The story of chef and restaurateur Peter Merriman, who is debuting Moku’s Kitchen at SALT at Our Kaka‘ako this fall.
Text by Kelli Gratz | Images by John Hook
At age 14, as a Boy Scout living in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, Peter Merriman could execute a perfect eggs Benedict over a campfire. This skill was a sign of things to come—merely a year later, he realized he wanted to be a chef, partly because of his mother’s influence as a food writer for the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, but mostly because of his great love for food. “Growing up, my mother was a good cook and we ate a lot of ethnic food,” he says. “I would test a few of her recipes, simple things, but it worked out because I always had a huge appetite.”
Through his mother’s culinary connections, at age 16, Merriman got a job doing prep work for master chef Ferdinand Metz, the senior research and development manager at H.J. Heinz Company. After graduating from University of Pennsylvania with a degree in political science in 1978, he enrolled in a three-year chef’s apprentice program with RockResorts, working under chef Hans Schadler, who got him a job at the Intercontinental Hotel in Germany. When Merriman moved back to the United States, he took a job with the Four Seasons in Washington, D.C.
“I didn’t like the job, so I quit, and went home to my sister’s place in D.C.,” he says. “Within 15 minutes, the phone rang, and it’s Hans-Peter Hager from Mauna Lani Bay Hotel saying, ‘Hey, would you like to come out here and be a cook?’ It took me like 10 seconds to figure that out.”
So, in 1983, Merriman arrived on Hawai‘i Island to begin his new job, bringing with him only one bag and $75. He instantly fell in love with the islands’ cultures, intrigued by local dishes like laulau, pork adobo, and chicken long rice. But when he saw what was being served in the hotels, Merriman realized there was something very wrong: The ingredients were imported and frozen, and the cuisine didn’t accurately reflect the society. Determined to improve the quality of restaurant food in the islands, Merriman ended up creating regional cuisine, which later became known as Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine, alongside a handful of other local island chefs.
“We’re talking about the ’80s,” he says. “There weren’t a lot of ingredients, and so we talked to farmers, we advertised, we grew our own. I would actually dive for sea urchin. Whatever it took. We called it ‘guerilla purchasing’ … because it just took every skill you had to figure out how to get something going.”
Since then, Merriman’s accomplishments have come to include being a three-time James Beard Award finalist, and running seven highly acclaimed restaurants throughout the islands. His latest concept, Moku Kitchen, opening in late October at SALT at Our Kaka‘ako, is another homage to Hawai‘i, offering comfort food within a high-energy atmosphere. This 7,000-square-foot eatery will serve the same handcrafted cocktails and 36 beers on tap that can be found at his Monkeypod Kitchen restaurants, with the addition of a rotisserie and casual offerings like hand-tossed pizzas and burgers. “Moku Kitchen is really geared toward the residents of Hawai‘i, who may look for a slightly different fare,” he says. “‘Upcountry downtown’ is our theme, and I think it fits into the ahupua‘a concept of land division.” The kitchen will be utilizing fresh ingredients from local farmers that encompass what is harvested from the mountains to the ocean.
Perpetuating time-honored traditions in food cultivation, Merriman’s mission is to create opportunities to connect with the history of the community. “It’s more interesting for me to go into somebody’s home, of whatever ethnicity, and see what mama’s cooking,” he says. “Because so often, that’s the clues to where great things start, from what has been done in families for generations.”
Moku Kitchen will be located at SALT at Our Kaka‘ako, and is slated to open in late October 2016.