After Service with Merlin Labron-Johnson

We sat down with guest chef Merlin Labron-Johnson of The Conduit and Portland to discuss his experience of cooking lunch with the team at Refettorio Felix as well as tips on eliminating food waste and incorporating surplus into home cooking.

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Merlin, how often do you come to Refettorio Felix?

I come here once a month, at least.

Can you speak a little bit about the experience of being a guest chef here at the Refettorio?

The first time was quite challenging. Actually, it’s always a challenge because you never know what you’ll be cooking until you arrive. But it gets easier every time. It’s always a joy to work with Cleo, Nassim and the whole team here. I’ve learned a lot from working with them and equally I think they’ve learned a lot from having guest chefs in the kitchen. I’ve also met some amazing people, because you have great volunteers and the guests too. The first time I came I didn’t really interact with the guests, but overtime you start to build relationships. It’s beautiful really.

Has volunteering at the Refettorio influenced your practice in the kitchen?

The more we cook with surplus, the more you open your eyes to what can be achieved with ‘food waste’. That’s definitely what we do in the restaurant as well. I suppose you do take it into the restaurant, but the food I cook here is completely different.

What are the easiest ways for home-cooks to incorporate surplus into their cooking?

The goal is not to produce waste in the first place. Waste is a rubbish word. There should be other words for waste, like opportunity. As soon as you call it waste, you see it as something that shouldn’t be used. You need to be creative, and you’d be surprised by what you can do. That’s what we do at The Conduit, we try to do something with everything, and sometimes it doesn’t always work out, but sometimes you’re like wow, this is really cool.

What changes need to be made in the restaurant industry?

It’s an interesting question, because the answers are kind of the same as at home. You think, how can I be inventive? If you’re starting with writing a menu, you think how can I write a menu that doesn’t produce any food waste in the first place? And it’s easier than people might think. There’s accidental food waste. You might have a dish that produces a small amount of waste, but then you have to create a dish that uses that waste. That’s the easiest way to do it, in the systematic approach to dealing with it before it becomes a problem.

Do you think that now the general population is more receptive to the zero waste conversation than in the past?

The more you look at the problem, the bigger it becomes. I think that the message is getting out there, and yes, it is being well received, but I think the problem is so enormous, that it’s hard to see. I think supermarkets need to change. They’re at the very heart of the problem and have the power to solve a good part of it if they wanted to. If supermarkets were to even change 10% of what they do in terms of production and food waste, the impact would be massive.

Was producing zero waste part of your culinary education?

My culinary education was the opposite. I worked in multi-Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe where they would take a lettuce and just use the very heart and discard the rest without even thinking. After a while, you want to do something different. After achieving what I wanted to achieve in my career as a chef, all of the awards and stuff like that, I decided that if I was going I was going to put my energy into my career in a more meaningful way.

Interview by Natasha Bunzl.

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