The Gannet Q&A

Merlin Labron-Johnson

6th June 2016

Interview: Killian Fox

Merlin Labron-Johnson is head chef at Portland in central London. The restaurant opened in January 2015 and received its first Michelin star in September. Merlin, who is 25, has been cooking professionally since the age of 16. The biggest influence on his cooking, he says, was a two-year stint at In de Wulf in Belgium. The team behind Portland will open a new restaurant, Clipstone, in Fitzrovia this August.

1. If you could revisit one meal in your life, which would it be?

My first meal at La Grenouillère in France three years ago was unforgettable – stunning food in a magical setting with really great company. The guy who runs it, Alexandre Gauthier, does really out-there food. I didn’t expect to like it but it completely blew me away. For one dish, he got a bush of juniper branches, put a whole lobster tail inside it and set the branches on fire, so the lobster absorbed all the juniper smoke. The bush was still a little bit on fire when they served it.

2. What was your favourite food when you were 10?

I had (and always will have) a soft spot for traditional English puddings – sticky toffee pudding, steamed pudding. I think you have to be English to really appreciate them.

3. What’s your greatest talent in the kitchen?

Patience. You can get excited about a dish and want to release it straight away, or you can take your time and make sure you really get it perfect before putting it out. Also, patience with people is incredibly important, and it’s something a lot of chefs lack – understandably because you’ve got to get things done in a hurry and there’s very little room for mistakes, but I think it’s important.

4. What’s the best thing you cooked at home in the last month?

I like to think that my flatmate and I make a mean apple crumble.

5. What do you listen to when you’re cooking?

I often like to listen to hip hop – Mos Def or Common – or something a bit more chilled like Bon Iver. Recently I’ve been enjoying Dustin Tebbutt, whose music is on our playlist at Portland and is incredibly relaxing.

6. What ingredient or food product are you currently obsessed with?

I love alliums and look forward to the arrival of grelot onions, tropea onions, calcots and young garlic. I also use a lot of roscoff onions as I adore the sweetness – I put a tartare of ox heart on the menu which came with a roscoff onion jam.

Flame grilled ox heart tartare, roscoff onion cream, mustard and grilled pickled onions

A photo posted by Merlin Labron-Johnson (@merlin_johnson) on

7. Describe a kitchen object you can’t live without.

A sharp knife. I currently don’t have one at home and it drives me crazy when I try and cook.

8. What’s your most food-splattered cookbook?

Two books by Jane Grigson: Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery and English Food. You read her recipes and think, oh I could do that. They’re very simple and very appealing. Also, Fergus Henderson’s The Complete Nose to Tail is very inspiring for home cookery – it always make me want to cook when I read it.

9. Share a useful cooking tip.

When seasoning dishes I always to try achieve greater depths of flavour by looking to add salted or salty-tasting products as opposed to just using plain salt. For example I might use a range of soy sauces, misos or fermented fish sauces to season vegetables. And recently I have been using a salted and dried beef heart/ham to season meat dishes. When we are prepping our fish we always try to save the eggs, which we then cure and dry, and sometimes use as a seasoning grated over fish or seafood dishes. The possibilities are endless.

10. If you had to limit yourself to the cuisine of just one country, which would it be and why?

Indian food – there’s so much to discover. And I could happily be vegetarian and eat Indian food for the rest of my life.

11. What food do you most dislike?

Andouillette. My ex-girlfriend’s father used to cook it on an open fire in his living room in France. I had to be very polite and eat everything that was given to me, but andouillette made me sick, I couldn’t stomach it. It’s made from stomach lining and tripe and the smell is worse than the taste. The other thing I don’t like is sea urchin.

12. What’s your favourite food scene in the movies?

I recently rewatched True Romance. There’s quite a cute scene when the girl comes into the cinema, he’s watching a film, she spills popcorn all over him. Then she suggests they go get pie together.

13. Name a favourite restaurant in your neighbourhood.

The Camberwell Arms does a really great Sunday lunch. It’s just simple cooking with really great ingredients – a bit like eating at home if your mum was a really good cook. I usually have a roast of some kind and a hearty English pudding.

14. What most annoys you as a customer in a restaurant?

Overly formalised service where the staff aren’t allowed to express themselves or show any signs of having a soul.

15. What’s your biggest food extravagance?

I eat out all the time – I must spend half my salary in other people’s restaurants. Last time in New York, I went to Eleven Madison Park by myself – that was quite extravagant. The night after I went to probably my favourite restaurant in the world, Momofuku Ko. I sat at the counter and had the tasting menu, about 20 courses. I couldn’t think of a more perfect place to eat by yourself.

16. Describe your average breakfast.

When I wake up I always have a coffee and some sort of liquid fruit/vegetable concoction. I rarely eat in the mornings although I know I should. I have a plate of food everyday at work at 10.45am which could be described as a late breakfast or an early lunch depending on which way you look at it.

Portland is at 113 Great Portland St, London W1W 6QQ; www.portlandrestaurant.co.uk

Follow Merlin: Instagram | Twitter

Posted 6th June 2016

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Interview: Killian Fox

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