AURA AT THE SEAPORT HOTEL | Boston
Growing up on Long Island, New York, Chef John Merrill’s
first encounter with the culinary industry came at the age of 15
when he worked in a local fish market. He received hands on training
in all aspects of the operation – cutting fish, working the
cash registers, stuffing clams, and even cleaning the floors. Despite
the hard work, he enjoyed every minute, and when he was offered
a job working at his brother-in-law’s pizza shop, he jumped
at the opportunity.
Recognizing his love for the industry, Merrill attended the Culinary
Institute of America in 1988. He moved to Hartford, Connecticut
the following year for his externship at the JP Morgan Hotel, a
four-star property. After receiving his diploma from the CIA, Chef
Merrill was recruited by a former colleague to work at the Reach
Resort in Key West, Florida. Starting as a Line Cook at the 230-suite
property, he quickly moved to AM Sous Chef and worked to perfect
the upscale cuisine which focused on regional flavors and products.
It was at the Reach Resort that Chef Merrill was presented with
a tremendous, albeit stressful, opportunity. Revolutionary chef
Julia Child was scheduled to have dinner at the resort, just days
after the executive chef left his position. Chef Merrill seized
the opportunity. Working on nervous energy and little sleep, he
created a five course meal for Ms. Child. “It was, and remains,
the highlight of my career,” said Merrill. “I initially
thought I made the portions too large but she ate everything and
thoroughly enjoyed the meal. As a chef, creating a meal for a pioneer
like Ms. Child is the ultimate thrill.”
Chef Merrill was soon able to work with another renowned chef when
Patrick Kemmach from France joined the resort’s culinary team.
Under his tutelage, Chef Merrill was promoted to Executive Sous
Chef, in charge of banquets and the dining room.
Looking to expand his culinary experience, Chef Merrill moved to
back to New England, this time to Marblehead, Massachusetts. He
soon joined the staff of the Boston Harbor Hotel, where he met many
young colleagues and worked as a Garde Manage Chef for over a year
under the direction of Executive Chef Daniel Bruce.
When the frenetic pace of the hospitality industry began wearing
on him, Chef Merrill opened a gourmet catering company with a partner
in Weston, Massachusetts. The business also featured a small shop,
which offered high-end, homemade cuisine, available for take-out.
Both divisions of the company quickly attracted a loyal following.
Eventually, Chef Merrill yearned to rejoin the fast-paced environment
of the Boston restaurant scene. In 1998, he contacted Chef Ed Doyle,
with whom he had worked previously at the Boston Harbor Hotel. Chef
Doyle was opening Aura in the new Seaport Hotel and was
looking to hire an Executive Sous Chef. Chef Merrill quickly accepted
the position and worked at honing his craft for over a year. He
was promoted to Aura Chef in 1999. In addition to working
with the line staff, he creates new menus and works with the purchasing
department to ensure the finest local products were available to
the culinary team.
In 2001, Aura was presented with the AAA Four Diamond
award for providing exceptional cuisine and excellent service in
an elegant dining atmosphere. It is a distinction that the restaurant
has retained for the past five years. During Chef Merrill’s
tenure, Aura was named “Best Upscale Seafood Restaurant”
by Boston magazine in their 2003 “Best of Boston”
issue, further integrating itself within Boston’s thriving
restaurant scene. Most recently, Aura received Wine Spectator’s
“Award of Excellence”.
Chef Merrill is an active participant in various culinary organizations
including Chefs Collaborative and the American Culinary Federation.
Always interested in sharing his craft, he has participated in many
cooking classes including Share Our Strength’s Operation Frontline
and numerous cooking events and demonstrations including “Ready,
Set, Cook” for the Food Network, The Boston Wine
Expo, The Anthony Spinazzola Gala Festival of Wine & Food, and
AT: What is your philosophy
on food and dining?
JM: As long as the food is
fresh, flavorful and appealing, the operation has friendly front
and back of the house staff, and a comfortable environment, chances
are, you will have an enjoyable dining experience.
AT: Are there any secret ingredients
that you especially like?
JM: I think you need to think
about how you want the end product to taste and try and get there
with the best ingredients possible. I like to balance certain sauces
with different vinegars, honey, and Tabasco sauce.
AT: What flavor combinations
do you favor?
JM: I love all the combinations
that have to do with sushi for instance, but I wouldn’t want
pickled ginger, wasabe, and tamari soy sauce on a burger…
wait, that sounds pretty good. I enjoy dishes that include different
combinations of crunchy, sweet and salty.
AT: What is your most indispensable
JM: A Japanese mandolin and
a tilt skillet. I don’t think I would be able to get by without
them. They’re very versatile and, if taken care of, will last
AT: What is your favorite
question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
JM: I always look for energy,
desire, commitment and love of food. I honestly don’t have
a favorite question to ask. Everybody interviews so differently.
AT: What tips would you offer
young chefs just getting started?
JM: Do some research on the
industry facts. There is so much information available these days.
You’d be silly not to take advantage of it, and determine
if you have what it takes to make it in the field. It takes a certain
commitment to make it in this industry. Don’t be afraid of
falling down a couple of times. As long as you get back up and try
even harder the next time, you’ll usually be OK. If you really
want to become a chef, learn from everyone you get a chance to work
with and use perseverance.
AT: What are your favorite
JM: I like the traditional
cookbooks. They’re more like encyclopedias and dictionaries
to me. Books like Escoffier, the New Professional Chef, and
The French Chef Cookbook by Julia Child. It’s cool to
learn the origin of certain classical dishes and techniques. Usually
when I finger through the pages of books like those it sparks ideas
for different combinations, flavors and spins to place on some of
the classics without completely bastardizing them.
AT: What cities do you like
for culinary travel?
JM: Of course Boston is a no-brainer.
The other places I’ve enjoyed are Miami, Jamaica, NYC, San
Francisco, and Napa Valley. I would love to get to Chicago and Las
AT: What are your favorite
restaurants –off the beaten path – in Boston?
JM: I love Chinatown, different
restaurants for different desires, at different times, all very
versatile. I like Ginza for late night sushi. Red Bones BBQ is always
a great place to chow down on some unpretentious BBQ and try some
AT: Why hotels?
JM: I got out of it for a short
time, and I also worked in small places growing up before going
to culinary school. I love it – the constant change of pace.
The challenge of 24-hour operations is giving high quality across
the board -- with only 3 or 4 cooks! The dreaded pancake room service
order in the middle of cooking the dinner service is always fun!
AT: How does being in a hotel
impact your menus?
JM: You have to satisfy your
guests all the time but still introduce new flavors. I’ve
tried to introduce certain things. There is only so much rabbit
a non-destination customer is going to buy. Foie gras is another
example. I love it, but I tend to stay away from it. It’s
also a hot-button topic. I’ll save it for special menus.
AT: Tell me about your use
of sustainable seafood and agriculture?
JM: I try to stay as local
as possible. But certain times of the year you have to look beyond.
As long as the quality is perfect somewhere, then I’ll use
it. I get a lot of emails from industry sources—we have to
watch out for Chilean sea bass for example. Monkfish liver is a
prized Japanese ingredient, but the tails are being discarded, so
we’ll use them. We support the local industry and what it
means to the local economy, even if the product is more expensive.
AT: Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
JM: Maybe being executive chef
of a boutique, 5-star hotel in Greenwich Village.
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