Thursday, 16 August 2018

Guest Chef: Merlin Lebron Johnston


A couple of weeks ago the Summer 12 week Certificate Course students had a special treat, 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.

Merlin Lebron-Johnson

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.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

To add to your bucket list

If you have compiled a little list of things you’d like to do before you die you might like to add; ’take an Aer Arann plane to the island Inis Meáin’...It only takes six or seven minutes but it’s a memorable flight in a tiny Cessna plane. Check in at the friendliest little airport (Connemara Airport) where you’ll be weighed in with all your bags and handbags. Travel light because if you and your baggage are too heavy you’ll have to wait for the next flight or take a ferry from Doolin. Once airborne you’ll be out over the sea in minutes and then a glimpse of the tiny fields of Inis Meáin surrounded by dry stone walls, ancient and hauntingly beautiful, a few cattle here and there and fields full of wild flowers. You’ll wish the flight would last longer as you taxi along the runway at Inishmann Aerodrome, towards the bungalow with the control tower on top. The fire-engines all standby but fortunately no need.  A warm welcome to Inis Meáin, the least visited of the Aran Islands and for me the most enchanting. It comes as a shock to hear Irish so clearly and beautifully spoken and to realise that English is the second language on this island. Padraig Pearce came here to improve his Irish and so did Synge whose thatched cottage one can still visit
No ‘hurdy gurdies’ here just one shop and one pub and miles of tiny boreens to walk or cycle through, some of the boreens still have a rough surface and a strip of grass growing along the middle, here and there edged with harebells and ladys tresses and ox eye daisies. When I cycled my bike along I was on my way to Cromall at the south end of the island to watch a couple of traditional currachs (albeit with motors attached) pulling up lobster pots.  
The profusion of wild flowers in the fields reminded me of the meadows of Transylvania. I’m sure it rains occasionally in Inis Meáin but somehow the sun always shines when I’m there. We stayed at the lovely Inis Meáin Suites, two blissfully relaxing days being cherished by Marie-Therese and nourished by Ruairi’s pure and delicious elemental food – a taste of that place, of the island, of the produce from their garden and the surrounding sea, a very special place – you’ll need to plan a year ahead – bookings are open for 2018 sometime in November.
When you get there make time for a visit to Inis Meáin knitwear, beautiful, beautiful knitwear. Some utterly simple, others incorporating the traditional island patterns and the changing colours of the sea and landscape.
Visit Synge’s Cottage too and Dun Chonchuir or “Conor's Fort”. Pop into the church to see the Harry Clarke stained glass window and try to take in a ceilidh in the village hall where everyone from 9 to 90 taps their toes, swings and joins in for a Siege of Ennis and The Walls of Limerick...aahh that’s what memories are made of.