John Merrill of Aura at the Seaport Hotel - Boston Rising Stars Revue Host

Photo Credit: Becca Bousquet

John Merrill
Aura at the Seaport Hotel
1 Seaport Lane
Boston, MA 02210
(617) 385 4300

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Amy Tarr:
Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
John Merrill: I began cooking, or experimenting, I should say, as early as I can remember. I always tried to do something different than the norm. At 8 years old, I would marinate my burgers in Italian dressing for neighborhood cookouts, heat up maple syrup and pour it over freshly fallen snow and eat it like candy. My mom cooked every night and instead of sitting on the couch saying, “When is dinner going to be ready?” I would help her prepare it. I maintained my father’s huge vegetable and fruit garden, which helped me to learn about truly fresh produce.

Like many chefs, I was introduced to the industry as a dishwasher at 14 years old. I was always asking the “chef” if I could help him with some food prep. It took off from there when he told me that I should consider going to the CIA for college. The next thing I knew, I was filling out financial aid forms.

AT: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs today? Do you only hire chefs with culinary school backgrounds?
JM: I would definitely recommend culinary school training for any aspiring chef. If one does attend culinary school, it would be a shame not to tap the many great culinary instructors who offer a lifetime of experience and a wealth of knowledge. That said, I do know many very talented, motivated cooks and chefs alike that did not attend school. I wouldn’t hesitate to hire somebody without a degree as long as they have a passion for food and motivation to succeed.

AT: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from them?
JM: There is something that you learn from everybody you work for and along side of on a daily basis. Everyday I remember something that was drilled into my head—whether it was from my brother-in-law when I was a dishwasher at his pizza joint or from a chef during my externship showing me how to set up a station to peel fruit. One of the greatest things about this industry is the varying techniques that different chefs have to get similar results. I’ve learned what it truly means to work hard, and be efficient and organized while multitasking and having fun under intense pressure.

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John Merrill

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 Edible


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Interview Cont'd
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 kitchen tool?
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 forever.

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 cookbooks?
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 Vegas.

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 great beers.

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.

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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   Published: March 2006