Merlin Labron-Johnson discusses his latest project
The last time Port met with Merlin Labron-Johnson it was at The Conduit in Mayfair. Newly opened, the chef was at the helm of its sustainable kitchen. This time, however, things are unsurprisingly rather different; Merlin’s latest and first solo venture – Osip in Bruton, Somerset – has only recently reopened its doors post-lockdown, and I speak to him on a socially distanced call. But although this year has clearly brought its challenges, unexpectedly shuttering Osip has also been an opportunity for Labron-Johnson to reassess and rethink how to make his cuisine more sustainable than ever.
Here, he fills us in on how he spent lockdown, new plans for Osip, and how the global pandemic could change the way we think about food for the better.
Can you tell us what you’ve been up to since you last spoke to Port?
That was probably nearly two years ago, so quite a lot! We had just opened The Conduit but I’ve since moved on and I started working on my new restaurant about a year ago. It took around just four months from when I first saw the site to the opening the restaurant so it was very sudden. I just thought, I’m gonna do this, and I did it. I’ve completely detached myself from London now and I’m not involved in any projects there at all. There are a few things about it that I miss, but I don’t miss it that much.
You’ve now reopened Osip after closing due to Covid-19. Do you think the pandemic will change anything about how you do things now?
Yeah, we’ve changed a lot actually. One of the obvious changes we’ve made is reducing capacity in our restaurant, but the lockdown has given me four months to think about how I really want it to be. You can be quite apprehensive when you open a restaurant about how things will be received, especially when it’s somewhere you don’t really know, so when we opened we were seeing what people wanted. But then after the lockdown I decided to do things exactly how I wanted, and if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work, but at least I tried. So we’ve removed the menus completely, which has allowed us to cook in a completely different way and show off the local terroir. People pay in advance and because there is no menu, they pay to come and have us cook for them, which is fairly new in the UK, this idea that you sit down and get fed and trust what someone will cook for you, but so far it’s working well. We were already growing vegetables, but since the lockdown we’ve really turned it up and in the last few weeks we’ve been virtually self sufficient. Ultimately, we took some time to think about what didn’t work for the business and improve every aspect, from the quality of our cooking to the service and the drinks programme.
Osip is your first solo venture and your first restaurant outside of London. Do things feel different here?
I grew up in the countryside and apart from London I’ve always lived in very remote, mostly agricultural places in Europe. I’ve always felt very closely connected to this aspect of food and existence – nature, farming, fishing, foraging. That was naturally a part of my existence as a chef until I came to London, and that stuff wasn’t there. It was great for my profile and development as a chef and I grew a lot and met some lovely people. But I opened three restaurants in the space of about three years and that’s never not going to be exhausting! I felt like I wasn’t cooking the way I wanted to cook and I always knew I wanted to have a restaurant in the countryside which inspired me; whether it was working with a farm or having my own, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I decided at the end of last year I wanted to do that so and I’m not very patient, so as soon as I found the place I went for it, and I haven’t looked back. It was also important here to have rooms attached so people could stay over night with us and have breakfast.
What makes Osip different to your previous restaurants?
To elaborate, quite a lot. Everything at Osip is me, I’ve designed everything and everyone I’ve worked with is a friend of mine, for example I know the person who carved the spoons from a local cherry tree down the road. There’s a reason why everything is there and being used. The restaurants in London were all different to each other, but this is the first time that I’ve done something, for the want of a better word, so conceptual, and the concept is farm-to-table, even though that phrase does get misused. But we basically do cook with what is brought to us. You’re not just ordering food which comes from all over the world and is always available, it’s a partnership between you and the land and that’s very different to anything I did in London. It’s just difficult to do it in London. We recycle 100 percent of our waste, we don’t use single-use plastic, food miles are virtually zero, and the way that we cook is very back to basics; we don’t use gizmos or gadgets. We serve very little meat and never beef or lamb, just wild meat and some poultry, and we don’t really serve fish because we’re not near the sea. But words like sustainable and local and seasonal are used so often we’ve become almost numb to them and these buzzwords become just like terminology. This is kind of the purest expression of a sustainable, local restaurant I’ve ever worked in but I don’t like to use those words – why not just get on with it and let the produce speak for itself?
How was the lockdown for you?
It was really busy! It was quite a shock to the system as we’d only opened three or four months before and we were still very much in the opening phase, which can be really quite stressful. We were very much finding our feet but we were getting really busy and I was starting to be proud of what we’d achieved. And at first we really didn’t know what was going to happen, like most people in the world! For the first three weeks I didn’t do much, but then after that I started prepping these gardens, which took about six weeks – it’s a full time job in itself. Then we started firing up the kitchens again, and we wanted to start supporting the farmers, not just for us but because they were starting to struggle. So we set up a hamper scheme with cheese and dairy, vegetables we’d grown ourselves, things we’d made in the kitchen such as pâté, and some local cider. Then we developed that into an online e-commerce shop and people were coming to pick things up from the restaurant, so that was really nice, being able to support our producers. That then developed into a pop-up shop, which then turned into a bakery, then into a takeaway. So a lot we’d never done before! But it was a great experience doing all these things. I’d like to look at some avenues to continue some of them but we’re a small restaurant with a small team and at the moment we can only concentrate on doing one thing really well, which is the restaurant.
Have you changed suppliers since moving from London to Somerset? What is the region particularly good at growing and rearing?
The Husbandry School in Devon that I was working with last time I spoke to Port still grow things for me and they always have. At the moment we’re not using as much stuff as I’m growing it myself, but they’re still very much there and a huge inspiration. And they’ve grown with me, with every restaurant I’ve opened they’ve grown too, so throughout the winter they’ll be coming to my rescue I’m sure! That will be the difficult time for us. They’re the only one I still work with, apart from a poultry supplier who is actually round the corner from Osip but I didn’t know that when I worked with them in London. As for the region, it’s great for dairy, it’s good for growing apples and pears, there’s a fair bit of wild game, and amazing cider.
What do you most enjoy cooking and eating?
Vegetables. I am fascinated by vegetables and the possibility and potential that they offer, which is often overlooked by expensive proteins that I am, to be quite honest, bored of. Not that I don’t like an excellent steak or lobster sometimes, but I don’t get as excited about cooking them as I do beautiful vegetables. I went for a walk today to see what is growing wild and I realised we’re moving into my favourite time of year to cook, at that crossover period at the end of summer when wild game and mushroom season starts but you also have the late summer fruits such as damsons and plums. That’s the time of year I get most excited about cooking.
The global pandemic seems to have encouraged us all to think more about sustainability in our own daily lives, something that you’re already doing at Osip. Do you think the pandemic might have a long-lasting impact on gastronomy?
I didn’t want to sound too pessimistic before, I’d rather people were talking about these things than they weren’t talking about them and I agree, people seem to be taking these things a bit more seriously. The reason a lot of people don’t do it is it’s not the easy way, its more expensive, it’s more time consuming, and it’s not easy, if it was everyone would do it. I think during the lockdown people have had more time to think about what to do in this situation, where they’re going to shop for example, and supporting your local business has become really important: would you prefer to queue up outside Asda with hundreds of people for your milk or go to your local farmer? I think that has been great and I think that’s here to stay – supporting your local and putting value on the people who are producing your food. There was all that panic around food and not being able to get food, and we had a problem in the UK with a lot of our workers, such as fruit pickers, because they went home and they couldn’t come back here because of Covid-19. And so the government were getting people to try and sign up to do the work and I think people were realising, yeah someone has to do it, and I have a lot of respect for the people that do it, because it’s hard work.
Any plans for the future?
I’ve just taken on more land that I’m hoping to develop into a farm. At the moment I’m growing on two different plots, one is quite small and one is more of an allotment. That’s been great for summer, but if I want to grow all year round then that’s my next step. So farming has become as much a part of my life as cooking. I didn’t know anything about it when I started in March, but at the same time I’ve been so connected to it for the last seven years, as the restaurant I worked in back in Belgium where I worked before London had the same idea. So I worked with the farmers and although I never actually did the work myself I feel like I had a good understanding of it, or at least I thought I did!