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Merlin Labron-Johnson

Merlin Labron-Johnson

After two years at In de Wulf and achieving the role of sous chef, Merlin felt the need to go to a big city. ‘I was thinking maybe Singapore or New York, but then Will Lander and Dan Morgenthau sent me a letter asking if I wanted to open a restaurant in London with them,’ he says. ‘I was wary because I hadn’t worked in the UK for years and didn’t know what the food scene was like, but I met them a few months later. We shared the same ideas and philosophies which was really cool, so we agreed to open Portland.’

Portland opened at the beginning of 2015 to critical acclaim. At first, it served breakfast, lunch and dinner with a bistro menu between mealtimes, but the positive reaction from diners about the more interesting dishes on the menu meant a change in tactics. ‘Once the good reviews in the papers came out it just created this buzz,’ says Merlin. ‘The place was fully booked for the first four months.’ Nine months later, Portland received a Michelin star – something completely unexpected for the whole team. ‘It was always something we said we weren’t interested in,’ explains Merlin. ‘I didn’t even think it was possible to get one nine months after opening. But I think it’s the team we had at Portland that are really behind the success of the restaurant, and that’s why we decided to open Clipstone around the corner.’

Clipstone opened in August 2016 with a more relaxed, affordable menu, and enjoyed the same critical success as Portland, winning a Bib Gourmand from Michelin the following year. With fantastic teams in place and both restaurants thriving, Merlin found himself with more time to devote to charitable projects that are close to his heart. One such charity is Help Refugees – a fundraising group dedicated to providing aid for the refugee crisis. ‘I’ve been trying to help them raise money for their projects,’ Merlin explains, ‘mainly projects that involve feeding people.’ He’s a regular at Refettorio Felix in Earl’s Court – a community kitchen started by Massimo Bottura, where chefs volunteer their time to cook meals for those in need, using surplus ingredients delivered from around the city. He also took over the the fourth floor restaurant at The Conduit at the end of 2017 – a new members’ club designed as a hub for those passionate about social change.

By late 2018, Merlin decided to step away from Portland and Clipstone, to further focus on his charitable pursuits. ‘I always said, when I leave Portland and Clipstone, it’ll be really nice because I’ll be able to chill out – I’m definitely more busy now! But I’m doing thing that make me happy.’

Three things you should know

Merlin's love of fermenting, pickling and curing comes from his time at In de Wulf, where everything was done in-house.

Merlin loves nothing more than to eat at restaurants, and admits spending around half his salary on eating out.

A love for French culture both in and out of the kitchen was one of the deciding factors in Merlin moving to Switzerland and France at such a young age.