailea and Ka’anapali, Maui and Ko Olina Oahu, Moku Kitchen in Kaka’ako, Oahu, and the Beach House in Poipu, Kauai.