He may only have been four when his family moved to Santa Cruz but it would affect him for a lifetime, says Merlin Verrier. “People on the East Coast may not know but Santa Cruz is a huge agricultural area. I remember going to farmer’s markets all the time.”
Now, as director of operations for Graham Elliot, and helping to open his new Greenwich, Connecticut-based restaurant, Primary Food & Drink, Verrier puts that experience to use every day. “I remember eating artichokes and Dungeness crab every February and March because artichokes were four for a dollar, and crab was $2 a pound,” he says.
Verrier says another way he was introduced to great food was going to school with the daughter of the founder of Driscoll's Headquarters, producers of some of the best berries in the world. “At an early age I was exposed to great product,” he says.
Another big influence in Verrier’s life was his mother, who is Indonesian. “I grew up with her cooking a lot of her native food, and so I was exposed to another large amount of foreign ingredients that not every kid would see every single day.”
Over the next few years Verrier experimented with college and culinary schools in Colorado. Verrier says it was great. “Back then you still got a lot of people who had never had any restaurant experience who wanted to be a chef. And then they go to school and try to cook and they realize that they should not be a chef.”
But Chicago – and a girl – took his heart and he moved to Chicago full time. “I didn't need to be a chef. I didn't need to be a sous chef. I just needed to learn at that age.“ And that’s when his luck really kicked in.
“I ran into one of Graham's opening sous chefs, who looked at my resume as I was handing it over to the hostess at this restaurant. He just happened to walk by at that exact time,” says Verrier.
They got talking “and we found out we had mutual friends. He said, ‘I think we have one more position open.’ And, so, I got hired as the last line cook on the opening team at Graham Elliot.”
That was in 2008 and a month later he was promoted to sous chef. “A year later I was, running the kitchen as the chef de cuisine and led us to our first Michelin star. Then we opened our sandwich concept, and I was corporate chef. And for the last couple of years I've been the director of operations and corporate chef,” he says.
As for working with Graham, “We both like people thinking outside the box, a way to add something to this dish. So it's this non-stop progression of keeping these people on their toes and not being a robot, where, ‘here's your recipe, don't ever vary from the recipe and if you do, you're fired.’ It's almost the exact opposite of that. And in that same mold, we are looking to create chefs, not cooks. We want these guys to get involved in the menu develop process, and then also, work on ordering so they know, if you're working the sea station, you know exactly what fish is available, what's coming up, and then you can design menus that way. “
So why did Elliot decide to locate his new restaurant in Greenwich, CT? “We've always enjoyed the culture of the mid-level towns of America, if you will. There's a lot more opportunity in places like Denver, and Austin, that kind of mid-level arena.” Since Elliot got his start as an executive chef at the Jackson House in Vermont. Verrier says, “He’s very comfortable with the East Coast.”
A standout on Primary Food & Drink’s menu is beef stroganoff. “Instead of the classic noodle, we make spaetzle, which is an instant dumpling of southern German origin and we make that with a little bit of black pepper, truffled mushroom puree, a little creme fraiche, some shallot marmalade, a fresh sauté of whatever kind of wild mushroom is in at the time, and a little beef jus,” says Verrier. “It can vary between black trumpets or chanterelles. In the summer we'll do something grilled, and winter time we'll do something a little bit more like a beef tenderloin. And that's our take on beef stroganoff.”
In a town like Greenwich with wealthy residents who are used to fine dining, where does Primary Food & Drink fit in? “It's definitely not a destination restaurant,” he says. “We're just throwing a dinner party every single night. That's what we do and, and that's what we want. We want teenagers to be able to come in and have a good time. And we want 70, 80-year old people to come in and have a good time. And everybody in between. That's, the key, to have a good time. It's not pretentiousness, it's not anything else. It's this really good food but most of all ‘the servers were themselves, the music was great. And we had a good time.’”
Verrier says it’s the same mentality in the kitchen. “You're empowering these employees to be themselves. You're not making them be robotic and have to do A, B, and C. You can be yourself as long as you go from A to C, and get there no matter how you want to get there, but just get there. And that's the thing. It’s a lot of understanding what our customer base needs. And what individual customers need and making notes on that. And being keen to the service part of it. If Mr. and Mrs. Smith like to come in every Tuesday night and they always drink white wine, when they order that, we're going to make notes on that. And we're going to be prepared for those customers, those repeat customers, what they liked and what they didn't like. And making notes and every time they come in it's going to be a better, better, and better experience for them.”
And as for the servers and kitchen staff? “The whole yelling, and demeaning, and disrespecting people in restaurants has been done and gone. We believe in encouraging and empowering our people. I think the French can keep that if they want to.”
Verrier is proud to be part of a culinary world where chefs are revered, unlike 25 years ago, “when cooks were essentially criminals and people that just got out of prison and, didn't have much of an option.” Social media is the way the restaurant will get out the word. “Graham has almost 90,000 Twitter followers. When you have that kind of presence, that’s maybe all you need.”