Trout with Leeks and Wild Garlic

Merlin Labron-Johnson, the Michelin-starred chef behind Osip, shares a recipe for issue 28

Ingredients

500g trout fillet, scaled and pin boned
50g rock salt
10g caster sugar
1 shallot, finely sliced

400ml water
1 glass of dry white wine
100ml cream
1 handful parsley leaves
1 handful wild garlic
1 lemon
3 large leeks
75g butter
1 slice of old bread, crusts removed
Olive oil

Method

Place the trout flesh side up in a dish large enough to sit in the fridge. Mix the rock salt with the caster sugar and smear over the flesh of the trout. Grate over the zest of one lemon. Leave for four hours before rinsing the fish, making sure to remove all the salt and sugar. Use a clean towel to dry the fish fillet and return to the fridge uncovered for another few hours to allow the fish to dry out a little.

Wash the leeks well and separate the green part from the white part. Roughly chop the green part and place in a saucepan with the water. Bring to a boil and cook for 30 minutes on a gentle simmer before straining through a sieve. You will use this leek broth for your sauce. Slice the white part of the leeks as thinly as possible and sweat very gently in 25 grams of butter for 30 minutes without any colour. Season with salt and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 150 degrees.

Put the shallots and white wine in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Cook until almost evaporated and then add the leek broth and cream. Cook for a further 10 minutes then transfer to a blender. Separate the leaves from the stems of the wild garlic. Add the leaves and half the parsley to the blender and blitz until smooth and bright green. Return to the saucepan and add the remaining butter. Season with salt and keep hot.

Cut the trout fillet into four even-sized pieces and place in an ovenproof dish. Drizzle a liberal amount of olive oil over each piece, cover the dish with foil or a lid and place in the oven for 15 minutes. Dice the bread into tiny cubes and fry in a little olive oil. Chop the wild garlic stems and the remaining parsley as finely as you can. Reheat the leeks.

After 15 minutes, the trout should be lightly cooked, flaky and a little bit raw in the middle. Remove from the oven and top with the chopped parsley, wild-garlic stems and fried bread.

Divide the hot leeks between four bowls. Place a piece of trout in each bowl. Give the wild-garlic broth a good whisk and pour a little onto each plate, serving the rest in a jug on the side.

This article is taken from Port issue 28. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here

Nature and Nurture

Award-winning chef Merlin Labron-Johnson reflects on the joy of growing his own produce

Photography Izzy de Wattripont

You can’t cut corners gardening. No shortcuts, no rushing. Like cooking, every single process must be respected because each dictates the end result. When you are creating a dish, you are nurturing those ingredients in much the same way you love, care and pay attention to what you’re growing. Both practices are unforgiving, and in the beginning I made plenty of mistakes – the trick is not to make them twice.

I grew up in South Devon, and the countryside is where I feel most comfortable. How I cook and approach food is very much connected to agriculture, landscapes, the wilderness. What I previously lacked in London was inspiration; I was on autopilot. Yesterday, I walked through a beautiful pine forest and was transported to the Swiss Alps, where I cooked for many years. I think most creatively when I am outside, watching the plants grow, feeling the seasons change.

Launching a restaurant is often traumatic and chaotic, never mind on the eve of a pandemic, and having to close Osip’s doors after only five months was hard. The first lockdown gave me time to reflect on what I’d created and what I did and didn’t like about it, what I would change in an ideal world. After a brief respite from the day-to-day madness, I could actually see the wood for the trees. The restaurant I reopened that summer was 10 times better than the one I’d closed, and the most important factor behind this was teaching myself how to grow.

We now have two sites, essentially next door to the restaurant, to cultivate vegetables – Spargrove and Dreamers Farm – and this direct relationship inspires what we cook. I intend to be entirely self-sufficient all year round, and will be busy during the hunger gap – the January to May period in the UK where little grows – clearing and ploughing the ground, building polytunnels and greenhouses. I have overwintering things like kales, cabbages, chards, onions, garlic, and purple sprouting broccoli currently working their magic underground, and I’m planting strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, as well as black, white and red currants in time for summer.

I am guided by and at the mercy of the land. It’s rare to be in an environment where a chef can pick something that morning and serve it for lunch. The difference in flavour is enormous because every day that a vegetable is out of the ground, it deteriorates in quality. My cooking has never had a clearer identity, or felt more emotionally rooted, because I’m only working with ingredients I’ve grown myself. Osip is an expression of who I am.

Ethical and ecological opinions aside, I’m bored of protein. I love a steak as much as the next person, but I find vegetables to be infinitely more versatile in the ways they can be prepared and presented. In the past, this country has been particularly unimaginative with vegetables. In France, they have different ways to describe national methods; carrots à l’Anglaise means to boil in water with no salt. That says it all really. If you look at the way Italians prepare produce, there’s real thought and care poured into every step. Perhaps we’re still on that journey of discovery here in the UK.

In recent years, some of the greatest meals of my life have revolved around the humble vegetable. I felt sated, satisfied, enthused but not heavy. There’s a distinction to be made between being full and fulfilled.

As told to Tom Bolger

Photography Izzy de Wattripont

Merlin Labron-Johnson became the UK’s youngest Michelin-starred chef in 2015. His latest project is the farm-to-table restaurant Osip – and the accompanying wine bar and épicerie, The Old Pharmacy – in Bruton, Somerset. Having only been open for seven months, Osip was recently awarded a Michelin star.

This article is taken from Port issue 28. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here

The Path to Positive Change: Episode 2

Port’s second podcast episode, featuring Emily Adams Bode and Studio Formafantasma

In the second episode of The Path to Positive Change, host Jamie Waters is joined by Emily Adams Bode, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin. Adams Bode is the NYC based founder of Bode, the agenda setting menswear brand that’s loved in the fashion industry for its craftsmanship and use of vintage textiles to create unique, one-off items. Trimarchi and Farresin, meanwhile, are the co-founders of Studio Formafantasma, a design firm based in Amsterdam that’s celebrated for its innovative use of materials and incisive questioning on the way the design industry operates. We discuss sustainable design, consumer appetites post-Covid, and collaboration across disciplines.

 

Our third starter episode will be released next week, so stay tuned, with following podcasts arriving once a month across Spotify.

The Path to Positive Change: Episode 1

Port’s new podcast series, talking to industry leaders across creative worlds. Episode 1 includes the founder of Studio Nicholson, Nick Wakeman, and award-winning chef Merlin Labron-Johnson

The Path to Positive Change is a new monthly podcast series created by Port. We bring together industry leaders in fashion, as well as surrounding creative worlds such as art, design, film, architecture, literature, food and music to look back at recent work, and reflect on how brands and culture can be a force for good. Whether it’s looking at how to make the world more sustainable, sources of inspiration, or a deep dive into shifting habits, we hope you enjoy listening.

Recorded at the close of a tumultuous 2020, Thomas Bolger catches up with Nick Wakeman and Merlin Labron-Johnson. Wakeman is the creative director and founder of Studio Nicholson, the iconic menswear and womenswear brand based in London whose elegant collections are immediately recognisable due to their functionality, modernity and playfulness. Labron-Johnson, who recently collaborated with Wakeman on sharp new uniforms, is an award-winning chef whose latest project is the farm-to-table restaurant Osip and accompanying wine bar and épicerie, The Old Pharmacy, based in Bruton, Somerset. Having only been open for seven months, Osip was awarded a Michelin star earlier this year.

 

We will be releasing our second and third starter episodes in the coming weeks, so stay tuned, with following podcasts arriving once a month across Spotify.

Osip

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!

osiprestaurant.com

Questions of Taste: Merlin Labron-Johnson

The UK’s youngest Michelin-star chef discusses sustainable fine-dining and cooking for refugees

Growing up in the idyllic countryside of south Devon, Merlin Labron-Johnson has always been surrounded by organic and sustainable farming. Responsibly sourced and socially conscious food continues to drive his cooking, whether that’s at his newly opened restaurant in Mayfair, The Conduit, or through contributing to the UN’s Chefs Manifesto. Awarded a Michelin star at a mere twenty-four years old, he has recently opened three critically acclaimed restaurants in as many years. 

Having worked in some of the finest kitchens in Switzerland, France and Belgium, Merlin is perhaps best known for his head-chef role at Portland – which he founded in Fitzrovia in 2015 – and which went on to receive a coveted Michelin-star only nine months later. Softly spoken and down to earth, he also manages to find time for charitable endeavours through bi-monthly cooking at Massimo Bottura’s non-profit Refettorio Felix and workshops for asylum seekers via Help Refugees.

Port was lucky enough to sample some dishes at The Conduit – sourced from small-scale farmers and fishermen predominantly within the British Isles – including lamb buns, golden beetroot and sea bass, before talking to Merlin about sustainability, experimentation and the importance of charity.

Can you tell me about some of the partners you’re working with at The Conduit?

One of our dishes has vegetables from a small farm in Devon where I grew up. This particular farmer has a project which works with kids who have been through the care system – foster care or borstal – and they re-engage and inspire them through outdoor work, teaching them about food and animal husbandry. They learn how to sustainably rear livestock and grow vegetables which are beneficial to the environment and local community. The byproduct of their work is genuinely the best vegetables I’ve ever eaten anywhere, so for the last four years they’ve been a source of inspiration for most of my menus.

Often strict guidelines focus creativity, is it refreshing having the producer dictate what goes on the menu?

When you limit yourself with what you can work with, you force yourself to think outside the box and cook things you wouldn’t normally cook. English produce can be repetitive, the same thing all year round. We have thoroughly unglamorous ingredients like swiss chard, kale and beetroot, but I like that challenge. When you actually produce a dish with these ingredients that’s really good it’s deeply satisfying and much more rewarding. It’s the job of a chef or a craftsman to take something quite basic and humble and use your skill to turn it into something special.

How are you building sustainability into the restaurant?

I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to reduce food waste it is to make sure you don’t produce it in the first place. As a chef you have a responsibility to write a menu that either has no waste or creatively moves it to another dish, closing the circle. Up until recently we used leftover coffee grinds from the whole club to make a dough for celeriac’s, for example. As for the supply chain, it’s all about having a good relationship where you can influence the supplier to choose more sustainable methods for transportation and packaging. If turn to your fish supplier who you spend half a million with every year and say: ‘we don’t want polystyrene boxes anymore and if you don’t sort this problem we’ll go somewhere else’, they don’t want that to happen. People at the top level within the hospitality industry need to use their buying power and influence to drive change.

                

What do you love to eat on the menu at the moment?

I like to cook game in season as it’s one of the few meats that is arguably sustainable, because it’s wild. We do a dish with mallard, wild duck, which uses the whole bird. We take the heart, legs and liver and make a sort of rillettes pâte, place it on top of yesterday’s bread that’s been fried in the duck fat and slice the breast on top with a little bit of watercress and horseradish. Add a sauce made from the bones as well as blackberries, and other fruit we’ve preserved from the summer, and you’re done. That dish embodies what the kitchen is all about, using everything from the animal and inventive preservation. It’s not a very healthy dish!      

How we currently farm and consume is wreaking havoc to the environment. With the global population expected to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050, are you optimistic about the future of food?

The short answer is no, I’m not optimistic. Something’s got to give as the population is growing too fast for us to come up with a solution that feeds all those people that is not only sustainable, but has no negative impact on the climate or economy. The problem is that bad quality food is cheap to produce. A lot of the world’s hungriest people can’t afford to have a choice – that problems not going away. The dream would be for communities to become self-sufficient. Food wouldn’t have to travel, it’s plant-based, the people producing it would get a fair price. That’s very difficult to achieve on a large scale, but I don’t think that that means we should just give up. You can definitely make a difference, even if it’s only by 3%. In France it took a few politicians to pass a law whereby it was illegal to dispose of edible food waste and now it has to be given to charity. Bit by bit we can improve, but at the same time the problem’s getting bigger and bigger as we make these incremental improvements.

Why do you give time to Refettorio Felix and Help Refugees?

Growing up in Devon I wasn’t so exposed to suffering and poverty as you are in London. Having lived in the countryside my whole life, it was a shock moving and seeing so many people struggling, and also feeling powerless to help them. I think there’s a London mentality that you’re always too busy or don’t have time. It’s not that people are insensitive or mean, we just underestimate the value of giving something small, or a small gesture.  

What really changed it for me was going to Calais about three years ago and seeing 10,000 refugees in the Jungle. There was a tiny kitchen out there with about five volunteers – they weren’t trained chefs – and it was amazing to see how a few people had gotten together to help, how powerful it was. Once I’d been there and seen that, it’s hard to walk away.

When cooking in refugee camps, what are the challenges catering for 1,000 people a day? How does it compare to a professional kitchen?

Firstly, it’s very difficult. You don’t have a budget of more than 20p per person and it’s mainly dry or tinned ingredients with some fresh stuff. You want it to be a one pot dish because you a thousand starving people lining up and want the queue to move quickly, but you also want it to be nutritious and wholesome. You cook a lot of pulses, rice and stews. Dahl is perfect. With people from over 25 different ethnic backgrounds all in one camp, you can’t always agree on what everybody likes!

Merlin Labron-Johnson is curating an upcoming chef’s banquet on March 21st to raise funds for Help Refugees, joined by Nuno Mendes, Skye Gyngell, Imad Arnab and Thomasina Miers