In many ways, Merlin Labron-Johnson is like a lot of cosmopolitan millennials. He lives in an Edison bulb-illuminated flat in east London. He started growing food on a balcony next to the Overground tracks in his mid-20s. He has a beard.
But Labron-Johnson also bagged a Michelin star at the age of 24 (at Portland, where he was head chef before moving on to The Conduit, a private members’ club in Mayfair). Now, he’s bringing his culinary efforts to the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in the name of showing hungry attendees what they can cook not from what they grow, but from what they can forage.
“Elderflowers, sheep sorrel, Jack-by-the-hedge, wild strawberries, purslane,” he rattles off as the train to Highbury and Islington rumbles by. “And some unusual things. We’re going to take the guests around the garden and be like, ‘You can eat that!’” Once they’ve worked up an appetite by learning the nutritional benefits of plants they had previously considered weeds, Labron-Johnson’s guests will be allowed to eat what he cooks up from the Wild Garden – all five courses of it.
He’s worked with a gardener, forager and the open minds of the RHS on the project, all of whom are assisting with Labron-Johnson’s dreams by recreating coastal, woodland and meadow areas from which to harvest dinner.
“I gave them a list of literally everything I cook with,” he grins.
It’s an interesting project. Timely, too: as with houseplants and the much-feted avocado, foraging is becoming an increasingly popular sport among a younger demographic, especially those like Labron-Johnson, who are into their food and find the confines of London stifling. It’s a natural extension from the growing interest in eating sustainably and seasonably, which in certain parts of northern America has got out of hand – Labron-Johnson tells me about ramps, a wild onion native to the States that has become so fashionable “that people are just tearing up the countryside and they’re almost becoming an endangered species.”
Things are, mercifully, less frenetic over here, although the creeping advance of three-cornered leek and related greens on to menus in eateries around the capital has been undeniable. Indeed, as we wait for the kettle to boil, Labron-Johnson tells me to help myself from a bowl of wild garlic capers.
Eating with the seasons, however, is no passing fad for the chef, who grew up in Buckfastleigh, Devon, also home to the now-ubiquitous but then-revolutionary Riverford Farm. “They had just started doing this box scheme for the local community,” Labron-Johnson recalls. “I grew up in quite a poor household but my parents believed in good-quality food grown properly.
“All the weekly meals would be focused around this box, so I learned about farm-to-table even though I didn’t realise it at the time.”
Stints in rural restaurants in Switzerland and Belgium kept him tied to local produce. In the former, Labron-Johnson would cycle to the kitchen through fields of strawberries and asparagus before cooking the very same crops. In Belgium, the head chef refused to use anything that had come from further than an hour away, so he was sent out to forage. “Once you learn it, you can’t go for a walk without spotting edibles everywhere. Even in London. I see edible things in parks everywhere.”
Bees are flocking to the tall yellow flowers of a brassica on Labron-Johnson’s balcony. The name briefly escapes him but he does know that the leaves “taste kind of mustardy.” He grows things like a chef, waving a hand casually at troughs of pak choi, fledgling chard and beans starting to flower, while telling me he makes salad three times a week from his pots. Along with salad greens, he suggests nasturtiums as an ideal urban crop: “The flowers are nice and you can eat the buds as well,” he says. “When the flowers drop off and go to seed, you have those seed pods which you can turn into capers. Really delicious.”
These are plants grown for flavour: one big pot of feather-leaved fennel bulbs and another of lemon balm, which he drinks in tea. I’m impressed by the ambitions behind the burgeoning carrot and courgette crops in such a small space, but I suspect that he is growing for the love of it, rather than the yield: “There’s only one of everything,” he laughs. “It’s just so satisfying to plant seeds and see little things coming up.”
After so many years living with the empty horizons of agriculture, it was another chef who convinced Labron-Johnson he could grow his own ingredients even in London: Darina Allen, whose 100-acre Ballymaloe Cookery School is the stuff of legend. “She’s obsessed with the idea that everyone can grow their own food, no matter if you live in a high rise,” he says of his time spent on Allen’s farm, which boasts a tiny mock-up of an edibles-rammed urban plot. “She got me really thinking that I could do it here.”
He is similarly fond of the community-tended Skip Garden that is currently in place in King’s Cross, and offers seasonal edibles in the middle of a busy area where cranes and commuters collide. “It looks beautiful, all this green against the concrete,” Labron-Johnson says. “It was really inspiring, they were using such innovative planters – old sinks and wheelbarrows.”
But London is only a temporary thing, really. Labron-Johnson escapes it as often as he can, and the plan is to do so more permanently, to open a farm-to-table restaurant in Cambridgeshire that works to a similar ethos as his Hampton Court project, but full-time. “We’d show them around the farm and then they sit down and eat,” Labron-Johnson explains. “You’re basically forcing people to connect with the food. They’ve seen the vegetables, so when they taste them, it’s going to taste so much better.”
Nettle risotto with asparagus and parmesan
Prep time: 15 minutes | Cooking time: 40 minutes
- 1 bunch of wild or normal green asparagus
- 300g nettle leaves, picked using gloves
- 125g butter, cold and diced
- 1 onion, very finely chopped
- 400g rice
- 125ml white wine
- 2.5 litre hot vegetable, chicken or ham stock
- 100g parmesan, grated
- Blanch the asparagus then drain, saving the water, and chop into 1cm pieces.
- Set the asparagus aside and then, using gloves to handle them, blanch the nettle leaves for two to three minutes in the same water. Drain and blend to a smooth purée.
- Heat 50g of the butter in saucepan over a medium-low heat, then gently cook the onion until soft.
- Add the rice, stirring for a minute or so, then add the wine, allowing it to bubble and disappear.
- Add the stock one ladleful at a time, allowing the liquid to disappear before adding another lot. After 15 minutes, add the nettle purée and asparagus.
- Cook for two minutes then check the rice is done. Remove from the heat and add the rest of the butter and parmesan.
Tomatoes with burrata, wild strawberries and herbs
Prep time: 10 minutes, plus 45 minutes macerating time
- 1kg mixed tomatoes
- 15g caster sugar
- 15g fine sea salt
- 6 small burrata cheeses
- 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 120ml extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large handful wild strawberries
- A handful of each, to garnish: fennel fronds, basil leaves, tarragon leaves, pickled elderflowers (optional)
- Slice the tomatoes into even-sized pieces (roughly 3cm) and place on to a tray. Season carefully with sugar and sea salt. Leave for 45 minutes to one hour at room temperature.
- Divide the burrata between six large bowls and arrange the tomatoes around the cheese.
- Retrieve any of the leftover tomato juice and mix with the red wine vinegar and the olive oil. Spoon over the tomatoes.
- Divide the strawberries between the plates, season and garnish with the herbs and flowers.