Merlin Labron-Johnson, head chef, Portland Restaurant

The  Staff Canteen
Merlin Labron-Johnson is the head chef of Portland Restaurant in London. The 25-year-old has been in the industry since he was 16 but has rapidly risen through the ranks and was just 24 when Portland opened in January last year achieving its first Michelin star just nine months later. Merlin has worked in a number of top restaurants including Michael Caines Abode, two star Restaurant Albert 1er in Chamonix and he was sous chef at Kobe Desramaults Michelin-starred, In de Wulf in Belgium. The Staff Canteen caught up with Merlin to find out what it means to achieve a star so quickly, why he is inspired by French classic dishes and his plans for Portland Restaurant. Why did you want to be a chef?Merlin Labron-Johnson 2 low res I fell into it. No one in the family is a chef but I come from a family who eat well, use good ingredients - my parents have always been into organic. But my first job when I was younger was at a cookery school in Ashburton, Devon, I was an assistant and I really loved it. When I was 16 I did a few months at The Elephant. I started an apprenticeship there but I didn’t enjoy it so I left, after that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a chef at all. So what drew you back? I knew I wanted to work in the industry so I looked into doing a course in Hotel Management, I had to go back and do my maths but once I had finished I didn’t go and do the course I was intending to do I got a job at Michael Caines’ ABode instead. It was a great kitchen to work in and equally it was very hard. Working there made me realise that I did want to be a chef – it was a bit of a wake up. Was it always your plan to leave the UK and work in Europe? I was 18 when I did it and I’ve always liked French culture, I wanted to learn to speak French and once I started thinking seriously about being a chef I thought I should go to France, Switzerland or somewhere abroad to learn. When I was cooking in England, at that time, everyone was doing something very similar – you could look at 100 Michelin-starred restaurants and the menus were the same style. I thought it would be good to go away and learn things which weren’t being done in England and come back and do something a bit different.
Rising stars: Jack Cashmore (Anglo restaurant-just opened) Eduardo Pellicano and Stuart Andrew (Portland restaurant- Sous Chefs) Alisdair brooke-taylor (Restaurant In de Wulf- Sous Chef) Ben Glazer (artisan baker) Antonio Galapito (Taberna do Mercado) Guilty pleasures: Waitrose hot puddings (sticky toffee, chocolate or treacle sponge) with ice cream Top 5 restaurants: Momofuko Ko-New York J.E.F- Belgium In de Wulf-Belgium Taberna do Mercado- London A.WONG-London Favourite cookbooks: Relae-A book of ideas French pork cookery-Jane Grigson Eleven Madison Park cookbook English Food-Jane Grigson
How long were you in Switzerland for? I was there about two and a half years and then I went to France. I worked in Restaurant Albert 1er in Chamonix which was ultra-classic. It was like the Square meets Le Gavroche, it was two star and it had been open for 100 years. I really enjoyed doing the classics, I’d been doing a lot of that in Switzerland as well but in Chamonix the dishes they were doing were using timeless recipes. So if we were doing a Hare 'à la Royale' it was the same way they had done it for the past 50 years, I was learning the original ways – when you do it in an English kitchen it’s not the same because the recipe has been passed on and changed. You went to Belgium to work at In de Wulf – how was that? They have quite a high staff turnover so I did all of the stations in the kitchen at least once so that’s how I ended up becoming sous chef. It’s quite easy just to get your head down and crack on when you are there because there is nothing else to distract you – you are in the middle of nowhere. It was really good fun and I loved it, I think it was the best working experience of my life. It was the first time in my whole career where I actually enjoyed my job. I’ve always enjoyed cooking and food but the day to day of working in Michelin-starred kitchens is really tough. This was tough but fun. Did you learn completely new skills working with him? He really has his own way of doing everything. What they do a lot of there, which was really interesting to learn, was a whole fermentation programme, all the pickling, smoking, curing their charcuterie – a lot of very traditional and old fashioned preservation techniques. Also, cooking and caring about vegetables, and foraging. I’m not really a believer in foraging if you are not in an area like In de Wulf. I don’t really use wild food unless it’s something I really love like wild garlic which I can buy from my normal veg suppliers. It’s not a big part of what we do here but the other techniques like fermenting are. Would you say the dishes on the menu here reflect both In de Wulf and Restaurant Albert?Asparagus, smoked sabayon and truffle low res I think there is a strong mix. Classic French but with modern twists which are very simple. The menu is small, some dishes change every day and we now know that people are willing to pay for more expensive ingredients than they were at the beginning so we might use truffles, foie gras, lobster but at the same time just as easily have ox heart, a vegetable salad and cod cheeks. As long as it’s tasty people will pay for it. Talk us through your dishes and how you create them. There are no dishes on the menu at the minute that have been there since the beginning but there are a few that may come back. We do a pithivier with game, it was on the menu in the beginning and people came in just for that but because I didn’t have enough chefs I had to take it off the menu. It has lots of different game inside, sometimes with foie gras or truffles – last year I brought it back as a special for game season and I probably will again this year. The reason we change the menu so often is because we have such a loyal clientele base, they are coming every week and because the menu is so small if for example they only eat fish and there is only one fish option they probably wouldn’t keep coming back. I also have two sous chefs who are very creative and they need to be able to experiment a little bit. Maple syrup glazed duck with pumpkin low resSo the menu is not just your dishes then? In the beginning it was, but there are one or two dishes on there now from my sous chef who will run an idea past me, but I don’t have a rule that it’s only my dishes. How did you end up at Portland Restaurant? The owners of the restaurant are old school friends and big foodies. I don’t know how they found me but they must have heard from someone in the industry that the sous chef at In de Wulf was English. They wrote me a letter talking about the project and I met up with them in London a few weeks later to talk about it some more. I had been at In de Wulf for two years so I was looking for the next step and this seemed like a good project. The three of us have very similar visions and views about the industry. We didn’t really know what kind of restaurant we were going to create but we knew what we didn’t like. It started out as a restaurant that was a million miles away from what we are doing now. It was an all-day restaurant, with a pretty long menu and about four chefs in the kitchen. Now we have ten in the kitchen, a very small menu and we don’t do breakfast! It sounds like it’s changed dramatically in just over a year? The first six months I couldn’t find any chefs! That was when we were getting reviewed and hit really hard – we were basically full the whole of last year. A friend of mine I had worked with at In de Wulf came over from Singapore to help me out which made things easier in the kitchen so the people coming and trialling could see it was somewhere they could work without it being too tough. I started building the team from there, we got a few strong guys in the kitchen and then we got a star. The star drew a lot of attention to what we were doing and now I get a lot of CVs and really good ones as well. Getting a star that quickly and at just 24, it must have come as a shock?Single origin chocolate eclair low res It was a bit of a shock. I have to admit, I’ve worked in Michelin restaurants for pretty much my whole career so when I see a Michelin inspector, I’m aware we are being inspected and they do present themselves to you at one point. So I knew we were getting inspected but I wasn’t expecting to get one. Six months ago when we got the star, I don’t think our food was as good as it is now so I feel like we are constantly improving – so I don’t sit there worrying we might lose it. You made the decision to travel and go and work in Europe, do you think it’s important for young chefs to do this? I do, not just as a chef but as a life experience. It’s also good to see the different ways kitchens are manged in different countries. For example in America the management style is real interesting in terms of the way they treat their chefs, the way they teach them, the mutual respect people have for each other in the kitchen, even the way they run their services is so different to the UK. Then in France you have a whole different approach, it’s very old fashioned! This is your first head chef role and you’re just 25, has it been a big adjustment? The pressure of opening a new restaurant when you are solely responsible for how good the food is, at that point you determine the future of the restaurant because if the food is shit you can almost screw the restaurant. If it’s bad at the beginning people won’t come back and then you are in trouble. Kabocha pumpkin, Sicilian mandarin & meringue low resMe not knowing my own style and how good my food was, it was quite nerve wracking! But in terms of managing the kitchen on a day to day basis that was something I was definitely already doing before but there are other things you have to think about as head chef. You worry about your staff, if they are happy and are they going to come back the next day! You want your bosses to be happy and your team to follow you and be inspired by the food you are cooking – that was a new one for me but it’s an adrenaline rush as well. And what about the future, what are you aiming for? I’d like in a few years’ time to have another restaurant as well as Portland and I want to keep building the team here so the guys who are CDPs can be sous chefs in a year and the sous chefs can be head chefs – I want to keep working with this core group of people that I really enjoy working with. I’d like to keep pushing Portland as we have been over the last year and see where it can be in three years’ time, that’s really exciting.      
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 7th April 2016

Merlin Labron-Johnson, head chef, Portland Restaurant