Thirty years after Peter Merriman’s eponymous restaurant brought farm-to-table fine dining to the Big Island, Merriman’s has finally arrived in Honolulu. The glass-walled restaurant anchors Ward Village’s Anaha luxury condo complex, its 200 seats spilling from a bistro-themed interior to tables on a lanai. Helming the kitchen is executive chef Jon Matsubara, who’s sharpened his skills at New York’s Tabla and Michelin-starred Jean-Georges, and, more recently, at Azure and Bloomingdale’s Forty Carrots in his native Honolulu. Here, we caught up with Matsubara for a quick Q&A.
What was the moment that made you decide to become a chef?
There were two moments. When I was in law school, the professor in civil procedure would call upon people to talk about cases. The guy next to me was going on and on, and I realized that we had read the same thing, but there was no way I could match this guy’s passion. I realized I needed something I could be passionate about. I needed to flip the switch. I was like, I’m out of here.
Russell Siu was a family friend and he was nice enough to set up a stage at the Plaza Club in San Diego. I walked in in my long shirt and Birkenstocks, and it was unbelievable. They were all wearing chef coats and talking a different language: 86 and behind you and things like that. There were meats marinating in rosemary; they were butchering fish. It was high energy, controlled chaos, everybody firing on all cylinders. I instantly fell in love.
I applied at Roy’s and Alan Wong’s. They laughed. You want to work in a kitchen, but you don’t have any experience? I signed up as a part-time dishwasher for both. But the deal was I’ll wash dishes, but I’ll come in early and learn the sauces, help the chef with the meat butchering.
You eventually worked your way up at Alan Wong’s. Why did you leave for New York?
I needed to continue my growth. I thought a perfect transition would be to go to French Culinary Institute, which is a six-month program. Instead of learning how to do knife cuts and stuff, I was working with the chefs and deans, like Jacques Pépin and Jacques Torres. Bouley was one of the top restaurants at the time, and they pretty much slid me in there.
Who are your mentors?
Alan. Chef Dominique [Payraudeau] at French Culinary Institute. Floyd Cardoz [Tabla, Bombay Bread Bar]. Roy. Ernie Nishizaki, who used to be CEO at Kyo-ya. Craig Anderson, who started out as a chef and is now VP of operations at Mauna Kea Resort. My mentors have taught me to seek out mentors who are not just culinarians.
You started out in the ’90s with two original icons of Hawai‘i regional cuisine (Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong), and now your journey brings you to a third, Peter Merriman. What’s changed?
When you’re younger, it’s got to be three-star Michelin. You push yourself and take risks and work for great restaurants and great chefs. ... But the older you get, the more you realize that you have to create an environment where you’re good to your employees and you can pay them well because they work hard. Peter’s menu is ingredient-driven, that’s why people come to Hawai‘i. Local fresh fish, local lamb, Ludovico chicken, Kamuela Farms tomatoes. That’s where Peter and Roy and Alan have done really great; they’ve been able to showcase what’s in Hawai‘i.
At Merriman’s Honolulu we’re using pristine ingredients, not fussing around too much with them, letting the ingredients shine. We have 30 to 40 wines by the glass. A wine bottle list with 350 selections, including half-bottles. An environment that’s superfun with energy and live music. It’s pretty exciting.