Peter Merriman traces his passion for food all the way back to a Pittsburgh childhood of fried bologna sandwiches, piroshki, and cherries jubilee. “I liked everything,” he says simply. His mother was a food writer, so a reverence for artful cuisine was in the family. As a young man, Merriman cooked in Vermont, Martha’s Vineyard, the Grand Tetons. He cooked in Frankfurt, where the Germans schooled him in precision and detail. In his late twenties, he took a job cooking at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel, his entrée to Hawai‘i—but while he was thrilled to be in the Islands, he was disappointed to discover that hotel food in Hawai‘i was clichéd and colonial. When he interviewed for a job at a new restaurant, he was asked what type of cuisine he would do if he could do anything. “Local cuisine,” he shot back. He got the job, and from it grew his commitment to what would become the Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine movement, a movement that has transformed the food that is now served in Hawai‘i’s restaurants.
It was 1988 when Merriman opened his first restaurant. It was in Waimea, and, he says, the first chef-owned Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine establishment. The emphasis was on fresh ingredients, local relevance, creativity, cultural fusion, great tastes. Today Merriman owns ten restaurants across the Islands, including three in Maui, and the emphasis on place and artistry has remained: The restaurants offer high quality, high volume, high times. Looking back, Merriman says he is most proud of the relationships that he’s built with farmers and ranchers. “We are satisfied when we see people who have built careers,” he says, “and we know we were among their earliest customers.” He is also gratified to see the influence and staying power of Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine: “It’s provided jobs for thousands of people.”
As for food, he still likes eating everything. His choices are healthier now, he likes fresh things, has a passion for Mexican food. But the apotheosis, his very favorite thing of all to eat, is a good cheeseburger. “‘If you’re going to eat a cheeseburger,’” he says, “‘make it a good one.’ That’s one of my rules for life.”