5-star food with strangers: This chef is bringing a change to Boise with pop-up dinners

·6 min read

Standing underneath the soft glow of three lights hanging above a kitchen island, Jonathon Merrick gently brings a knife’s edge to the tip of a cherry tomato and seamlessly peels the skin off in four clean swipes.

He makes it look easy, but it’s certainly not. He’s already expertly sliced a cross in the tomatoes, blanched them in boiling water for 30 seconds and then dropped them in a bowl of ice water to loosen up the skin. Now it’s just a matter of peeling each tomato clean, cutting them into quarters and cutting out the seeds one-by-one to create a bunch of what Merrick calls “tomato petals.”

From there, he’ll cook the tomato petals in olive oil with salt, thyme and garlic for about two hours. It’s Merrick’s version of Tomato Concasse, but much more in-depth than your standard version of the dish.

Boise chef Jonathon Merrick prepares food at his home kitchen on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. Merrick is known for hosting pop-up dinners and sharing his love of food through his Tik Tok channel.
Boise chef Jonathon Merrick prepares food at his home kitchen on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. Merrick is known for hosting pop-up dinners and sharing his love of food through his Tik Tok channel.

But that’s all par for the course for the Boise-based chef who’s traveled the United States — as well as a stint in Tuscany, Italy — perfecting the culinary arts.

And now he’s ready to share his creations with the Treasure Valley.

In the two years since moving to Boise from New York, Merrick has built a reputation for himself on TikTok under the username @chefmerrick, went viral for his video on an Idaho classic, and has embarked on a new undertaking called Family Meal Boise, a pop-up fine-dining experience right in Merrick’s own home.

“The reason I started the pop-up was probably two main things for me,” Merrick told the Idaho Statesman. “I miss cooking for the public. It’s said that chefs nurture; chefs create things for people to enjoy. Well, a lot of that’s missing when you’re in front of a camera cooking for yourself or maybe a partner.

“Cooking for the public and being able to give somebody amazing experiences and amazing food, and just see them enjoy it and be happy,” he continued. “That’s why I do it.”

Family Meal Boise

In late July, Merrick invited 10 strangers into his apartment to enjoy a five-course Hawaiian-themed pop-up dinner. They all met in a lounge area just outside his apartment that looks out over 16th Street and met each other for the first time over some cocktails and small talk.

By the time the first course was ready — Hawaiian Ahi Poke Tostada — everyone was sitting comfortably around a circular table decorated with flowers, leaves and candles. Just 10 feet away, Merrick and his sous-chef were already hard at work preparing the second course: Hawaiian Kampachi Crudo.

Thai soup, Pork Belly Adobo and Coconut Panna Cotta rounded out the fine-dining experience and Merrick’s first-ever pop-up dinner. Over the course of the evening, strangers became friendly over food in another stranger’s apartment.

Pork Belly Adobo with sushi rice was the main course of Merrick’s five-course Hawaiian pop-up dinner on July 24.
Pork Belly Adobo with sushi rice was the main course of Merrick’s five-course Hawaiian pop-up dinner on July 24.

“We were sitting basically right inside his kitchen at a community table, so we were able to meet each other and share some good food experiences,” one diner said on Merrick’s YouTube channel. “It was really cool to see the chef in his own element, cooking the food and plating the food and bringing it right to our table.”

Merrick got the idea from his experience cooking in restaurants around the country, such as in New York, Boston and San Francisco, and a six-month apprenticeship in Italy.

“Family meal, by definition, is when a restaurant — front, back, chef’s, the whole restaurant — before they open, the restaurant cooks a meal,” Merrick said. “Usually, each station will provide a dish, and when they get off, they all sit down at like 4 or 5 o’clock and enjoy a meal together.

“You sit down, you’re having conversations with people, and you’re building those relationships.”

But instead of continuing that tradition in a restaurant, Merrick wanted to provide the opportunity to the people of Boise.

Merrick’s next dinner is on Sunday and is called a “Late Summer Harvest Dinner.” The menu will feature the likes of pan-roasted salmon, pistachio-crusted lamb loin and cherry gelato.

Merrick’s kitchen was already full of bright peppers, fresh cherries and sliced peaches on Wednesday as he prepared and tested out his menu for the coming weekend.

Family Meal Boise, hosted by Jonathon Merrick, will host its second pop-up dinner on Aug. 21. The theme is a “Late Summer Harvest Dinner.”
Family Meal Boise, hosted by Jonathon Merrick, will host its second pop-up dinner on Aug. 21. The theme is a “Late Summer Harvest Dinner.”

The five-course meal highlights another goal that Merrick wants to emphasize with his pop-up dinners: purchasing produce from local producers and decorations from local stores, which means that the menu he has now may not be the exact same menu that he has on Sunday.

“I’m going to go to the farmers market on Saturday, and I’m going to use whatever is there,” Merrick said. “The way I do it is I try to source local ingredients as much as possible. And I price it out per seat. And then, if I hire a server, I’ll pay the server and pay the staff.”

Merrick said he plans to cook one or two pop-up dinners per month. Those interested can reach out on the Family Meal Boise Instagram page or email Familymealboise@gmail.com.

Adding a positive contribution

Merrick was nearly kicked out of school growing up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He attended a trade school and didn’t like any of the options presented to him: masonry, mechanical work, heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

In a last-ditch effort, he attempted culinary classes.

“It truly did, not just change my life, I really believe it saved my life,” Merrick said.

Falling in love with the culinary arts is a big reason why Merrick now works with Life’s Kitchen, a Boise-based organization that provides young adults 16 to 22 with culinary training while providing charitable meals to community members in need.

“It’s very personal to me because I come from that kind of program,” Merrick said. “And so I get to talk to these kids and share my experience being someone that was in their shoes.”

One college-age student recently asked Merrick if the latter could be his mentor. He grew up just down the road from where Merrick grew up in Pennsylvania and will assist Merrick at Sunday’s pop-up dinner.

“I talked about mentorship, and he never heard anyone talk like that, and he was so excited about what I cooked,” Merrick said. “He asked me to be his mentor, so I think stuff like that is something that the pop-up allows me to do.”

Merrick is also working on other community projects, such as a dinner for post-9/11 veterans, and auction dinners for other charitable organizations.

“I just want to be able to create, cook for people, give them a great experience, and be a positive contribution to the city and the state,” Merrick said. “Whatever that looks like.”

Boise chef Jonathon Merrick prepares food at his home kitchen on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. Merrick is known for hosting pop-up dinners and sharing his love of food through his Tik Tok channel.
Boise chef Jonathon Merrick prepares food at his home kitchen on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. Merrick is known for hosting pop-up dinners and sharing his love of food through his Tik Tok channel.