Interview & Photography Etienne Gilfillan
From helping out in the school canteen to earning a Michelin star at the age of 24 just nine months after opening his first restaurant, Merlin Labron has come a long way in a short time. It’s a journey that has taken him from Devon to Fitzrovia via a culinary education in the regional cuisines of Switzerland, France and Belgium. Journal talked to him about the joy of vegetables, reducing food waste and his passion for pickling…
You grew up in South Devon and started out on your culinary journey helping out in the school kitchen – can you tell me about that?
I came to an agreement with the school cook whereby I would wash the dishes and be paid in lunch. She was a terrific cook. I started helping her prepare the lunches and eventually graduated to cooking them by myself while she tended to her other duties – she was also the school receptionist. I’d have a budget and I’d head into town to buy the goods – organic and vegetarian. It was a strong start.
Has she ever come to eat at Portland or your second restaurant, Clipstone?
She did! It was a very special moment for me but sadly I couldn’t be there on the night. She wrote me a very sweet letter afterwards, though, with some feedback on all the things she ate…
Did your fascination with cooking start at an early age?
I wouldn’t say I was always fascinated by cooking but I certainly loved to eat. I would cook for myself a lot at home and it didn’t take me long to figure out that the better I cooked, the better I’d eat!
Are there any particular ‘food memories’ from your Devon childhood that you hold dear?
My father has two dishes in his repertoire: pheasant casserole and apple crumble. We ate a lot of both. He’d haggle for pheasants in the farmers’ market and he’d use apples from our tree to make the crumble. It was very rustic; he wouldn’t bother peeling the apples and the crumble was made with oats and soft brown sugar. We’d always eat it with double cream and he’d make big trays so we’d have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It hasn’t put me off – I still do love a good crumble.
How did you end up working in Switzerland and Belgium?
I went to Switzerland to do a ski season when I was 18. I only planned on staying there for four months but I fell in love with the region and stayed for two and a half years. After that, I moved to the Haut Savoie region of France. I worked in fine dining restaurants, cooking very classical French cuisine. It was extremely serious and disciplined but I loved it. I learnt things that I could never have learnt working in the UK and I’m very grateful for that. After France, I found myself working at restaurant In de Wulf in Belgium which was incredible. It was there that I found my love for pickling, fermenting, curing, foraging and vegetable cookery. We cooked a tasting menu of about 22 courses using only local ingredients and wild foods.
Did you travel around Europe a lot when you were based there? Any other favourite ‘local’ cuisines?
Yes, when I lived in Switzerland I’d often cross the border into Italy, and when I lived in Belgium I was just a 20-minute drive from Lille in France. From Lille you could get quickly to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and London. Of all of these cities, Brussels was probably my favourite to visit. I’d go on a Monday when the restaurant was closed and come back on the Tuesday night. I’d hang out in the Bourse district and I’d always eat at a restaurant called Viva M’Boma which I believe translates to “long live my Grandmother” in local dialect. They specialise in offal and Bruxelloise cuisine and I’d eat things like veal kidneys in mustard sauce with dripping fries and brown sugar tart for dessert. It was totally joyful and there was a lovely blues bar around the corner where all the washed-up musicians would come down to jam with each other and get drunk on good beer. Things would get a bit loose after that!
You earned a Michelin star very quickly. Has it been constricting or liberating?
It hasn’t really been either. The star was bestowed upon us, which, needless to say, we were rather pleased about. Since then, we’ve just carried on doing what we do, but always striving to get better at it.
You have a keen interest in making your own vinegars. Can you explain the process?
I love acidity in food, because it allows me to produce dishes that are rich and indulgent whilst being clean and not too heavy. At any one time we’ll be using 10 or so different vinegars in our tiny menu. There’s two ways we make vinegar at the restaurant: one is by infusing basic white wine vinegar with flavours – fruit, herbs, aromatics – and the other is by mixing fruit scraps with a little sugar and water and allowing it to turn naturally into vinegar. Both methods are really a way of reducing our food waste. Fennel and other vegetable tops, old herbs and soft fruit get infused into vinegars, and fruit peelings, scraps and cores get turned into natural vinegars. It’s really easy to do at home, and naturally made vinegar is really good for you.
Tell us about your work Skye Gyngell as well as with Food for Soul. Are there any other similar projects you are looking to start yourself, or be involved with in the coming year?
I did an event with Skye where we looked at many aspects of food waste within restaurants and their supply chain, and then cooked a delicious feast using things that are often discarded and overlooked. The profits went to a charity called the Felix project, who go around collecting surplus food from business and then distribute it to shelters that feed the homeless. One of those shelters is called the Refettorio Felix and is founded by Massimo Bottura and Food for Soul. I cook there once a month, and we do a three-course meal using produce that has been rejected by the supermarkets – which is, of course, perfectly edible. It’s terrifying what people are throwing away these days!
Fitzrovia has always had a vibrant restaurant culture. Do you have any favourites in from roaming the neighbourhood?
I have to say, I don’t do a lot of roaming in Fitzrovia – but if I did, I’d roam into Honey and Co and eat all of their cakes.
You are known for your beautiful plating – do you have a clear idea of how the dish will look when you create the recipe or do you experiment with the ‘design’ once you’ve perfected it?
Yes, I often have an idea of how a dish will look when I create it – it’s part of the fun. There are lots of chefs who will tell you that it’s not important that food looks good, it’s all about the flavour. They are right! But I like making food look good too. Why not?
Finally, if you hadn’t become a chef, are there any other artistic avenues you think you might have wanted to explore?
No, If I wasn’t a chef I’d be a Farmer. Back home in Devon, where I belong!
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