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At the age of just 24 Merlin Labron-Johnson gained a Michelin star at his restaurant, Portland, just nine months after opening. Unsurprisingly, he became an instant household name. Having recently left his roles at Fitzrovia-based Portland and Clipstone – the former serving modern European cuisine and the seasonal British fare – Merlin is turning his attention towards projects helping refugees in Europe before he opens another restaurant later this year. Guided by the UN’s ChefsManifesto – a framework outlining how chefs can contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for a better future for food through simple, practical actions – Merlin is striving for a future where ingredients are grown with respect for the environment, where no good food goes to waste and everyone, everywhere enjoys nutritious meals.
We met the philanthropic chef of the moment to discuss next steps, favourite foodie haunts and the secret to English cooking.
You received a Michelin star when your were just 24. How did that early success impact you?
Looking back, it was a fantastic achievement for such a young age. It drove me to push myself harder and had a profound impact on the way I cooked. I think it made me more competitive and also more self-conscious.
When and where was the idea for your first restaurant, Portland, born?
I started discussing the idea for Portland with restaurateurs William Lander and Dan Morgenthau (of The Quality Chop House and 10 Greek Street) in autumn 2014. I was living in Belgium at the time and travelling backwards and forwards between there and London.
You grew up in South Devon. What are your childhood food memories from the South Coast?
I have many, but one rather vivid memory is of me, my brother and my mother catching prawns in the rock pools at East Prawle. We were camping at the time and we ate them for dinner that night, cooked over one of those gas camping stoves. It’s quite rare to find prawns in the UK. I never serve them in my restaurants and my mother, bless her, has made many fruitless return visits to the spot. What luck we had!
How do you define English cooking?
English cooking is still finding its identity. Before the world wars we had a lot in common with our French neighbours, probably due to our countries’ complex historical ties. Many households were self-sufficient, growing vegetables and rearing livestock. We were world famous for roasting meat hence our nickname “les rosbifs”. After many years of post-war rationing and supermarket shopping we are finally rediscovering the joys of good eating and are well on our way to rebuilding our food culture. Watch this space.
Where are your favourite places to eat in London?
A question I always find difficult to answer – we are so lucky in London. At the moment I’m particularly fond of restaurants with Br in the name. Brat in Shoreditch, as well as Bright and Brawn, both in Hackney. My overall favourite is probably the The River Café – for special occasions.
Tell us some of your most loved and loathed food trends right now?
I’m glad people are feeling inspired to eat more vegetables and less meat, there is so much potential and opportunity in vegetable cookery. I’m also pleased to see people getting into pickling and fermenting at home. I think we need to stop our obsession with the avocado which is fuelling mass deforestation, using vast quantities of chemical sprays and pesticides and contributing to much environmental degradation. It is said to take 272 litres of water to grow about 500g of avocado. That’s just silly.
Tell us about the the UN’s ChefsManifesto?
The ChefsManifesto is a manifesto written by chefs in conjunction with the UN’s Sustainable Development goals. It provides a framework to speak publicly about issues in the food system and a platform to drive change with the help and support of like-minded chefs around the world. I believe that, as chefs, we have the power to make tangible changes in the food system and as such, it’s our responsibility to do so.
What’s been your career highlight so far?
Does travel inspire your cooking?
Yes, absolutely – my cooking style is a product of my travels. I’ve spent a lot of time in Sicily recently which has started to come through in my cooking.
Tell us about your work with Help Refugees…
While waiting for my next restaurant to launch I’ve been able to finally steer some of my focus towards helping projects that feed and look after refugees in Europe.
In November I took over a kitchen in Lesvos, where the situation is at its most horrendous with over 10,000 refugees forced to live in squalor in a camp that was built for 2,000. Amid the horror I found warmth and beauty in a small community centre just outside of the camp that was run by refugees, for refugees and offers a small amount of respite in the form of nourishing meals as well as workshops, social aid and sports activities. There I learnt how to cook different meals for 900-1,000 people from two large pots on a budget of 71p per person. It was heartening to see how, in these conditions, a bowl of good, hot food can be a such a unifying force, a light in the darkness.
This month I’ve been in Athens, working with a small youth centre for young displaced males who are stranded in camps in and around the city and unable to work. Generally, when refugees arrive in Greece it is at least two years before they can even have a conversation about their future and where they might apply for asylum. I’ve been cooking lunch for them everyday but also trying to entice them into cookery workshops, in the hope that they might learn skills that could strengthen their chances of employment in the future. For me, the overwhelming sense of empathy that I felt when visiting the Calais and Lesvos camps means that I can no longer ignore or turn my back on these people who fled to Europe in search of refuge only to find barbed wire and doors slammed in their faces. As a chef, helping them to feed them feels like the very least I can do and I’d really like to encourage others to do the same.
How do you try to minimise food waste in your kitchen?
I try not to produce any in the first place; it’s about being cunning with menu planning, creating dishes that utilise the by-products of other dishes. Everything else is pickled or fermented and all non-edible scraps or collected by an organic farmer to turn into compost which he uses to grow vegetables to sell back to restaurants.
You live in East London’s Haggerston, what are some of your favourite spots around there?
The best way to spend a Sunday in London is…
For me it’s a walk down the canal to Victoria Park for coffee and breakfast at the Pavilion Café. I’d then saunter into the Ginger Pig butchers and buy something to roast – lamb or perhaps mutton. Then a relaxing afternoon at home, cooking, drinking wine and eating with friends. I’d have an early night.
What would be your last meal?
Negroni. Then steak tartare with fries. Then Paris-Brest.
Finally, what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on an exciting event in aid of Help Refugees with some of the UK’s most esteemed chefs for March 2019.
To book tickets for a Chefs Banquet in aid of Help Refugees taking place on 21 March, read more here.
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