75 recipes share one chef’s passion for island cuisine

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PITTSBURGH — For nearly 30 years, Pittsburgh native Peter Merriman has been showcasing the foods and farmers of the Hawaiian islands at his restaurants there.

Now he’s showcasing them in a new cookbook, “Merriman’s Hawaii.”

Published by Story Farm, the gorgeously photographed $39.95 book, by him and his sister-in-law, Melanie P. Merriman, has a foreword by his famous friend, Rick Bayless, and is subtitled “The Chef, the Farmers, the Food, the Islands.”

But his story starts in Pittsburgh, where he grew up as the son of journalist Woodene Merriman, who would go on to become the Post-Gazette’s dining critic.

“I grew up in McKeesport,” he writes in the introduction, describing his father, who worked for US Steel, “and like most kids in the neighborhood, I played football and worshipped the Steelers. Unlike most of the other kids, I was passionate about food and cooking.”

Inspiration: He relates how his mother wrote for the McKeesport Daily News under the pen name Mary McKee, covering home economics, and her column included tested recipes. “It didn’t take long for my smart mother to figure out that she could get her recipes tested and satisfy my enormous appetite by exploiting my interest in cooking.”

He goes on to recount the “lucky break” she helped him get to be an unpaid helper in the kitchen of H.J. Heinz head chef Ferdinand Metz. He chose the University of Pennsylvania over the Culinary Institute of America so he could play football, and worked in the steel mills in the summer, but he started working in restaurants after he graduated in 1978 and wound up in the early 1980s cooking in paradise.

He started to make a name for himself working with farmers to get fresh, locally grown food for his restaurant kitchen, and not for altruistic reasons but because that food tastes better.

As he writes, “I was barely 30 years old, doing farm-to-table before anyone coined that term,” specializing in what he and other pioneer chefs there dubbed Hawaii Regional Cuisine.

Recipes: And that’s what he celebrates in this book, with 75 recipes. Some are from his Merriman’s, Hula Grill and Monkeypod Kitchen restaurants on the islands of Hawaii, Maui and Kauai (three more are on the way), and some are from their personal recipe box.

Most of the recipes and the stories and photos with them reflect the relationships he’s fostered with farmers and fishermen and ranchers.

“I always feel that, as chefs, we’re just a last link of the agricultural chain, if you will,” he says over the phone from his Maui home. “If we’re not getting great food from our farmers, there’s very little chance that we’re going to be able to serve great food to our guests.”

Working with farmers is part of a “do the right thing” philosophy that has earned him the reputation as the “aloha Alice Waters,” as the Los Angeles Times called him. Sprinkled in the book are his loving observations about living and eating in this singular but multicultured place, where he and his wife, Vicki, raised three children.

Proud parents: His mother knows how lucky she’s been to spend winters with her chef son, not only eating a lot of these dishes in his restaurants there, but also trying some as their East Coast daughter-in-law tested them for the book. “I especially love the stories about the local people,” Woody emails from Chevy Chase, Maryland, where she and her husband, Carl, moved from Monroeville two years ago. “I’ve heard about these people for years and met some of them.”

She says that while her food writing might have been an influence, her son had an interest in food “in the family genes. His father started and owned the old Merrimac Bakery in McKeesport, my mother did some catering, etc. I was constantly trying recipes as Peter grew up. One of his dad’s favorite comments was, ‘We won’t print this one, will we?’ He was just too nice to say it was awful.

“But Peter has a real passion for food. It was evident from a very young age. I can still remember him, probably 8 or 10, rushing in the back door after school and asking, ‘Are artichokes in season yet?’ He loved them.”

Substitutions: Some ingredients in this cookbook might seem a little exotic, but with some substitutions, the recipes give you a crack at tasting Merriman’s Hawaii without having to go all the way there. More to the point, he says, they give you a taste of local Hawaiian food, which you can miss as a tourist. “We made them really doable.”

Even though he rarely gets back here, plenty of Pittsburghers who go to Hawaii make a point of visiting his restaurants, which he loves. “I still get Terrible Towels left for me.”

For more information or to buy the book, visit merrimanshawaii.com.

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