More than 30 years ago, chef Peter Merriman landed in Hawaii with very little money in his pocket, very few clothes in his suitcase, and a gig as a cook at the upscale Mauna Lani Bay Hotel. Little did he know he’d not only fall in love with Hawaii but would also become one of its culinary champions. Only five years after he set foot on Hawaiian soil, Merriman opened his own restaurant, Merriman’s, in Waimea, in the Big Island’s more rural upcountry, featuring locally, sustainably grown ingredients. Now he has five restaurants, including Merriman’s Kapalua, Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman, and Hula Grill on Maui’s Ka`anapali Beach. In 2011, he and the other 11 founding chefs of Hawaii Regional Cuisine were inducted to the Hawaii Restaurant Association Hall of Fame. “When it comes to farm-to-table restaurants in Hawaii,” said the Los Angeles Times, “all roads lead to Peter Merriman. He’s like the Alice Waters of the islands, forging connections between farmers and diners.”

The chef who the L.A. Times also called the Pied Piper of Hawaii regional cuisine, was born and raised in Pittsburgh. And although at the University of Pennsylvania he earned his degree in political science, he found his real interest was cooking. So he followed Penn with a three-year chef’s apprentice program at the American Culinary Federation, getting experience in the kitchens of resorts from Woodstock, Vermont, to the Champagne region of France. And then Merriman took that fateful trip to Hawaii, where he has been nominated by the James Foundation for Best Chef/Northwest and Hawaii three times. With dishes like macadamia-nut-crusted monchong (pomfret) and Kahua Ranch lamb with Honopua farms braised collard greens, sweet-corn-jalapeño potato beignets, and cilantro-mint crème fraîche, it’s easy to see why food lovers will follow Merriman anywhere.