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John Memering

Photo by Jo McGarry

Cactus Bistro, Kailua

Where were you born and raised?

Eugene, Ore.

Did you grow up around people who loved to cook?

Yes, definitely. Both my grandmothers were great cooks, my mom loved to cook, even my dad liked to cook.

So who was your inspiration as a child?

Well, it was my great aunt who taught me how to make my very first dish – scrambled eggs!

If you could have a dish from your childhood, what would it be?

That’s funny you should ask – I was just thinking about that today. My grandmother used to go to the local butcher’s shop and she’d make a simple ground veal pattie cooked in a pan with just a little butter glaze and served with a béarnaise sauce

You’ve been part of the farm-to-table movement for a long time, but what inspired your detour into the food of the Americas?

I got the opportunity to work as Diana Kennedy’s sous chef about 15 years ago. She was doing a book tour and I worked with her throughout the tour, cooking in San Francisco, Portland and Vancouver.

That must have been fascinating.

It really was. Especially as I’d been classically French-trained, and I’d never really looked at Mexican cuisine before or realized how incredibly complex it is. It practically takes a village to bring some dishes – like mole – to the table.

Your food seems tailor-made for Hawaii. It’s a perfect marriage.

Yes, the food is a natural with our climate. It’s light, it has flavor without being heavy, and it has a lot in common with many of our other local cuisines.

Where do you like to eat on the rare occasions you’re not at the restaurant?

I’m a sucker for a good burger, for sushi … just simple, good foods. Cactus “celebrates the cuisines of the New Americas.” What dish best encapsulates that ?

Probably our Shinsato pork shoulder pernil. We marinade the pork shoulder in garlic, Hawaiian orange juice, cumin and oregano and slow-roast it for three and a half to four hours. We serve it with a tamarind-agave glaze, Waialua mango escabeche and whipped potatoes with Naked Cow jalapeno butter.

With whom would you most like to have dinner at Cactus?

My grandmother, who passed away just as my career was taking off.