The Summer 12 week Certificate Course students had a special treat last week, when Merlin Lebron Johnston from Portland Restaurant in London came as guest chef to The Ballymaloe Cookery School. This gentle young man is the youngest Michelin starred chef in the UK
His back story is intriguing. Merlin had a distinctly, rocky relationship with school, eventually he was fortunate to be sent to Ashbourne, a progressive school in Devon, where the students in conjunction with the teachers made the decision that going to lessons was not compulsory on the assumption that if they did turn up to class, they would be interested and give it their all. This worked brilliantly for 95% of the students, but Merlin was not interested in any class so he hung around for a bit…The secretary, a lady called Joanna doubled up as a cook and produced school dinner every day. Three courses – vegetarian, organic and delicious. The students could either have packed lunches or school dinners but the latter was expensive so Merlin would plead with Joanna to give him some food, “She made rice pudding and crumbles, crème brûlée, great salads, pasta. I would beg her for some. We made a deal. If you want to cook you need to wash up, fine with me and seeing how I wasn’t that busy I started helping her cook and after a bit she got busier and eventually I started to cook for my school at 15….” When exam time came the teachers said, “Well you seem to love cooking, we think you should be a chef”, so Merlin left and got a job. “Once I found cooking I became pretty obsessed and became totally focused on working in the best restaurants”.
For the next five years Merlin worked in top restaurants in the UK, Switzerland, France and Belgium, both classic and experimental, including In De Wulf in Belgium where there was a big focus on foraging and fermentation. At 23 he became sous chef there. Meanwhile in London, Will Lander and Will Morganstern were looking out for a head chef for a new restaurant they planned to open in Great Portland Street, so at 24 he became head chef at Portland and was awarded a Michelin Star within 9 months of opening, the youngest chef in England to be awarded that accolade.
Here are some of the delicious dishes he showed us how to cook.
Merlin Labron-Johnson’s Smoked Cod’s Roe with Grelot Onions or Leek Greens and Chervil
We used spring onion greens instead of grelot tops.
1.5pcs smoked cods roe (good quality!) (1kg/2 1/4lb approx.)
3 slices white bread, crusts removed and soaked in milk
2 peeled and crushed garlic cloves
lemon juice of 2 lemons
lemon zest of 1 lemon
100ml (3 1/2fl oz) olive oil
250ml (9fl oz) sunflower oil
Grelot top green oil
400g (14oz) grelot tops or leek greens
650ml (1 pint 2fl oz) sunflower oil
600g (1 1/4lb) white wine vinegar
400g (14oz) water
200g (7oz) sugar
400g (14oz) yellow mustard seeds
First make the mustard seeds pickle: Pour boiling pickle over mustard seeds and leave for 12 hours
Remove the roe from the sacks and discard the sacks. Using a food processor blend the roe with the garlic, bread and the lemon zest. Slowly incorporate the oil bit by bit to make a smooth thick mayonnaise like emulsion. If it becomes too thick let down with a little of the milk used to soak the bread. Season with salt and lemon juice. Pass through a drum sieve if not completely smooth and put in piping bags. It should be thick and velvety.
Grelot onions or leek greens
Separate the onion bulbs from the green tops. Reserve the green tops and set aside. Place the onion bottoms in parchment or tin foil envelopes with a pinch of salt and a glug of olive oil and close ‘en papillote’ bake at 180C for 12-15 minutes until cooked but not soft. If the onions are different sizes divide them into 3 different ‘grades’ and cook them all separately in batches (i.e. longer for the larger ones) so that they are all perfect.
Roughly chop the green tops and blend with the oil in a food processor on full speed for 4 minutes then strain through cheesecloth and leave to hang in the fridge. Freeze the strained oil. Once frozen scrape the frozen oil (gel) into a new container leaving behind the frozen leek/water residue. This will give you a perfectly clear green oil
To serve, pipe large blobs (equivalent of 3 tablespoons) into a bowl, use a spoon to create a well in the centre of the cod’s roe. Put 2 tablespoons of onion oil in the well. Dress the onion petals in the white wine vinegar and place around the edge of the cod’s roe. Place a generous amount of chervil over the onion petals and serve.
Merlin Labron-Johnson’s Crudo of Wild Sea Bass, Smoked Cream and Heritage Radishes
If you are unable to get wild sea bass you could substitute it with brill, turbot, halibut, large plaice or sea bream.
300g (10oz) thick sea bass fillet, skinned and pin boned
100g (3 1/2oz) salt
100g (3 1/2oz) sugar
1 bunch heritage radishes
200g (7oz) best quality crème fraiche
1 large shallot, finely diced
Mix the salt with the sugar and sprinkle a layer on a tray place the sea bass fillet on top and sprinkle with the rest of the cure. Leave for 30 minutes then wash thoroughly in cold water. Dry in a towel.
Cold smoke the cream using a commercial smoker or big green egg. Mix with the chopped shallot, the juice and zest of the lemon and a little sea salt.
Thinly slice the radishes on a mandolin. Slice the fish as thinly as possible using a very sharp knife. Lay the slices on a cold plate in a circle. Cover the fish with the smoked cream. Cover the layer of cream completely with the sliced radishes, then dust with raspberry powder.
Merlin Labron-Johnson’s Lightly Cured Wild Trout with Elderflowers, Unripe Peach and Watercress
1kg (2 1/4lb) wild trout fillet, skinned and pin boned
15g (1/2oz) salt
10g (1/3oz) sugar
elderflower vinegar (white wine vinegar infused with lots of elderflowers and elderflower branches)
100g (3 1/2oz) homemade yoghurt, hung overnight it muslin cloth to remove excess whey.
2 unripe peaches
150g (5oz) small watercress
good quality extra virgin olive oil
Mix the 15g salt, 10g sugar and zest of 1 lemon together and sprinkle over and underneath the trout fillet/s. Use your hands to rub the cure into the fish to make sure it is evenly distributed. Leave for 10-12 hours in a fridge. Use a clean cloth or kitchen towel to wipe the fish fillets dry and remove any remaining cure. Taste a few slices of the fish to check for seasoning. Wrap the fish in a clean cloth.
Season the yoghurt with salt and a little lemon juice.
To serve, cut the fish into slices (a little thicker than sashimi or carpaccio but not too much!) and place on a cold, flat plate. Put a few dollops of the seasoned yoghurt onto the plates. Slice the peaches on a sharp mandolin and arrange on and around the trout slices. Dress the watercress with elderflower vinegar and olive oil and add to the plate. Sprinkle with lots of fresh elderflowers, grated lemon zest, sea salt and generous amounts of good olive oil.
Merlin Labron-Johnson’s Ricotta Gnudi with Courgettes, Walnut and Nasturtium
350g (12oz) smooth, thick Ricotta cheese (Galbani can work) left to hang in muslin cloth overnight
30g (1 1/4oz) parmesan, finely grated using a microplane
1 egg yolk
1kg (2 1/4lb) semolina
4 x green courgettes
1 large yellow courgettes, sliced into thin rounds using a mandolin
100g (3 1/2oz) spinach leaves
nasturtium leaves and flowers
30g (1 1/4oz) walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
Put the ricotta in a mixing bowl. Add the egg yolk, grated cheese and season with a little grated nutmeg. Mix well using a wooden spoon.
Put some 1/3 of the semolina in a large plastic container ensuring there is an even layer on the bottom. Using your hands, roll the Ricotta mix into ping pong sized balls and place directly onto the layer of semolina ensuring there is a distance of at least 1cm between each one. Cover the Gnudi with the remainder of the semolina ensuring that they are completely buried with semolina in between and on top of each ball. Place in the fridge for a minimum of 16-24 hours.
Peel the green courgettes and reserve the peel. Cut the flesh into cubes, 1cm approx.., and sweat slowly in olive oil until soft taking care not to add ANY COLOUR! Leave to cool. Boil the Courgettes skins in salted for 1 minute and refresh in iced water. Boil the spinach in the same water for 30 seconds and refresh in iced water. Drain the spinach and courgette skins and place in a blender with the courgette flesh. Blend on full speed with 4 ice cubes until very smooth and very green. It should have the consistency of a thin puree/thick soup. Loosen with a little water if necessary and season with salt.
To serve, boil the Gnudi in boiling water for 3-4 minutes and dress with a little olive oil. Warm the yellow courgettes slices in a small pan with a little water, olive oil and lemon juice until they start to go translucent (just cooked) and season with salt. Warm the courgette puree and place in the bottom of a warm bowl. Place the Gnudi on top of the puree and top some chopped walnuts. Cover the Gnudi in the slices of yellow courgette and decorate with lots of nasturtium leaves and nasturtium flowers.
Merlin Labron-Johnson’s Buttermilk Ice-Cream with Meringue, Raw Honey and Wild Flowers
150g (5oz) cream
142g (scant 5oz) sugar
75g (3oz) glucose powder
120g (scant 4 1/2oz) milk powder
4g (scant 1/5oz) salt
170g (scant 6oz) icing sugar
160g (5 1/2oz) egg white
1 tablespoon dried or fresh lavender flowers
80g (3 1/4oz) raw fresh honey
35ml (scant 1 1/2fl oz) elderflower vinegar
5g (1/5oz) fresh elderflowers
selection of edible flowers
To make the ice cream, boil the sugar with the cream. Leave to cool. Using a hand blender add the glucose powder, milk powder and salt. Add the mixture to the buttermilk, mix well again using a hand blender. Pass through a sieve and churn in an ice cream maker. (This makes just under 1 litre. The recipe can be multiplied according to the size of ice cream machine)
To make the meringue put the egg white in the bowl of a kitchen aid with a squeeze of lemon juice, using the whisk attachment, whisk slowly until the meringue starts to form very soft peaks. Start to add the icing sugar, one spoon at a time until you have a thick glossy meringue. Using a spatula spread the meringue over non-stick parchment paper so that it is flat and evenly spread. It should be the thickness of a £1 coin. Sprinkle with the lavender flowers. Place in an oven at 70 degrees with low fan and leave to dry until crisp and easy to remove from the paper in large shards. Place the shards in an airtight container.
Warm the honey and add the elderflower vinegar and fresh elderflowers. Season with a squeeze of lemon juice depending on the sweetness of the honey.
To serve, put a few scoops of ice cream into very cold bowls (preferably stored in the freezer for 30 mins before serving) and decorate with shards of meringue, add lots of wild flowers and drizzle over the warm dressing of honey and elderflower vinegar.