It is Merlin Labron-Johnson’s favourite time of year. “The garden is at its best but you’re also starting to get a slight feel for autumn,” the chef explains. “Blackberries, apples, plums, wild mushrooms …” When Merlin mentions “the garden” he is in fact talking about the two plots he tends to in rural Somerset. The first, a market garden set within the sun-baked walls of a nearby country estate, the second, Dreamers Farm, a former dairy farm on which he grows “pretty much every variety of vegetable that is possible to grow in this climate.”
Between both sites, Merlin and a small team of growers produce enough fruit and vegetables to supply Osip, the Michelin-starred micro restaurant he runs in Bruton, and The Old Pharmacy, its neighbouring wine bar, bistro and grocery store.
Merlin spends as much time as possible in what he calls his “happy place” – the fields. Unusually, they are fields that don’t belong to him: “I don’t own the land and there’s no rental agreement,” he confides. “I’m just allowed to use it.” In return, the landowners receive regular veg boxes and a seat at either venue. For Merlin, growing has become integral to his craft. “At the moment, our staff volunteer on their days off, but I’d like anyone who works for me – whether it’s in the kitchen or front of house – to experience a paid shift a week on the farm.”
A local grower named Harry also works on the farm. Harry is in his 60s and has been growing vegetables “his entire life”. In fact, Merlin has Harry to thank for the “pumpkin mountain” that is slowly taking over one corner of the farm. “We inherited an enormous pile of cow shit from the previous owners of the farm, which we were incredibly grateful for,” he says. Each year, they plant 250 pumpkins which duly unfurl in the mountain of fertile muck.
Osip opened with spectacularly bad timing at the end of 2019. “Opening a restaurant just completely takes it out of you at any time,” he reflects. “But this was my first solo project: I had no backers or partners. I was basically alone. And so those first weeks of lockdown and all the uncertainty that came with that were obviously terrifying. But actually, for different reasons, it was OK ...”
For the first time in 16 years, Merlin – who has worked with food since the age of 15 – stopped working. The lockdown lengthened and the sun shone. “It gave me time to take a step back and reimagine what I actually wanted my restaurant and my life in Somerset to be,” he says. “That was when we built the idea of growing our own food.”
By the time the restaurant reopened in 2021, Merlin had decided to let the produce lead. He removed the menu, instead allowing the kitchen to become “spontaneous” – guided solely by what was coming out of the ground. For Merlin, it meant he could “be in complete control of the produce and how it’s used – as well as making sure nothing is being wasted.” (Osip also holds a green Michelin star.) At the end of the meal, diners are handed a descriptive list of the dishes they have just experienced.
Merlin grew up in Devon and learned to cook at an unconventional secondary school that was “run by the students.” Lessons weren’t compulsory and – given the choice – Merlin decided not to attend. The son of a poet and a museum curator, he had received a bursary to attend the school, but his parents couldn’t afford the school lunches, which he describes as “three courses of amazing, vegetarian, properly cooked food.” In exchange for food, he helped the cook with peeling potatoes and washing up. “I found that I enjoyed that a lot more than anything else I was doing,” he recalls. “Over time, I was given more responsibility and my teachers recognised that cooking sparked something in me. They actually encouraged me to cook more.”
At 15, he added a year to his age so he could work at Ashburton Cookery School. That short-lived experience launched his career in food. “From the age of about 16 I was completely committed to that,” he says. In his youth, Merlin’s grandfather had worked a ski season in Zermatt in the Swiss Alps and he encouraged Merlin to relive this experience. So, at 18, Merlin travelled to Europe and began cooking in “really serious restaurants” in France and Belgium. “I had in my head that if I worked in the best restaurants in the world, then I would eventually reach that same level,” Merlin recalls, pointing out the stark contrast between his secondary school education and the “miliary-style training” he underwent in French kitchens.
He arrived in Belgium to work as sous chef for Kobe Desramaults at the now-closed In de Wulf restaurant – an experience that “had a very meaningful and lasting impact” on him. He talks of Desramaults as a mentor – “a self-taught, super-creative chef who was leading the new movement of cooking that was about foraging and fermenting and growing your own food. It was contemporary in the presentation and the thought process, but the techniques were actually very old-fashioned.”
In 2014, he returned to London to launch Portland – a neighbourhood restaurant that gained a Michelin star nine months after opening. (Merlin meanwhile, became Britain’s youngest Michelin-starred chef at the age of 24.) Clipstone in Fitzrovia opened a year later, followed swiftly by The Conduit. Despite the accolades, Merlin was restless. “The crux of it is, I didn’t feel inspired to cook in London anymore,” he has previously admitted. “It felt mechanical. There wasn’t anything that motivated me once the excitement had worn off.”
Osip is an antidote to that. “It's my first ever solo project,” he explains. “It’s a restaurant idea that continues to grow into something bigger and more meaningful.” The name also holds personal meaning. Merlin was named Osip until he was a week old, when his parents decided to switch his first and middle name. “Osip is a Jewish name and is another name for Joseph,” he explains. “But it also has a more spiritual meaning: ‘God will multiply’ or ‘he will multiply’. And I even read somewhere that it means ‘he who brings plenty.’” A fitting description of a chef who is able to turn a mountain of manure into so many memorable dishes.
Salad of Beans with Plums and Ricotta
Serves 4 as a starter or light lunch
600g fine beans (I used a mix of green and yellow fine beans, but you could also use runner beans)
1 shallot, finely diced
3 tbsp best-quality white wine vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
75ml extra virgin olive oil
6 small Victoria plums (or you could also use 3 peaches or nectarines)
Handful of fresh basil leaves and olive oil to finish
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, season it generously with sea salt so that it tastes a bit like (hot) seawater.
Remove the tops off the beans, and the tails if you like. Blanch the beans in the boiling water for 5 minutes and taste one: it should be cooked through, but not overcooked and grey. They might need a little longer.
Remove from the pot when you are happy with the doneness, drain and leave to cool.
Put the ricotta in a bowl and beat with a wooden spoon until nice and smooth. Season with black pepper and a little salt, if it needs it.
Halve the plums and remove the stones. Slice the plums into bite-size pieces. Chop the beans into bite-size pieces. Set aside.
Take a mixing bowl large enough to hold your beans and plums. Put the shallot, mustard, vinegar and a pinch of salt in the bowl and mix well with a spoon. Then, drizzle in the olive oil as if you were making a vinaigrette. Toss the beans and plums in the vinaigrette and leave to marinate for 5 minutes.
Divide the ricotta between four bowls, spreading it out with a spoon on the bottom. Then, divide the bean and plum salad between the four bowls, piling it up in the middle of the ricotta.
Tear some fresh basil leaves over the top and finish each bowl with a glug of olive oil on top for good measure.
Interview by Nell Card.
Photographs by Marco Kesseler.
Merlin wears our Arlo Garment Dyed Herringbone Jacket.