Merlin had been expelled from various schools and refused to go to class by the time this happened: “My teachers were sympathetic to my problems and when they saw me discover something that inspired me, they encouraged me to persevere and it wasn’t long until I got my first kitchen job.” Trouble found Merlin, or perhaps the other way around, but either way it was trouble that took him to cooking at first. Food, at home, had been simple fare: “Food wasn’t particularly significant in our home, we ate in order to not be hungry, sometimes with pleasure and often without. That being said, my parents were conscious shoppers and meals were wholesome and healthy where possible.”
The happy accident of a childhood near Riverford, now famous as an organic farm famous for its vegetable boxes, meant Merlin’s family subscribing to vegetable boxes before the trend was one. He left school with a view to cook, and took himself to Switzerland, France, and Belgium, in what would become a six-year stint: “I left school with virtually no GCSE’s and worked my way through some of the top kitchens in Devon before leaving for Switzerland at the age of 18. I learnt to speak French and worked in some very beautiful restaurants, honing my classical skills and slowly falling in love with the Alps.”
This ended in him coming home to the U.K., where he opened Portland. Merlin, together with restaurateurs Will Lander and Daniel Morgenthau, was awarded a Michelin star “within nine months of being open”. He was twenty-four. Not content to rest on his laurels, Merlin, in 2016, “opened a sister restaurant, called Clipstone. It was around the time that Clipstone opened that I started to expand my horizons as a chef and began working on various altruistic projects such as Food for Soul and Help Refugees.”
Since then, doors have opened for Merlin; he has held them open in turn for many behind him, because that is the kind of person he is. Food for good is one way to describe what Merlin Labron-Johnson means to do with such projects. In the light of such feats, that is, the juiciest morsel for which a chef’s career to date seems in hindsight to appear as an appetiser, critics like to contend with what inventions the star might play with yet. Merlin is no stranger to such speculation, but he has found his sense of purpose in Osip, his restaurant in Somerset.
Nowadays, Merlin spends half his salary on dining out. It develops his cuisine, the sort that is on show at Osip, not that Osip has a menu. Instead, they “serve a dinner that celebrates a time and a place in Somerset using ingredients that have been grown by us or by our neighbours.” This time and place can look like, for instance : sourdough broth, black truffle macaron, roebuck with parsnip, grilled purple mustard, and elderberries, and fig leaf ice cream.
Similar to the young boy growing up on the fringes of Dartmoor, Merlin still seems now as he describes himself then “untroubled and content with what we had.” The intensity of Merlin’s work ethic and the leanness of his model allowed him to create compelling new food models, rustled up from nothing. His food programmes play squarely to his strength, which is “providing sustenance for people who need it most.”
Allow other chefs to feed the belly of London. They miss the authentic rapture of a local institution, the laughs, and the altruism people like Merlin and his staff provide. And in the end, they don’t eat any better.
PWB’s brilliant ability to make you laugh and cry simultaneously.””
Shop all you need for some rustic cooking with these kitchen essentials.
From the rolling hills of the West Country, UK where he grew up, to a Masseria in Puglia set on six acres of olive groves, Merlin’s picks will leave you longing for an escape.
The violent delights (and mislaid plans) of beautiful youth make for the best reads. Whether it’s Donna Tartt’s blackly comic portrait of murderous teens, or the repressed longings of Evelyn Waugh, Luke’s list has something for all.
humorous whilst being eloquent and engaging.”
What does the word “taste” mean to you?
It means to experience and to feel something.
Do you have a life motto that you live by?
What was the last thing that made you laugh?
I accidentally bumped into an old friend today that I hadn’t seen since I was 14. We reminisced about the good old days and laughed a lot.
What are your favourite qualities in a human being?
Generosity, humility and patience.
Who is your hero?
What is your biggest flaw?
I have many! I am impatient, often selfish and I have a very short attention span.
What is your best quality?
What would your last meal on earth be?
It would begin with a knockout negroni, involve a good steak tartare with frites and end with a sticky toffee pudding, the only way to go.
What does success mean to you?
Achieving the goals that you set for yourself, no matter what they are.
If you had the power to change anything you wanted in the world, what would you change?
I have been following the recent news surrounding the fire in Moria Refugee camp, Lesvos. I volunteered to cook there and in various other camps and seeing the way these people are treated breaks my heart to the point that I can’t bear to look any more. I wish I could change the world so people didn’t have to live like this.
Merlin's Seasonal Cooking
Merlin Labron-Johnson may have become the youngest Michelin Star British chef, but when it comes to cooking, the simplicity of seasonality is key. Here, Merlin shares his favourite ingredients he looks forward to each season, as well as his favourite autumnal gratin. Serve on its own as a vegetarian course, or as an accompaniment to a roast.ENTER WORKBOOK