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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. ‘We stopped doing breakfast after just two weeks and began simplifying the menu,’ says Merlin. ‘Once the good reviews in the papers came out it just created this buzz and the place was fully booked for the first four months, which was very hard as we were having a tough time finding good chefs. But we eventually built up a strong team and made the menu even smaller, which meant we could cook at a higher level.’

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. You always know when Michelin inspectors are in the restaurant because you can kind of feel when they’re there, but I even talked to them and said we weren’t after one. But I think it’s the team we have at Portland that are really behind the success of the restaurant, and that’s why we decided to open Clipstone around the corner.’

Clipstone, which opened in August 2016, is Merlin’s second restaurant. With a more relaxed, affordable menu, it’s enjoying the same critical success as Portland. But the reason behind opening it wasn’t so much a business move – Merlin just didn’t want to lose some of the fantastic staff he’d accumulated over the past year. ‘There was only so far some staff could advance their careers at Portland,’ he says. ‘Opening Clipstone meant we could promote junior sous chefs to sous chefs and assistant managers to managers, and then look at the best CVs getting sent in and hire new people. It’s also a bit more affordable, so people who love Portland can go there more regularly, and if we’re full then we can tell them we have another place around the corner. I can now buy a whole carcass from my butcher, use the prime cuts at Portland and use the lesser cuts to make things like rillettes and tartare at Clipstone. As long as both restaurants are busy, it works out really well.’

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.