By Nick Compton
Photography by Nina Manandhar
October 17, 2022
Recognition came quickly for chef Merlin Labron-Johnson. Just nine months after he helped set up Portland restaurant in central London in 2015, it picked up a Michelin star. He was 24 – the youngest chef in the UK to head a Michelin-starred kitchen.
The Portland team quickly added the more affordable Clipstone and a restaurant at The Conduit, a members’ club for positive changemakers, in Covent Garden. As the London restaurant scene’s rising star, Merlin seemed set on building an empire.
But the young chef had other plans. Born and raised in rural Devon in southwest England, he had spent six years cooking in France, Switzerland and Belgium before co-founding Portland. He enjoyed working close to nature and farming during his time abroad and wanted to weave those values into his next venture in the UK. And he wanted to do it alone, in his own way, somewhere without an established reputation.
In 2019 he began looking for a legacy-free site in the gently rolling “home counties” that encircle London. Nothing felt right at first. But then, a hotelier invited him to open a restaurant in what would become the highly rated Number One – a charming 12-bedroom boutique hotel in Bruton, the second-smallest town in England.
For Merlin, it was a return to his roots in England’s temperate southwest. Located in Somerset country, an area hardly known for its fashion or food, Bruton managed to carve out a reputation as a rewarding countryside getaway.
Fashion, food, art and craft
The town’s upscale At the Chapel restaurant, bakery and wine store started pulling in the crowds when it opened in 2008. Hauser & Wirth, one of the world’s powerhouse private galleries, opened a rural outpost, complete with restaurant and Piet Oudolf-designed gardens, in the town in 2014. Hole & Corner magazine, champions of contemporary craft and artisanship, had also announced it was opening a shop in Bruton.
Most spectacularly, the South African telecoms billionaire Koos Bekker and his wife Karen Roos, a former editor of Elle Decoration, were about to open a painstakingly restored Palladian pile a few miles out of town. The Newt was to be a luxury hotel and spa with an on-site restaurant and café, set in 300 acres of gardens, farmland, and forest.
“There seemed to be this blurring of food and art and fashion and craft – all the things that really fascinate me – happening in the same place,” Merlin says. Sold on Bruton, he opened his 30-seat restaurant, Osip, with chic but austere interiors, at the tail end of 2019. Three months later, the UK entered the first of a series of Covid-19 lockdowns.
Closing the restaurant was an existential threat, but it also gave Merlin time to fulfill a long-held ambition. “Growing our own produce was something we planned to do once the dust had settled,” he says. “And with a restaurant, it can take a few years before the dust settles.”
From dining to art, Bruton’s creative culture seems powered by a particular kind of generosity and collectivism – a sense of mutual support and encouragement. And that kind of local magnanimity accelerated his move into farming.
“Very soon after opening the restaurant, I was approached by the owners of a large estate just outside Bruton,” he says. “They have ancient apple orchards and fruit trees everywhere. And they said, ‘Come and help yourself to what’s on our estate and if you want, you can use this beautiful walled garden in the middle of the orchards; we’d like to see it used.’” He outgrew that patch of land but was soon offered an entire farm to work – all in exchange for the occasional free dinner.
Part of the community
So far, so good for Osip, which has survived multiple lockdowns and earned a Michelin star. Last summer Merlin opened The Old Pharmacy, a wine shop/wine bar, store and small-plate eatery next door.
In July 2022, the two businesses hit a particularly pleasing landmark. “I looked at the menus, and every dish included something we had grown ourselves.”
Osip’s lunch “menu” – a six- or nine-course set or the menu du jour – stars fruit, vegetables and locally sourced meat and dairy. Sometimes, he says, locals pop in and offer things they have grown in the garden or the odd pheasant. Merlin roots his menus in the local and seasonal, so change is a constant.
In the past, though, he has served up freshly baked treacle and ale bread with smoked hay butter, sprinkled with grated duck heart, followed by wild garlic ravioli, fresh trout with orca root, and cheese profiteroles or a strawberry vacherin to finish.
A connection with the local community is crucial for Merlin. “I grew up in rural Devon [about 1.5 hours southwest by car], so I know how local people respond to new things, especially coming down from London. They might see it as gentrifying or pretentious,” he says. “I was apprehensive before we opened but was taken aback by how welcoming the community was and continues to be. They were just excited that somebody else was contributing to this great place.”
For Merlin, that emphasis on looking out for the community sits comfortably with an uncompromising pursuit of excellence in all areas. “We’re fascinated by design and craft, in the same way, that Hole & Corner is. It’s about creating a menu entirely from local or Somerset produce but also building a beautiful, world-class restaurant using local craftspeople and designers.”
Handily, the artisans Merlin could call on include Bill Amberg, one of the world’s most respected interior leather workers. “He’s an absolute sweetheart, has an amazing reputation for creating beautiful things and is really involved in the community. He upholstered our chairs in exchange for dinner.”
There seemed to be this blurring of food and art and fashion and craft – all the things that really fascinate me – happening in the same place.
Inevitably, Bruton is now a fixture in travel magazines – a byword for a new kind of rustic chic. But, especially on a dull, mid-winter weekday, the town retains a low-key, unstudied charm.
When it comes to Merlin’s day-to-day, he insists that keeping his plates spinning and the businesses profitable is hard and hard-to-predict work. “One day, I might be running the kitchen; another, I might be on the farm working with the gardeners, harvesting or planting. Or I might be in boring finance meetings or working in the wine bar.
“I feel like this is just the beginning of this journey,” he adds. “It was a weird beginning because of Covid, but we are going to keep on doing what we are doing and try to get better at it.”
The Best of Bruton
From bookish boltholes to rustic wine shops and restaurants, here’s where chef Merlin goes to experience Bruton’s creative side.
The world-class art exhibitions are the star attractions at this former farmstead, but take time to explore the grounds, too. Renowned Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf has transformed the land with a spectacular garden, including a large perennial meadow situated behind the gallery buildings.
The brick-and-mortar home base for the cult-classic lifestyle magazine is as cosy as you might expect. Drop in for curated fashion, decor, textiles, stationery and, naturally, reading material.
Like so many venues in Bruton, this quaint wine shop-slash-dining space pays homage to the town’s history. Set in a light-dappled 500-year-old building that formerly housed a pharmacy, the aptly named venue serves a rustic, satisfying menu featuring ingredients from the farm, as well as local cider.
Set in a renovated 18th century chapel, this airy restaurant offers a Mediterranean spin on modern British cuisine. Most of the produce comes from local, organic and biodynamic growers, farmers and suppliers, with a smattering of Italian imports. Don’t miss the sourdough pizzas.
Occupying a series of preserved buildings – a restored Georgian townhouse, medieval forge and row of cottages – this boutique hotel celebrates Somerset’s rich tradition of arts and crafts. Rooms boast vintage furniture, playful colours, exposed beams and delightful curlicue stairs.