Life is not a competition. Okay? You should bear that in mind for the next few minutes. See, Merlin Labron-Johnson is the kind of person who can make even the most ambitious of go-getters feel like sorry underachievers.
We meet on Bruton High Street, outside his latest project, Osip. It’s still a building site (although by the time you read this it’ll be very much up and running), in the middle of an extensive redesign that will take it from a former ironmongers to Somerset’s most exciting new restaurant. The building has a very long and very evident history; I spot walls exposing their ancient layers and charmingly warped 500-year-old wooden beams as we pick our way through the rubble. The small restaurant (there will be about 32 covers) is the former shop floor, with a Dickensian-look façade of old leaded convex windows. There’s a little nook where the bar will be, and a modest-sized kitchen at the back. We leave the building site in search of a quiet corner and hot drink – both of which we find in neighbouring restaurant and bakery At the Chapel, where Merlin is greeted with familiarity. He’s clearly already making a mark on the small town.
This will be Merlin’s fourth restaurant opening – and he’s still only 28. The chef, though, explains that he hasn’t always been such an over-achiever. See, growing up in Devon, he was disinterested in school (“very naughty”, in fact) and got the boot from a number of them. It’s a challenge to imagine this polite and professional guy, who considers each of his words so carefully, in the light that he paints himself in as a schoolkid. It seems, though, that a lot of things changed when he started cooking.
“There was this school cook who would make lunch every day, a really, really decent lunch – three courses – and I was one of the only students who didn’t have school dinners because my parents couldn’t afford it,” he says. “So I would basically wash dishes in exchange for school lunch.”
Soon, he was promoted to peeling spuds, and eventually was running the kitchen, under the cook’s watchful eye.
“This lady kind of took me under her wing because she could see that it was something that I really enjoyed. She would actually just leave me to cook for the school. I’d grab some other students and I’d have a budget and would go to the wholefood store and buy some stuff and cook it.”
He got hooked, his teachers noticing his enthusiasm and change of focus, and encouraging him to get a job in a restaurant.
“As soon as I started cooking I had this really clear direction. I was really disciplined, really committed, really ambitious. I didn’t care about anything else,” he remembers.
Merlin started working in professional kitchens, exaggerating his age at times to secure jobs – he was still only 15. Eventually, he went to work for the likes of Michael Caines before setting off for Europe. Switzerland was followed by a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in France, and then a prestigious Belgian kitchen where he worked his way up to sous chef. It was here where something clicked for him professionally.
“I didn’t realise I was good at cooking for a very long time. I was doing it because I enjoyed it, I loved food and restaurants. But I actually had a pretty hard time coming up in restaurants, especially working in France. There were a lot of times I thought that maybe I should just give up.
“[The restaurant in Belgium] just had a different kitchen environment; the team was a lot closer, people would say please and thank you, there was a lot more creative freedom. I thrived in that environment. I got promoted when I was 22 to sous chef – I was basically running the kitchen in one of the best restaurants in the world. So it was there when I really kind of found myself.”
At the grand old age of 23, Merlin came back to the UK to open Portland in London. Nine months on, he had his first Michelin star, and within the year was launching a second venue, Clipstone.
What’s driven me is the constant urge to do something better. I’m never quite satisfied with what I’m achieving, which is kind of frustrating in one sense because you’re always on this quest; you don’t even really know what you’re trying to achieve – it’s just about ‘better’.Merlin Labron-Johnson
“I loved it, I loved opening a restaurant in London and being part of the food community. But it was the first time in my life I’d lived in a city. When I was cooking I’d always felt very connected to nature and agriculture and farming and foraging and just being outdoors. I felt like that was what inspired my cooking, and I didn’t really have that in London.”
Moving on from Portland and Clipstone, Merlin launched a third restaurant, The Conduit, which he is still very much involved with. But even before then he was fleshing out an idea for a project in the countryside.
“I opened three restaurants in London in the space of three or four years, which was really stressful, obviously – really intense – and I just found myself kind of yearning to be out of London all the time.”
So, just over a year ago, he decided to leave Portland and Clipstone and start looking properly for his restaurant in the country.
After initially sniffing out venues in Kent and Sussex, Merlin was introduced by his accountant to the owners of the site in Bruton – who were already working on turning the building into a hotel. It was a perfect find. Sure, it was quite far from London (he’d still be needed at The Conduit regularly) but it ticked all of the other boxes.
“I didn’t want an existing pub or restaurant – I wanted to take a beautiful building that had character and renovate it. Which this was. It also had rooms, and I knew I could probably find some land to grow vegetables nearby, so it was all the things I was looking for.”
Another draw was its proximity to home, as well as Bristol and Bath.
“It’s the West Country, and it sort of feels like home,” says Merlin. “When I came, it really felt like some of the local towns where I grew up.”
It had the same kind of community feel, too, he was about to discover. When word began to spread about the project, he was inundated with messages from locals, offering support and well wishes. Everything from honey from neighbouring beekeepers to gardeners’ gluts of blackcurrants or quinces were offered up to him – even the land he needed to grow the restaurant’s vegetables.
It’s clear that this meant a lot to the London chef, not least in the way he talks about it – with energy and surprise – but also because this sense of community is exactly the kind of concept he wanted to build the restaurant on. Connecting with local people who work with food was a priority.
“When I think creatively about food, it doesn’t come from me going, ‘I want to make a dish with, I don’t know, artichokes and chicken and cep mushrooms’, for example, then calling up a bunch of wholesalers. It’s much more a case of having this ongoing dialogue with local growers.”
Finding out what’s about to be picked and then coming up with dishes to use up the fruits of nearby harvests and gluts is the way Merlin like to do things.
“It’s slightly different to the way chefs normally work, but I feel, because you’re slightly more limited, that it’s definitely more challenging; you have to be a lot more creative and think outside of the box, and it builds a slightly stronger identity. You can’t just do exactly what you want.
“But, at the same time, it is exactly what I want to do,” adds Merlin, smiling at the irony. “It feels right.”
Osip – which he has given his middle name to – is the perfect size and location to really commit to this concept of restaurant, he thinks, with daily changing menus based on what’s coming out of the ground.
“In the evening, there is a menu, but it’s like, ‘this is what you’re having for dinner’. Sort of like a tasting menu, but I don’t really want to call it a tasting menu. It’s a set price and people can call up and ask in advance what it’s going to be, but the idea is that they just turn up and get fed. So that allows us to be super flexible in how we work.”
And on said menu – which is accompanied by a lunchtime a la carte offering – guests can expect shed loads of local vegetables and fruit, along with a small amount of carefully chosen meat, and sometimes perhaps some seafood, too.
“The food is not going to be that different [to what I’ve been doing in London], but we’re building the whole menu and concept around vegetables – I have to say this with clarity, though, as it’s not a vegetarian restaurant.”
Poultry and winter game will be on the menu, as well as roast chicken on Sundays, but there’s not really room for red meat here, says Merlin. For environmental reasons, sure, but also because it just doesn’t feel necessary to this experimental chef.
“I like to be able to prove to people,” he says, “without making a big deal of it, that it’s possible to have amazing food without having to have big chunks of meat. I get a lot more pleasure out of cooking vegetables than I do cooking meat; there’s a lot more possibility and potential to do fun stuff.”
Merlin’s cooking style has been informed by the contrasting kitchens that he worked in across Europe, he explains. Influences from both ends of the spectrum – the ultra-classical techniques he learnt in France (“I find that approach really cool, really inspiring,” he says) and the experimental, liberal attitude of the Belgian outfit – can be found in his food.
“It’s also the simplicity that I really enjoy,” he adds. “I really like just doing simple things very well. And that’s kind of what my food has become now – taking really good ingredients and not manipulating them too much, so they taste and look like the best version of what they are.”
Alongside the food at Osip, you can expect a focus on fine cider as well as wine. Herbal teas are blended in house and made from local herbs, and sodas, juices and kombuchas are all homemade.
I can’t not bring up Merlin’s extracurricular cooking with him. See, just pursuing “better”, as he calls it, wasn’t enough for this chef. Having moved to London and witnessed poverty in a way he hadn’t before, he began to think about channelling his ambition in a different way.
“A lot of my friends at the time were going out to Calais, into ‘The Jungle’, to the refugee camps and helping out on different projects there. So I started doing fundraising dinners, raising money for the kitchens that were cooking in the refugee camps. It was a very simple exchange where I cooked a dinner, a bunch of people would buy tickets, and all the money I would just transfer to the account of the people in Calais, who would then buy food and cook it for, like, 7,000 people.”
Eventually, Merlin travelled out to the camps to meet those he’d been fundraising for (“I saw how people were living. You can’t see that and just walk away”) and later began working with Food for Soul in London, cooking three-course meals for the homeless from surplus food. Then, last year, he went to work with Help Refugees, at one point cooking for about 1,000 people a day, with a budget of 35p a head.
Throughout his recounting of these stories – which is done without pride; a little reluctantly, if anything – he keeps returning to the same point: he’s a cook, and therefore has the ability to counter hunger.
“I guess the point I’m trying to make is it felt like such an easy exchange,” he summarises, modestly.
There are many strings to Merlin’s culinary bow, I’m realising – along with the fact that he’s not one to shout about them. Achieving so much well before turning 30 takes some serious commitment and ambition – not to mention talent. Cooking just brings out that side in him, it seems.
“At the beginning, it’s probably safe to say that I was needing the discipline and routine and structure in my life without knowing it at the time,” he says, thoughtfully, considering his entry into life in a kitchen.
“The act of cooking is just incredibly satisfying, and it can’t really get boring because it’s something that evolves and changes, you discover new things…
“What’s driven me is the constant urge to do something better. I’m never quite satisfied with what I’m achieving, which is kind of frustrating in one sense because you’re always on this quest; you don’t even really know what you’re trying to achieve – it’s just about ‘better’. Probably 90 per cent of my brain is occupied with food and cooking and restaurants. You can’t get away from that.”
This promising entrepreneurial chef is a real get for Somerset. Not only does his fierce but conscientious ambition bring excitement for what’s to come at Osip, but his energy and (quickly gained) culinary wisdom paint a bright picture for the restaurant industry, which is falling into the hands of a new generation of chefs.
Images: Ed Schofield