The London-based chef behind Portland and Clipstone talks favourite flavours, food memories and wardrobe staples.
This article was originally published on MATCHESFASHION.COM.
Merlin Labron-Johnson has got a lot on his proverbial plate. At just 26, the executive chef helms not one, but two critically acclaimed London restaurants – Portland (which won a Michelin star two years ago, in his charge) and the recently opened Clipstone. Luckily, they’re a stone’s throw away from each other in London’s Fitzrovia, so he can shuttle between them (which he does multiple times a day).
We meet at the light-filled Clipstone, its sweeping corner windows filled with jars of homemade pickles, vinegars and infused gins. They’re not simply ornamental, Labron-Johnson explains. ‘[You] produce an extraordinary amount of food waste when you operate a restaurant. It’s a really interesting way of using up all that stuff like apple cores and peels, old herbs, things like that. We turn them into pickles, vinegars, ferments, and then we use this stuff daily.’ It’s this kind of integrity, which extends from the food itself to the pared-back interiors, that’s won the relatively new restaurant rave reviews from A.A. Gill, Giles Coren and Jay Rayner – arguably the ‘holy trinity’ of culinary critics.
Labron-Johnson grew up in Devon, where he first discovered his love for cooking. At just 14, he started helping the school’s cook. ‘She was also the secretary so sometimes she didn’t have time to cook, so she just let me cook,’ he explains. ‘I had a budget… so I’d go into town and go to the local wholefoods shops.’ Later, he went on to train in the fundamentals of high-end cookery, first in Switzerland, then France and finally in Belgium, at legendary modern restaurant In de Wulf.
It was an invitation from Will Lander and Dan Morgenthau to open Portland that brought the then-24-year-old to London, where he now lives with his girlfriend in Haggerston. The Style Report meets the young chef shaking up the city’s dining scene.
Can you start by telling me a little bit about the look and feel of your restaurants, Portland and Clipstone?
‘It’s minimalistic but not too cold. It’s stripped back but it’s supposed to feel warm and comfortable, which I think it does. It’s actually quite an easy look for people to identify – that’s the Portland look.’
What is your first food memory?
‘My mum grew up in France; her parents emigrated there when she was a kid. Every year my family would go back and we always ate really well when we were at my grandparents’ place. My grandmother grows vegetables and loves cooking, so being in France in the summer and [at] Christmas time [evokes] a lot of good food memories.’
What’s been your career highlight so far?
‘I’d say my highlight would be opening Portland. It was my first head chef job and I wasn’t even sure if people were going to come or like the food I was cooking. I didn’t even know what food I was going to cook, a certain style or identity. I didn’t have half the amount of cooks I needed to help me cook. I didn’t know if I’d like London – I didn’t know if London would like me! Making that work and seeing the popularity of the restaurant and seeing how well it did in its first few months was a shock but really great.’
How do you balance running two restaurants? Do you ever have time off?
‘I have a really great team. I have a head chef [at Portland] and a head chef at Clipstone who can run the restaurant when I’m not there, and I know there’s no difference when I am there and when I’m not. I just try and spend time where I’m most needed, make sure the team is happy… and everything is working as it should. And I don’t work on Sundays.’
What do you do on Sundays?
‘Invariably [I] eat quite a lot! When I’ve got a lot happening here I tend to not eat as much as I should. I just forget sometimes! I try to get out of London as much as I can. I’m from the countryside, so I need to breathe.’
What are your favourite restaurants?
‘There’s a place called Brawn which I love. It’s on Columbia Road in Hackney. I tend to go back to the same [restaurants] because if I only get an opportunity once or twice a week to go out and be looked after by somebody, it’s nice to know you’re not going to be disappointed. Nuno Mendes has a restaurant in Spitalfields market called Taberna do Mercado, I like that. A Wong, a Chinese restaurant, is really tasty.’
What’s your favourite dish on the menu?
‘At Clipstone it’s the veal brains on toast, which is our signature dish. I love it because it reminds me of when I was working in Europe; it’s a style of cooking you don’t really see here. I’m always surprised at how many people want to try it and how many people enjoy it. When I first put it on the menu I thought, “Oh god, no one is going to eat that, except a few diehard kinds.” But actually, everybody wants to try it. Even non-offal lovers because they’re interested. So that’s a really satisfying dish.’
Do you have a favourite ingredient?
‘No, [but] the flavours that I like to play with a lot are sort of earthy. I lived in the Alps for three years and the flavours I cooked with there were very similar – there were a lot of nuts and nuttiness. A lot of smoking things, lots of mushrooms and polenta and cheese and game when it was in season. Quite strong, earthy, wild flavours. Flavours that I get really excited about. Autumn is my favourite time to cook.’
What would be your last meal?
‘I really like steak tartare with chips. It wouldn’t be something healthy, because you wouldn’t care, would you?’
Do you have an office here, or down the road?
‘We have an office down the road. It’s shared by many people so I don’t really feel like it’s my office, and I quite like to be completely by myself when I do office work because I get quite distracted. I spend a bit of time there but I actually just use [the private dining room at Portland] a lot.’
Do you prefer to work in a tidy atmosphere, rather than organised chaos?
‘I much prefer it, but I think that’s part of being a chef. You have to be neat and organised and clean.’
When you’re desk-bound do you listen to music?
‘No, I am so terrible at computers and screens and writing because it’s not natural for me; I’m more of a hands-on sort of person, so I need to concentrate. I’m so easily distracted. If I’m trying to write recipes or write an article or something and I’ve got my phone, it’s hard. I’d quite like to have my own office where nobody could disturb me.’
Do you cook a lot at home?
‘I find no joy in cooking for myself. I quite enjoy cooking with my girlfriend because I can show her stuff, but I find most joy in cooking for a big group of friends. My last flat was in south London in Vauxhall, and I had a huge kitchen and a really nice living room and I’d invite 10 friends over and cook for them. Our new flat has a slightly smaller kitchen and we do cook a little bit, but my girlfriend cooks a lot. When I come home she’s usually cooked something and we’ll eat together, if I don’t get home too late. Quite often I’ll get home at midnight. There was a weekend where it was really hot a couple of weeks ago and we spent the whole weekend together pottering around. We didn’t have much to do so we bought fish from this beautiful fish mongers in Victoria Park village. My girlfriend is Peruvian and we made ceviche and drank wine and ate on the balcony. We were like, “This is great!” so the next day we just did it again. [It’s] one of the only times we’ve cooked properly at home.’
How important is style to what you do?
‘Very important. I don’t have many interests outside of cooking, but fashion, design and photography are things that I really enjoy. I really appreciate design and architecture, carpentry even.’
What do you wear when you’re working?
‘I wear trainers and my chef jacket I get from a place in New York called Tilit. They used to be chefs and now they make bespoke chef-wear. Really cool, really nice aprons and jackets. In the kitchen I wear trainers, running shoes I guess. I actually like wearing running shoes all the time. They’re so comfortable.’
What are your wardrobe staples?
‘I bought a really nice Acne Studios jacket as a treat recently. I’ve got a lot of coats and jackets. I’ve got a Burberry one – it’s dark green felt. Everyone always compliments it!’
Who do you think has great style?
‘Stuart Andrew, our head chef at Clipstone. He’s incredibly well dressed.’