Peter Merriman.
Peter Merriman

In 1988, the famed chef opened Merriman Waimea.

5 Questions with Hawaii Regional Cuisine Pioneer Peter Merriman

He's creating tasty, sustainable dishes at Merriman Waimea by connecting with Hawaiian farmers while becoming the first carbon-neutral restaurant in the state.

When Peter Merriman first arrived in Hawaii in 1983 to work as a chef in a hotel restaurant, he quickly noticed the majority of food offered in the community was made up of continental cuisine. He hoped to open a restaurant that was more reflective of Hawaiian culture and use ingredients grown locally in his dishes, so in 1988, he opened Merriman Waimea. A couple years later, Merriman helped launch the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement with other chefs to make Hawaii a culinary destination. 

By building relationships with local farmers, the chefs were able to use the resources of Hawaii to create dishes that were reflective of the island, such as Merriman’s Hirabara Farm Earth Grown Lettuce Salad, which uses vegetables grown from its namesake. Now 30 years after he first stepped foot in Hawaii, Merriman Waimea is Hawaii’s first carbon-neutral restaurant, and 90 percent of the ingredients used on the menu are obtained using sustainable practices. By continuously implementing these sustainability practices and introducing new ones, the restaurant has been able to reduce its carbon footprint and has plans to bring these practices to its other Merriman locations in Kauai, Maui, and Oahu. 

What sparked your interest in creating a restaurant that was reflective of local Hawaiian cuisine? 

It was just a desire to do food in a new way. I was a cook at various places in North America and Europe, then I was just kind of traveling around cooking in different places. So when I got offered a job in Hawaii, I was like, sure, Hawaii sounds nice. When I got here, I discovered the food wasn't nearly as exciting as I thought it would be because it was still a plantation economy. At that time, it was mostly sugar and pineapple, and cattle that were exported from Hawaii, and so not much was grown for local consumption. I was disappointed in the lack of fresh food, but I was like, wait a minute, and I started pursuing locally grown products—not so much to be regional, but I just wanted the best flavors and I knew that fresh was best, right? I just want great-tasting food. In pursuit of great taste, I ended up stumbling upon the whole regional sustainability concept.

By feeding a special seaweed to your goats, you’ll be able to limit methane emission by 85 percent and create a goat cheese this year. You also recently switched out 25 percent of wine bottles for those weighing less than three pounds, which cuts down on the amount of carbon emissions. What sustainable practices did Merriman Waimea originally implement to reach carbon neutrality in 2022?

The first thing we had to do was measure our carbon footprint, and just that was really difficult. We worked with GreenPlaces (an organization that provides tools to businesses to track its climate compliance) to get that accomplished. That was probably the biggest part of it. We had a lot of practices already in place, such as solar energy. We recycle almost everything; even our food waste goes to pig farmers. We don't use plastic in our to-go containers or anything like that. So it was just all across the board everywhere we could find the savings and possibly be sustainable. Then we had to measure it, and we still had to buy offsets to get to zero. (By working with GreenPlace, Merriman was able to offset 516 metric tons of carbon by working on the Klawock Heenya Forestry Project in Alaska and the Pacajai REDD+ Rainforest Project in northern Brazil. This year, Merriman is also looking to get involved in offset projects closer to Hawaii.) 

Why is sustainability important to you, and why did you decide to implement sustainable practices in your restaurants?

It seems pretty obvious nowadays that everybody has to do something if we're gonna save human life on the planet. So in that part, I just want to do my part. But in terms of the industry, I love our industry and I think it's a great part of our culture. Going out to eat at restaurants is central to American culture and I want to help perpetuate that in the future. The more we can be sustainable and the more we can do to have a zero carbon input, the more likely we'll be able to continue as an industry and move forward.

Merriman Waimea has a garden on site where guests can pick ingredients, sip on cocktails, and learn about seasonal pairings. How has the garden influenced the menu at the restaurant? 

For our mocktail and cocktail program, Jim Lunchick, our beverage specialist, will see what herbs are coming out of the garden, or if there's a little bit of fruit out there. They're usually exotic fruits like Calamansi (a citrus hybrid fruit made by combining a tangerine and a kumquat) or some type of lime. We’ll design a drink according to what's coming out of our garden at that time. One that's been really popular and is almost always available is “She's So Manhattan,” which is made with shiso and the drink is ‘she is so’. So it's a pun but it's a great drink. But that's what he does with everything. And that's kind of how we do it. We decide what to cook by what's available in the market rather than trying to find what you want to cook. As far as the food menu, since it's more of an herb garden we use other farmers to get our plate items. 

What would you say to restaurant operators who want to make their businesses more sustainable? 

I really hope more and more people in the industry can get involved and see what they can figure out. The more we learn from each other, the synergy will help drive it forward and make the restaurant industry as a whole carbon zero. That’s when we will have accomplished our goal.