There can be no greater playground for both design and food than running your own kitchen. Walk into either one of Merlin Labron Johnson’s establishments in Bruton, Somerset – whether it’s the Old Pharmacy, a wine bar, bistro and deli set in a 500 year old building; or Osip, the rustic farm-to-table restaurant adorned with dried flowers and chalky linen hues – you’ll see Johnson’s rustic flair and pared back design aesthetic. It comes through in his food, too: delicately plated but seriously wholesome dishes in earthy shades that pop against the textured stoneware. “I want guests to feel like they are in someone’s home whilst enjoying the buzz of activity from the kitchens,” Merlin tells us. Clearly comfort is key; but so is creativity and innovation. All done in the simplest of ways. It’s how we like to gather our own guests, too. We caught up with Merlin to talk about his cooking style, comfort food and the knife that does it all.
Where did your love of cooking come from?
I grew up in Devon surrounded by farmland and eating with the seasons, so this definitely stoked a curiosity in me. But the love for it really began when I was a teenager. I struck a deal with the school cook who let me help her in exchange for lunches. I became obsessed with cooking from then on. It led me to Europe, where I spent time in some amazing kitchens across France, Belgium and Switzerland and that really cemented my passion for ingredients.
How would you describe your cooking style?
I like to cook simple yet imaginative food with a classic underpinning. My food is always ingredient-led, vegetable-forward and dictated by the seasons and the bounty of Somerset, where I live. We cook predominantly with things that we grow at Dreamer’s Farm, the land that supplies my two restaurants.
When you’ve got the time to cook and really enjoy an evening at home, what’s on the menu?
It’s usually some form of comfort food, a pie, a roast or a nice dessert. Maybe some fresh pasta.
What are you cooking for friends when they’re coming over to your house?
Maybe Pot au Feu, or a Tuscan bean soup with chunks of fresh bread, a big sharing dish basically! I love the social aspect of all sharing from one pot around the dinner table.
Osip and The Old Pharmacy both have a very pared back, beautiful aesthetic – what was the inspiration. How do you want people to feel when they’re there?
The inspiration comes from time spent in amazing farmhouse kitchens both in the UK and further afield. I want guests to feel like they are in someone’s home whilst enjoying the buzz of activity from the kitchens. They’re relatively simple spaces, with a lot of thought given to the quality of materials which I suppose reflects the way we cook.
How does that compare to your own home?
We live just a few doors down on Bruton’s highstreet, so we get to enjoy the same charm of being in an old building, with a rustic kitchen that has old wooden beams and flagstone flooring. It has a large dining table too. I would say the aesthetics of the restaurant are reflected at home.
Can you tell us about an ordinary object that has a special significance in your kitchen?
It’s without a doubt my Opinel pocket knife which was gifted to me by my dear brother, Louis. They’re of such simple yet enduring design, and feel so comfortable in your hand. I use it for foraging wild herbs and mushrooms, picking things from the garden and preparing vegetables at home. It also reminds me of the Savoie region in France, where I used to live.
What’s your favourite piece in the Monoware collection?
The serving platter in the beautiful sandstone colour is perfect for hosting.
What’s a dish that reminds you of home?
Apple crumble, one of the few dishes in my father’s repertoire. We used to eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner!
Your favourite cuisine?
It’s got to be pretty evenly split between French and Italian!
Best song/album for a dinner party?
I tend to like some faint crooning in the background for dinner, nothing too dominant so that we can enjoy good conversation. In Spite of Ourselves by John Prine is a perfect album or something by Leonard Cohen.
Portrait of Merlin by Maureen Evans