Merlin Labron-Johnson — the head chef of Michelin-starred London restaurant, Portland in Fitzrovia — has been appointed as the executive chef of a new central London project with a very specific “manifesto.” The Conduit, a members’ club whose fourth floor restaurant, Labron-Johnson will oversee, says it wants to serve as a “home for a diverse community of people passionate about social change.” It will open on the former site of Brasserie Chavot on Conduit Street in Mayfair, in mid-September.
Founded by entrepreneurs, Paul van Zyl, Rowan Finnegan, and Nick Hamilton — the Conduit, as reported by the FT, wants to bring “together social entrepreneurs, investors, creatives, business leaders, policy-makers and civil society,” to act as a “catalytic platform for individuals tackling some of the most pressing challenges facing us today.”
One of those issues is food — specifically the supply chain and sustainability. Which is where Labron-Johnson comes in: a chef who is deemed suitable based on his “imaginative, modern cooking” and “passion for sourcing.” As well as running two London kitchens, the chef has been working with Massimo Bottura’s (who’s restaurant Osteria Francescana was recently named “the best in the world”) Refettorio Felix centre for the homeless, as well as contributing to the Chef’s Manifesto, which supports the UN’s sustainability programme. Bottura will join Labron-Johnson at the restaurant for a four-day guest chef appearance ahead of the opening, which is currently slated for the 17 or 18 September this year. He says that two or three people “at that level” will hopefully appear as guests each year.
Labron-Johnson, who will split his time across his three London interests from September, told Eater that his “completely uncompromising” focus at the Conduit will be on working with small, independent, and sustainable producers. There will be only 36 covers, which will give him license to work “exclusively” with producers to whom he can commit to taking everything they produce. He jokes that it’s different to working in a Michelin-starred restaurant where it’s “slightly more challenging to work with Swiss chard for seven months of they year — when that’s the only thing that grows.”
The key difference to working in a more orthodox restaurant kitchen is, Labron-Johnson says, that the producer will dictate what goes on the menu. It won’t be a case of writing a menu and then calling the suppliers; instead “we’ll take everything they grow” and work it out from there. It will, therefore, be “more veg-centric” than his other restaurants, and “more limited,” too. But he is relishing the opportunity for creativity, and the calibre of suppliers he’s already lined up ought not present too many headaches. Among them, are partners in the overall project, Natoora, the fruit and veg suppliers; the London-based workers co-operative OrganicLea Community Farm; Cornish seafood suppliers, Kernow Sashmi; and meat suppliers, Lake District Farmers.
“It’s really exciting,” Labron-Johnson says of his new challenge. “Because the whole project is supporting this ethos it is actually less daunting than doing [what we do] at our restaurant on a regular basis.” The expectations are clear, even if the Conduit is set to be simultaneously one of London’s most ambitious and unusual, multi-faceted collaborations of the year.