Merlin Labron-Johnson: 'I didn’t feel inspired to cook in London anymore.’

We chat to Osip chef and founder Merlin Labron-Johnson about finding inspiration in Somerset, and how COVID shaped his award-winning restaurant.

Updated on • Written By Pete Dreyer

Merlin Labron-Johnson: 'I didn’t feel inspired to cook in London anymore.’

After years honing his craft in Switzerland, France and Belgium, Merlin Labron-Johnson became the youngest chef ever to win a Michelin star in the UK, receiving the award just nine months after opening Portland in 2015. He was 24. Two years later, with two more restaurants - Clipstone and The Conduit - also part of his stable, he did the unthinkable and left the big city behind. ‘The crux of it is, I didn’t feel inspired to cook in London anymore,’ he says matter-of-factly. ‘It felt mechanical. There wasn’t anything that motivated me once the excitement had worn off.’

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Instead, he had dreams of growing his own produce and rearing his own livestock away from the concrete and smog. For Devon-born Labron-Johnson, a return to the south west seems like an obvious story, but it wasn’t quite that simple. ‘I always felt very tied to the West Country,’ he explains, ‘but I thought it was sensible to stay closer to London, because I’d invested a lot in building something here.’ He exhausted options in Kent and Sussex, before stumbling upon bijou Somerset gem Bruton. ‘I was introduced to the people renovating these buildings by chance,’ he says, gesturing to the surrounding walls. ‘They had planned to set up a hotel, but they had a space that could be a cafe or a restaurant.

‘I came here and saw the site, and it just reminded me of home. I felt like I was half way between where I grew up in south Devon and where I ended up in London. It just felt right straight away.’

Living the farm-to-fork dream

And so we find ourselves at Osip - without question one of the UK’s most exciting restaurants right now, and number one in SquareMeal's Top 100 UK restaurants in 2022. The dining room is a pastel oasis - a spectrum of pale greens and blues, with smatterings of exposed stonework and whitewashed brick that hints of Labron-Johnson’s fondness for Fergus Henderson’s magnum opus St. John. All the produce that hits the tasting menus comes from Osip’s farm or from local suppliers, and the menus focus largely around vegetables. ‘The menu’s mostly vegetarian because we grow vegetables,’ says Merlin, again showing a talent for concision. Labron-Johnson and his growing team are constantly at work on the farm, so the kitchen team knows exactly what produce is on the way and can plan dishes accordingly. Oh, and as for the menu itself? Yeah, you don’t get one - not until you’ve finished your meal, anyway. Just come along, grab a seat and enjoy the ride.

Labron-Johnson himself is thoughtful and introspective, and Osip feels every bit his reflection, but the restaurant has been on quite a journey to reach this point. If the restaurant was meant to be, it had a funny way of showing it; Osip opened in December 2019 - three months later the UK was in lockdown and Labron-Johnson was phoning around to cancel bookings. ‘In so many ways the timing was awful,’ he says. In other ways, though, it proved a blessing in disguise. With the restaurant closed, Labron-Johnson found himself with time to work on the first part of his farm-to-fork dream.

‘Osip was my first solo restaurant - I was chef and owner, doing everything. I’d never have had time in the infancy of a restaurant to contemplate setting up the farm,’ he explains. ‘But I did.’

The short version of that is, despite the cancelled bookings, the months of closure, the scramble to diversify and supply locals with hampers and jars of rillette, Osip wouldn’t be the restaurant it is now without COVID. The farm is so integral to everything that Osip does, it’s hard to envision this restaurant without it. Labron-Johnson has a full team dedicated just to growing on the farm, as well as a kitchen and front-of-house team firing on all cylinders. Many of the team have moved to Bruton just to be part of his vision.

'At one point I thought we'd lose the restaurant...'

Still, Merlin arrived back in the south west with some apprehension about how his ideas would be received by locals. ‘I was very nervous about how a restaurant like Osip would be perceived,’ he admits, ‘especially the idea of having a tasting menu, or no menu as we do now.’ As a result, the restaurant opened with caution - the inaugural menu was an a la carte, and prices were as low as Merlin could possibly push them. It was pared-back, a muted version of what he really wanted to do.

So, what changed? Merlin admits that Bruton’s overwhelmingly supportive locals helped with the transition, but COVID once again played a part. ‘At one point I thought we’d lose the restaurant,’ he says. ‘Four months in when COVID came along, I wasn’t sure how we’d survive it.’

Survive they did, though, and when Osip reopened, Merlin found himself less apologetic for his vision. The restaurant’s near-death experience left them unwilling to compromise and ready to fulfil their potential. Out went the menus, and in came tasting menus, wine pairings and a renewed commitment to using home-grown farm produce.

The response was emphatic. Osip has been fully booked since with a mixture of locals and gastro-tourists, and a bright red Michelin star now hangs on the wall by the entrance. If anything, Merlin has hit a saturation point in terms of what Osip can do with the space and the staff. ‘Bruton is like the Notting Hill of Somerset,’ Merlin sighs, ‘which makes it really hard to find places for our staff to live.’

Merlin is tight-lipped about future plans, but it’s clear that he sees plenty of airspace for Osip to grow into. ‘We haven’t even been open for a year of consistent trading,’ he says. ‘We’ve been open since May 2021, so we’re nearly into our first year of trading, which is mad! I feel like it’s still a new restaurant, but a lot of people know about us already.

‘We just want to keep evolving the idea of Osip into something bigger and more exciting over time. I’m really proud of what we’re already doing but this is very much the beginning of our journey.’

Who or what have been your biggest influences?

I’ve always paid more attention to what’s happening outside the UK than inside the UK - most of the chefs I really love work in France. There’s a place called La Grenouillere in La Madelaine-sous-Montreui - an amazing restaurant that has been around a very long time. The chef Alexandre Gauthier has a very clear identity, it’s not traditional French at all but the chef likes to work with local produce.

It was very close to the restaurant where I used to work called In de Wulf - a similar concept but very vegetable focused, and also quite traditional. There was a lot of cooking over fire, fermenting, curing and pickling at In de Wulf - now everyone does it but In de Wulf was doing it over a decade ago, before that approach really took off here. That was how I learned to cook.

I also love what Dan Barber does at Blue Hill Stone Barns - one of the best meals of my life was at Blue Hill. We had something like 18 courses and barely had any protein at all. When we did have protein it was almost an afterthought, the vegetable was always the star of the show. It was still satisfying, and just, good! The whole experience was amazing.

What are your favourite restaurants in the UK?

I really love what Ikoyi does. I think they’re leading the way in the UK in terms of challenging the norms of fine dining and doing it in a very humble way. I’m good friends with Jeremy and I’ve known him since they started. I love talking to him about food.

I love Spring and Skye Gyngell’s approach to cooking, and I love eating at The River Cafe - places like that still inspire me even though it’s very different to what we do.

What was the last great meal you had?

I recently went to Casadonna Reale, a three Michelin star restaurant in Abruzzo. I feel like Italian chefs are either really into simplicity or completely the other end of the spectrum! He (Niko Romito) is a total purist - he just made a lot of noise in Italy, because he has three Michelin stars but he does a tasting menu that is entirely vegetarian. The food is very clean, not a lot of fat or dairy but really tasty. It’s quite humble too - Osip is quite clean and minimal, but Reale almost makes Osip look overembellished! It’s a beautiful restaurant.

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