Of course, Merrill is used to a full schedule. While working on his undergraduate degree at Rhodes College in Memphis, he took a job as a prep cook for a French restaurant where speed was de rigueur. “The very first day I was there, Martha, who was the chef, said, ‘I need these carrots peeled.’ So I’m slowly peeling the carrots, and she looks at me and says, ‘Thomas! See that 50-pound bag of carrots? Those are for dinner tonight. This is how you peel carrots,’” Merrill says, gesticulating in a rapid peeling motion. Eventually, Merrill mastered the art of the quick chop. “My wife is always amazed at how fast I do things,” he says. “I can make a lot of food in a short amount of time. A lot of it is my technique but also being able to multitask. It’s just a matter of timing.”
Merrill’s multitasking skills served him well when he came to Cincinnati in 1990 to earn a doctorate at the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music. While writing his dissertation, he worked as a captain waiter at the Celestial restaurant at night and the manager of the Chateau Pomije Wine Store during the day.
Today, his affection for fine food and wine translates to his personal kitchen, where he prepares a late dinner for his wife and daughter every night after a full day of rehearsals. “We never, ever go out,” Merrill says. “It’s really important for us to always eat dinner together as a family, and we do that whenever we can. I always grab something on the way home, but it’s something I’m going to cook.” Merrill admits he leans toward French cooking—inspired by his early training—followed closely by Italian cuisine because of its fresh herbs and pastas. He also enjoys inviting friends over for a multicourse meal. Printed menus often include items such as smoked salmon with capers and onions, a delicate carrot soup with dill pesto, lamb with mashed potatoes flavored with truffle oil and, of course, a salad. “We always do the salad after the dinner because it’s a French thing,” he explains. “And by then you’re almost done drinking the wine and then the vinegar in the salad doesn’t conflict with the wine.” Dessert is usually light, such as a crème brulee or some mixed berries drizzled with sabayon. One item that may soon make it to his menu is quail. Merrill manages to carve out time—usually during one of Xavier’s academic breaks—for an annual quail hunt in Washington State with his father. “I started out duck hunting when I was in seventh grade with my dad down in Houston,” he says. “Half the reason I do it is it’s a chance to be with my dad because I rarely get to see him.”
Recently, Merrill found another passion that requires a lot of scheduling: running. Inspired by a friend, he joined a running group and slowly worked his way up to the marathon circuit. “The group I run with is called Galloway, and the motto is ‘run injury-free.’ I like it because they always incorporate walking into the running.” So far, he has run two marathons: Cincinnati’s Flying Pig and the Air Force Marathon. But even Merrill couldn’t fit a third one on his calendar and took a season off. However, that hasn’t deterred him. “I plan on running another marathon in the spring,” he says. “My default is always the Pig, but I’m also looking at the Marine Corps, which is in D.C., and there’s another one where my folks live, in Carmel. You start at Sur and you run to Carmel, and it’s all along the coast highway. So I’d be very anxious in running that one. I think that would be really cool.”