Awarded a Michelin star only nine months after having opened his first restaurant, Merlin Labron-Johnson might be very young –he won the prestigious award as head chef at Portland at only 24- but he knows what he is doing. An accomplished chef trained in France, Switzerland and Belgium, he is behind two sought after London restaurants: Michelin starred Portland, and the more informal Clipstone, located a mere two minutes walk apart in Fitzrovia.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BECOME A CHEF?
I’ve always loved food and grew up eating good quality food, which was an important part of our life. When I was about 14 or 15, I got into cooking at school. We had one cook who would cook for the entire school. It was very good food but quite expensive or you could have lunches that your parents would prepare. I had the lunches because we couldn’t afford the school’s food but I wanted to have it so I would make deals with the chef. Like if I helped washing up or if I helped peeling potatoes then she would let me eat. The more I helped her, the more I started to enjoy it and found that more interesting than actually studying.
I started spending a lot of my time in the kitchen with her and then got a job next door at a private cookery school when I saw an advert in the window for a chef’s assistant. I basically would assist the chef as he was teaching a class, so I got to almost see the class without paying. I’d be doing washing-up and other stuff and that was kind of the beginning.
HOW DID IT FEEL TO RECEIVE A MICHELIN STAR AT 24?
So we opened Portland and nine months after we opened we got the star. I didn’t know that was even possible so it was a complete shock. We had been working really hard so it was a nice reward.
HOW HAS PORTLAND CHANGED SINCE IT FIRST OPENED – WHEN YOU HAD A LONG MENU, WERE SERVING BREAKFAST, ETC?
When we opened we didn’t really know what kind of restaurant we wanted. We had ideas about the style of service and we knew a lot about what we didn’t like in restaurants, but we didn’t know what we wanted the restaurant to be. In a way we kind of let the guests determine it… we listened a lot to what they like and didn’t like, but also we built a team of very talented and ambitious people who made the restaurant more ambitious.
We started off doing breakfast, lunch and dinner with a long menu. We have a very small kitchen and realized that we could cook at a much higher standard if we did less things and concentrated in perfecting these little things we do. So we ended up doing a three, three, three menu which is three starters, three mains, three desserts, which is kind of inspired by restaurants in Paris like Frenchie and that’s kind of what I wanted it to be like.
Then a year ago we started to do a smaller tasting menu which is all just a product of us figuring out what can be achieved in our small kitchen with limited equipment.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE EXPERIENCE AT PORTLAND?
We want people to come to Portland and feel that they are somewhere special getting very special attention, but in a very relaxed and welcoming way. What we do here is accessible. It’s not like people are feeling that they are having a fine dining stuffy experience. It has to be fun. We are welcoming them in our home and the food they eat food is interesting and different without being pretentious.
And I also think that it’s for everybody. Not for only foodies. or only rich people, or only cool people. Everybody can come here and think, “oh, this is nice.” It is a different experience with different flavour combinations and different presentations. We also like to honour the suppliers and farmers we work with by choosing the best possible product we can find and cook them quite simply.
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE YOUR COOKING STYLE?
I would say it is heavily influenced by the time I spent in France and Switzerland, but using local products and just presenting it a little bit differently.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR INTEREST IN FOOD WASTE?
I wouldn’t say it is so much of an interest, I’d say it’s just a part of the way I have been trained and the way we think here as a restaurant. We are not saving the world by any means, but what we are trying to do is looking at every aspect of food waste and how we can actually turn it into something that is delicious and tasty, rather than throwing it away or composting it.
HOW DO YOU AVOID FOOD WASTE AT YOUR RESTAURANTS?
There are two things that we do, a guy we work with who collects all the food waste that we can’t use and he has an organic farm just outside of London and he turns it into compost, grows vegetables, and sells it back to restaurants in London like us.
Something else we do is a preserving program where we make vinegars, ferments, pickles, and we cure any sort of offal or scraps of meat to use in our cuisine. We don’t tell people they are there, but they are instrumental to the acidity, the saltiness, or balancing out of a dish.
WHAT DIFFICULTIES OR CHALLENGES DO YOU FACE WITH FOOD WASTE?
It’s not a challenge, it’s just about getting your team to buy into it and understand it. Once they do they do this naturally then no one has to tell them to do it.
Food waste is a new thing that people are talking more about but it’s not something that I think we should boast about and say “oh we use our food waste.” If you boast about it, you are almost saying that it’s not a thing that everyone should be doing. We don’t think about it like that.
There are millions of starving people out there in the world and we shouldn’t be throwing food away because we are a business. We buy produce, we cook it and we try to be as inventive as possible with the offcuts.
WHAT IS YOUR PLATING STYLE?
It’s a cliché but it’s quite minimalistic and quite sparse. I like things to be sort of layered and sometimes hidden, so there’s a surprise underneath something. I think that a lot of chefs say that plating doesn’t matter and that it’s all about what the flavour is like. The flavour has to be good before anything else, but for me, plating is very important — it’s an expression of how you imagined a dish.
COULD YOU SHARE SOME PLATING TIPS?
1. Don’t ever try to do the same thing twice.
2. Let it be natural
3. Don’t try too hard and don’t think about it too much
DID YOU HAVE ANY PLATING MENTORS?
My old boss Kobe from In de Wulf who had a similar philosophy to plating. I might do something differently every time I plate a dish, but it has look nice and keep in how we normally do it.