Michelin stars are something that many chefs strive for throughout their careers – they’re often a reward for decades of hard work in the kitchen, mastering the craft and creating something truly special in the world of food and drink. Merlin Labron-Johnson received his when he was just twenty-four, nine months after opening his first restaurant Portland.
Growing up in south Devon, Merlin was always surrounded by organic and sustainable farming. His parents – a poetry writer and museum curator – always made sure there were good organic vegetables and wholesome food on the table, but that wasn’t the reason why he chose the life of a chef.
‘I was a bit of a naughty boy when I was younger and went to a lot of different schools, eventually ending up at this small alternative one with about seventy students,’ he explains. ‘It was democratic and you didn’t have to go to lessons, so I didn’t pursue a very academic route. The chef there used to make really nice organic vegetarian food for school lunches, but my parents couldn’t afford it, so I struck up a deal with her where if I washed the pots and peeled the potatoes, I could eat for free. Sometimes I’d just cook for the whole school myself, and by the time I was sixteen I knew I wanted to be a chef.’
Next door to the school was Ashburton Cookery School, where Merlin found a job as a chef’s assistant. It was here that he learnt the discipline and respect for authority needed to work in a professional kitchen, and after a few stints at local restaurants around the area, he landed his first proper job at The Elephant in Torquay under Simon Hulstone. ‘I was only there for one summer but I hated it, which made me question if I wanted to be a chef after all,’ says Merlin. ‘But I decided I wanted to work in Michelin-starred kitchens, so I made the move to Abode with Michael Caines in Exeter, which was really good – it was very hard work but I learnt a lot.’
Merlin’s next move was thanks to his grandfather, who knew of a job going at a ski resort in Switzerland. ‘I went over there when I was eighteen. I didn’t know any French at the time, which was terrifying, but you pick it up a lot faster than you would in any other situation. It was really hard but eventually I mastered it and after working at some more casual places I started working in a two-starred place serving really good classical cuisine.’
After two and a half years in Switzerland learning the fundamentals of high-end cookery, Merlin moved to France to work for eight months in a two-starred restaurant at The Albert Premier Hotel in Chamonix. ‘The head chef’s father and grandfather had both worked there and some of the dishes had been on the menu for twenty years, which was brilliant as you’d never learn the techniques behind them anywhere else,’ he says. ‘It was one of the most influential places of my career and made me really appreciate classical French cooking.’
However, the restaurant that had the most profound effect on Merlin’s cooking style was In de Wulf, a legendary modern restaurant in the remote Belgian countryside. ‘It was the opposite to everything I’d experienced previously – the head chef Kobe Desramaults had his own way of doing things and would approach everything from cooking to seasoning in his own unique style,’ he explains. ‘All the techniques were thousands of years old and there weren’t any timers, thermometers or even solid recipes. To work there was to learn his philosophy and ethos when it came to cooking, and it was a brilliant kitchen.’