Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Merlin Labron-Johnson: "Food Tastes Better When You Connect With It"

18 July, 2022
Merlin Labron Johnson

Photo by: Maureen Evans

So after five years in London, Labron-Johnson felt very strongly that he wanted to cook in a different way. “A way that felt more natural to me and that was really being in a rural place and surrounded with nature and farming, and that was where I felt most comfortable cooking so I was searching for a place to do that outside of London.”

It just happened to be Somerset where he found the perfect place. “It was a coincidence. I was introduced to someone who was renovating an old building in Bruton I already knew a bit because it was starting to be quite a talked about place. Also, it’s an hour and a half from London, so basically where I wanted to be - I didn’t want to be much further away, but it’s also quite close to where I grew up, and the landscape, the town, reminds me of home so it felt nice.”

Merlin Labron Johnson working in the garden

He opened Osip in the worst possible time – two years ago at the height of the pandemic, with no partners, just him and the vision he had to create something unique in a town where people appreciate creativity. He got lucky and was offered to keep up a large garden in the beautiful historical estate a stone’s throw away from Bruton, on an untouched patch of land with a flock of sheep and an old apple orchard, all at his disposal. Eventually he added more land and decided to build the Osip menu around whatever his team picks from the farm. This wasn’t part of any larger plant-based menu trend or some savvy PR move, it was a purely logical decision.

He went a step further, took out the formal menus, and decided to serve the guests what’s available that day, most of it being vegetables. “90% of what we're cooking is stuff that we've grown ourselves. So, on any given day, half of the dining room might get served a carrot and half of it a celeriac. Summer is easy. Spring is the worst,” he acknowledges, while serving me a spectacular spring menu consisting of stand-outs like spring taco with mole verde and purple sprouting broccoli; roasted root vegetables tea with burnt garlic oil and smoked black tea; and white onion royale with morels, vin jaune and wild garlic. There’s some protein in there as well, all locally shot or organically raised, like the cured pork jowl that covers white asparagus like a delicious meaty blanket with roasted yeast sauce with beer; or the roast chicken with hen of the woods mushroom and béarnaise.

Spring taco and roasted chicken

Spring Taco and Roasted Chicken, Photo by Maureen Evans

“I had a discussion with a friend, a journalist, about this idea of local food and how people talk about it so much, but don't actually practice it. Whereas we don't talk about it that much, because we try to be a local restaurant, just because it’s quite easy for us. All our dairy comes from Bruton, and it just turns out it's the best dairy products you can get in England. We grow our own vegetables and there's amazing meat and fish. So we use it because it's just here and it's good and it's actually easy. The advantage of being here is that we don't have to work very hard or look very far to have really beautiful, fresh produce that’s exciting to work with,” he ponders as he drives me literally 10 minutes to his cheese producer, Westcombe Dairy, which specialises in cheddar (we are in Somerset, after all) made of raw cow's milk.

Another successful collaboration is with Pilton Cider, with whom he produced a cider made with old apple varieties matured on grape skins and aged in old whisky barrels, applying natural wine production techniques, and bottled exclusively for Osip. You get a bright, amber-hued glass of it as an aperitif, instead of champagne, to accompany the fried artichoke with black garlic, farm radishes with whipped sesame, and trout-turnip roll with Japanese mustards he serves for amuse-bouches.

Osip Cider

Osip's Cider, Photo by Maureen Evans

Oddly enough, it was the pandemic that shaped Osip, made it stronger, and moulded it into this tiny Osip empire that now encompasses a Michelin-starred restaurant, two farms, a cider collaboration and a next-door casual bistro with an excellent natural wine selection and a shop with artisanal produce. “All of this came organically and was hugely impacted in a positive way by Covid. Because when I opened the restaurant, I was really struggling as one normally would at the beginning, especially when you are young and inexperienced and don't have much money. Three months in, we had to close because of Covid, and that was really scary at first. I thought that it was all going to fail but we didn’t.”

“Once we got through that, lockdowns actually gave me time to think about what I wanted to do in Bruton, how I wanted to change the restaurant, but also building the farms and the orchard and making the cider, all the cool projects, even The Old Pharmacy was never planned. It came out of Covid. I opened it in the third lockdown. So it was a weird process – when we weren't in lockdown, we were concentrating on Osip. But when we went into lockdowns we were really putting a lot of energy into making the most of these periods of what could have otherwise been a great depression.”

Old Pharmacy interior and Caponata

Old Pharmacy interior and Caponata, Photo by Maureen Evans

Two years in, another Michelin star under his belt, and with Osip crowned the UK’s best restaurant by SqaureMeal, Labron-Johnson doesn’t really see many downsides working in the countryside as opposed to London. “Biggest challenge is attracting and retaining highly-skilled staff. Apart from that I don’t really see any. The fears I had about opening a restaurant in the countryside, they weren’t very well founded. I was worried it would be quiet during the week, that the local people would think it wasn't for them… All false, it turned out.”

“The biggest advantages – apart from growing our own vegetables? Just a better quality of life for me and my team in terms of the balance and the fact that there's less competition for these sorts of restaurants, so we stand out in the area. I think that's really nice and that we are creating a sort of destination for people, or at least contributing to it. What's very attractive about our restaurant is you can come to Osip and spend the weekend. And there's lots of other nice things to do. It really feels like a break away from the city,” says the 31-year-old, who says he definitely feels Somerset is his final stop, not just a rural respite before returning to the big city.

“There's a lot to be said of this idea that food tastes better when you connect with it in a sort of spiritual way. When I went to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, one of the chefs took me around the garden and showed me all these beautiful things growing. Then we sat down for this meal and I was eating the things that we looked at and touched and talked about earlier. Obviously they tasted better and more exciting for that experience. You feel more passionate about it. Just like with wine when you visit the winemaker. I feel there's something really important about getting people to connect with food and storytelling in that way. And when I was in London I felt that that was completely and utterly non-existent.”

Cod Roe and Baby carrots

Cod Roe and Baby Carrots, Photo by Maureen Evans

But whether it’s London or Somerset, many of the challenges facing chefs and restaurants remain the same -  the lingering Covid, staff shortages, Brexit and inflation. “We're really feeling it at the moment. We are realising that our restaurants are not going to be financially viable if we make all the changes that our industry needs to see, unless we start to think about almost doubling our prices, which I personally don't think our customer base is ready for.”

What’s the solution then? “I think there has to be some sort of understanding from customers that if they want this luxury experience, which is incredibly painstaking and takes a lot of craft it's going to be more expensive. Because at the moment, people want the fine-dining experience, but they don't want to pay what it actually costs to produce it. And chefs need to talk about it more because that's the only way that people are going to find out.”

Tom Kerridge

Tom Kerridge Forced to Cut Menu Due to Rising Costs

Next Article