Postcard from Hawaii: Peter Merriman, the aloha Alice Waters
When it comes to farm-to-table restaurants in Hawaii, all roads lead to Peter Merriman. He’s like the Alice Waters of the islands, forging connections between farmers and diners since he started his first restaurant in 1988.
Today Merriman has five restaurants on three islands and his supply chain is pretty well established. But back in the day, he really had to scramble to find the kinds of products he wanted. Remember, Hawaii consumes more Spam than any other place in the United States.
In fact, when Merriman first started looking for good, locally grown produce, he even put a classified ad in the newspaper in hopes of finding farmers who could supply him.
It’s gotten a lot easier since then, and not just because of the growing popularity of such restaurants.
“Originally we really had to go out and encourage people to grow for us,” he says. “Even into the '90s, we were a kind of a banana republic in Hawaii –- most of the farmland was taken up by sugar cane and a little bit of pineapple grown for export.
“So our timing kind of worked perfectly. The sugar market was going down and that made land available for farmers to come in and grow crops that hadn’t been done before. At the same time, tourism was on the increase, so there was a market that was willing to pay a little more for higher-quality stuff.”
At Merriman’s flagship restaurant on Waimea, he’s even put in a small vegetable and herb garden outside. Not so much for use in the restaurant (though he does love sending bartenders outside to snip herbs for garnish), but to make a statement. The same as the large black-and-white photographs of his favorite suppliers that line the dining room walls, including farmer Erin Lee and rancher Monty Richards.
In fact, Lee grows one of Merriman’s most prized ingredients. While folks from the mainland may be dazzled by the wealth of tropical fruit in Hawaii –- longans, rambutans and mangosteens! –- the prize that eluded Merriman for many years was something we take for granted.
“Vine-ripened tomatoes,” he answers without hesitation when asked about his grail ingredients. “Because it’s so cool here, that’s very hard to do, and there’s a fruit fly that’s a real pest. Erin Lee came in and wanted to sell us basil and mint, but everyone does that. So I told her that what I really wanted was vine-ripened tomatoes.
“One hundred and twenty days later, she showed up with a box of the most beautiful tomatoes. Turns out her farm is at 2,400 feet; that’s too high for the fruit fly, and normally that’s too high for tomatoes to ripen too, but she put them under a cover that kept them warm.”
“I just sliced them and put them on the plate. As much trouble as they had been to grow, I didn’t want to cover them up with anything.”
Another favorite item is beef and lamb that comes from Kahua Ranch, Richards’ sprawling property that is just around the corner.
Every item seems to have a story. There’s the goat cheese maker who walked in one day. “This really hippie-looking couple showed up bringing in these goat cheeses to sell,” he says. “I tasted it and they were wonderful, so I started using it.
“And since I was really proud of it, eventually I put their names on the menu and talked them up. Our waiters would make a point of telling customers that this was the only place in the world you could get that terrific cheese.
“Well, someone wrote about it one weekend and someone at the Department of Health read it. So Monday morning they were out there and guess what … it turned out they had never gotten inspected or gotten a license. They had no health permit and I’d been selling it for a couple of years.
“But I’m really proud: The department worked with them to get them licensed and now they’re the only creamery in the history of Hawaii to get a health department working on the system that they’re using.”
There are similar stories that go along with the Maui Cattle Co. and asparagus growers on that island. And at his Kauai restaurant, it’s all about the connections with local fishermen.
While Merriman is quite justifiably lauded for his work supporting local farmers, he insists that wasn’t his original intent.
“I was inspired by looking for flavor –- it was all about flavor,” he says. “When I started I wasn’t altruistic about it at all. I wanted to serve great-tasting food. But it evolved and it did become a little more altruistic. You can’t spend time with these farmers and go out to their fields without realizing how important it was to help them perpetuate what they were doing.”
Merriman’s Waimea, 65-1227 Opelo Road, Kamuela, Hawaii; (808) 885-6822, merrimanshawaii.com. Also: Merriman’s Fish House, 2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka St., G-149. Koloa, Kauai; (808) 742-8385; Merriman’s Kapalua, One Bay Club Place, Lahaina, Maui; (808) 669-6400.
-- Russ Parsons
Photo credit: Merriman's restaurants.