Clipstone: A Harmonious Riot of Colour and Texture

While Instagram overloads on Clipstone’s bracingly simple, colourful, perfectly formed dishes and critics declare themselves smitten, executive-chef Merlin Labron-Johnson, 25, is quietly going about his business. We talk to the rising star about colour, texture and critics.

– Your dishes are a harmonious riot of colour and texture. What bearing does colour have on taste?
People definitely eat with their eyes and a big part of taste is what you see and smell. If you take away sight and smell, you only get a small proportion of the experience of what you’re eating. Many of my dishes are themed around colour, like the purple venison plate and the black and white halibut with radishes. I think that when something is visually surprising, the flavour feels more delicate and intricate.

– What about softness and texture – what part do they play?
Unless it’s something like a risotto, you don’t want it to be all one texture. I look for something soft, which will be the comforting element of the dish, and then something crispy or crunchy. If you have too much soft or crunch, it doesn’t work.

– Where do you eat when you’re not at Clipstone or Portland?
The kind of restaurants I’ve worked at and where I like to eat are not fussy. I like Lyle’s and Taberna do Mercado. They’re very different restaurants but they serve food that looks simple. They don’t use complicated techniques but they know how to get the most flavour out of something.

– You grew up in Totnes, discovered you loved cooking while at school, then went on to work as a chef in Switzerland, France and Belgium. What’s it like to be a chef in London?
In a way, it’s more of a challenge feeding British customers. In France, people would never come to a restaurant and say they’re gluten-free or vegan or vegetarian. That can be challenging but I really enjoy cooking for vegetarians and vegans. I just ask them to tell me what they do or don’t like. But British people are more adventurous now. Calves brain is flying off the menu at Clipstone.

– Giles Coren described Portland as “the perfect restaurant”, AA Gill proclaimed it “the brilliant borzoi’s bollocks”. You were only 24. How did that feel?
Obviously I was thrilled and loved it; Giles’ one was even over the top. It was my first job as head chef. I’d never lived or worked in London. I thought I was opening a little restaurant in Great Portland Street where no one really goes, serving lunch and dinner to people at the BBC. I was shocked when we got the Michelin-Star. I took a month off in July last year, it was only then that I could reflect on what happened. We have open plan kitchens so I know when they’re in, if I recognise them.

– What do you love about your job?
I really enjoy the camaraderie. There isn’t one person at Clipstone or Portland who doesn’t want to be working there and doesn’t get excited about what we’re doing.

Words: Frankie Angelini
Photography: Keiko Oikawa