Merriman’s Kapalua: “Locavore” for Life
Kiaora Bohlool has been a journalist since 1998. With chefs in her family, she has a lifelong appreciation for food; Kiaora and her husband opened their own family cafe on the mainland in 2011. She shares the stories of Maui’s chefs, restaurants and food trucks as a sampling of the culinary scene, to educate readers on new (and old) places to eat, encourage them to support Maui businesses, and empower them to make their own decisions as diners.
By Kiaora Bohlool
“If you grow it or catch it, I’ll buy it.”
That was the deal back in 1985, when Peter Merriman landed an Executive Chef job at The Gallery Restaurant on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. His goal was to feature “regional cuisine,” but found there were barely any local products available. So Merriman reached out, advertising in newspapers and visiting farms, ranches and docks. He let local producers know he wanted whatever they had, telling them, “We’re in this together.” And together, they helped spur a movement. Thirty years later, “farm-to-table” is a celebrated culinary concept in Hawaiʻi and beyond, and Merriman remains respected as the original “locavore.”
“A locavore is somebody who uses products from the area where we’re at, so everything is sourced locally, fished locally, caught and hunted locally,” explains Merriman’s Kapalua Bar Manager David Horsman. “We’re supporting the local movement, local business and local produce, and everything from our menu is pretty much from the state of Hawaiʻi.”
In fact, Horsman says they strive to have 90% locally-sourced ingredients on the Merriman’s menu, from Kauaʻi shrimp to Hāmākua mushrooms to Waipoli watercress. Some menu highlights include macadamia nut-crusted Monchong, wok-charred Ahi, Tamimi Farms tomato salad, and Kalua pig quesadillas, which Horsman calls “incredible.”
“They cook it down for hours with onions, herbs and spices, white jack cheese,” he explains. “Fresh-to-order with house-made kimchi.”
Besides, it can’t get any more local than the restaurant’s own gardens, which grow along the large outdoor patio space and enjoy an epic view of the Pacific.
“Out in our garden we grow organic oregano, thyme, parsley, garlic chives, Thai basil, lemongrass and lavender,” says Horsman, adding there are also bananas, Calamansi citrus, Kaffir lime and Tahitian lime. “The kitchen uses the basil, all of the different herbs, and then the bar uses the lemongrass, the Thai basil and the lavender.”
Out of 14 garnishes up at the bar, including strawberries, cucumbers, lemons, pineapple and mint, I counted 12 of them as Hawaiʻi products. And a few of the cocktails go local as well, mixing in some of Maui’s own spirits.
“Our philosophy is we’re gonna buy the best olives, so that analogy is ‘we buy the best of everything,’ and you know Ocean Vodka and Old Lahaina Rum: incredible products,” Horsman explains.
This passion for “local” extends to the people. There are kama’aina specials seven days a week at the bar and Tuesday nights in the dining room, featuring 25% off all food for residents. “Bottles of bubbles,” as in champagne and sparkling wine, are 50% off during Sunday brunch.
Along with Merriman’s Kapalua, his flagship Waimea restaurant is still going strong on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, along with Merriman’s Fish House in Pōʻipū, Kauaʻi. Wailea is home to the more casual Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman. There’s another Monkeypod at Ko Olina Resort on Oʻahu, and a new restaurant concept called Moku is apparently coming soon to Kakaʻako near Ala Moana.
A strong start and a bright future, for a culinary game-changer whose mission statement remains, simply, “Do the Right Thing.”
Horsman sums up that mantra. “Whenever you have a choice to do something, you’re always thinking about what is the best thing for everybody. Just to do the right thing for everyone and what you feel is right.”