How to create an eight-course feast with Merlin Labron-Johnson

Creating an eight-course feast with Jon Jones and Merlin Labron-Johnson

by Great British Chefs 03 November 2016

We sat down with Michelin-starred chef Merlin Labron-Johnson to see how he helped to create an eight-course menu with M&S innovation chef Jon Jones that showcased the versatility of beef.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Coming up with a dish to go on a menu at a Michelin-starred restaurant can happen in a flash, or it can take years to perfect. But to come up with eight perfectly balanced courses to be served to over forty people at the same time in just ten days is no mean feat. Especially when each course has to champion the same ingredient in different ways.

But that’s exactly what Merlin Labron-Johnson, head chef of the acclaimed Portland and Clipstone restaurants in London, was asked to do by Marks and Spencer. The event was called The Table, and over two evenings Merlin worked with M&S innovation chef Jon Jones to showcase the retailer’s beef. Everything from the canapés to the dessert needed to highlight the quality and versatility of beef, while Russ Jones from Condiment Junkie added a multi-sensory element to the evening.

‘We had about ten days to put the menu together,’ says Merlin. ‘Working with Jon was really great – we were both quite relaxed about everything and there was certainly no ego or competitiveness. I think we were both slightly relieved that we had someone to share the workload with!’

Marks and Spencer prides itself on its relationships with suppliers, which is why they wanted to put beef in the spotlight. Some of the farms that supply its shops have been doing so since the 1960s, and being able to trace each cut right back to the animal it came from is something the retailer is immensely proud of.

The Table 2016: a dining experience with M&S

Merlin’s own cooking style is well suited to this sort of focused menu – he’s a chef known for serving just one or two ingredients on the plate and making them the best they can be. But there were obvious challenges with creating a menu where beef features in every single course. ‘It was particularly tough coming up with the dessert and the cocktail,’ he explains, although Jon's Roast beef-washed whisky with heather honey and orange went down a storm, as did his Hazelnut beef shortbread with blackcurrant, miso and tahini.

‘The second most complicated aspect was making sure the menu was balanced, so people didn’t feel like they were overdosing on one ingredient,’ adds Merlin. ‘There was always a risk of the menu becoming too beefy, something that’s normally associated with being quite bold, heavy and rich. We tried to put beef in the background role, using it almost like a garnish.’

It was this angle that led to one of the most memorable dishes of the event – Charred sweetheart cabbage with smoked hollandaise and dried ox heart. ‘We treated the cabbage as a piece of meat by roasting it and seasoning it with lots of heavy flavours like soy sauce, which gave it a strong umami, beefy taste,’ says Merlin. ‘You have béarnaise sauce with a steak, so I served a smoked hollandaise on the side, and finally I grated the salted and dried ox heart over the top instead of using salt which both seasoned it and added a beefier flavour.’

Merlin's cooking style has always championed one or two ingredients on the plate
Merlin and Jon
For The Table, he worked with M&S innovation chef Jon Jones to create the eight beefy courses

Another way Merlin and Jon ensured diners didn’t suffer from beef fatigue was by counteracting the heavy, fattier flavours with sharp, bitter or lighter ingredients – one of Merlin's favourite ways to cook. Fermenting and preserving plays a huge part in his menus at Portland and Clipstone – almost every dish has something pickled in it. ‘You can’t have too many fatty, rich or heavy ingredients when you’re serving a large menu, so I’ll always add lots more acidity or bitterness to counteract it,’ he says. ‘A good example is the Aged rump cap, burnt aubergine and smoked beetroot course we served. The beetroot sauce was quite heavy so I used Cabernet Sauvignon vinegar to cut through it; the beets were very smoky so I dressed them with vinegar and olive oil and the burnt aubergine purée contained lots of lemon and yoghurt.’

These are certainly thought through and complex techniques that a chef has to get just right if they’re going to work. While many of the ideas were inspired by what Merlin already serves at the restaurant, he had to adapt them for such a large event. ‘I actually simplified quite a lot of things because there were so many people to serve at one time and I had no idea what sort of kitchen I’d be cooking in or who would be in there with me. I was certainly nervous on the first night but I did enjoy myself and learnt a lot from it.’

Despite all the challenges, however, Merlin and Jon pulled it off and the two evenings were a roaring success. Beef will always be a popular meat, but it's sometimes passed over in favour of more unusual produce when we're looking to impress. In hosting The Table, M&S showed that beef doesn't have to mean steak or a Sunday roast, provided the cut you're working with is the best quality you can afford. 'Spending a little more money on beef will make all the difference,' says Merlin, 'and allows you to pair it with more interesting ingredients.'

Spending a little more money on beef will make all the difference and allows you to pair it with more interesting ingredients.

Merlin Labron-Johnson