Merchant Hotel's Johnny Leake tells how a Belgian rabbit got him into the kitchen

Chefs share recpies and a soupçon about themselves. This week: Johnny Leake

Johnny Leake, executive chef at Belfast's Merchant Hotel. Picture by Mal McCann

Where do you work?

I’m the Merchant Hotel’s executive chef

Are you calm in the kitchen?

Yes but I’ll be firm too when I need to.

When did you start cooking?

When I was 11, I stayed with a host family in Belgium. This was a culinary awakening in many ways. In particular, I vividly remember the grandmother preparing and cooking rabbit. I was transfixed by the process and surprised by the soft delicate flavour. I still talk about that flavour today.

What fires you up about food?

High quality local produce – we try to incorporate as much local produce as possible into our dishes so I work very closely with suppliers to make sure The Merchant customers are eating the best. Our wonderfully unpredictable Northern Ireland climate means local produce is available for a short window – when it’s gone, it’s gone.

What’s been cooking lately?

We’ve launched a Six Course Tasting Menu at The Merchant. I think it showcases the best in seasonal produce and the very best ingredients Northern Ireland has to offer. It’s a real chance to show our creative side too – each dish is like a work of art.

Your signature dish is…

Beef wellington because it takes time to prepare and precision cooking to get it right.

Your favourite thing to eat is…

I love seafood and it’s hard to go past a good old eggs Arlington to start the day.

What chef inspires you most?

I have a lot of respect for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. I love how he revived the whole ‘farm to fork’ ethos and how he uses his creativity to use the entire produce with minimum waste. From a restaurant perspective, Marco Pierre White. I admire his simple, clean but elegant style of cooking.

This week, we are going to make…

Wild Garlic and Pea Soup


150g wild garlic leaves;

1kg fresh or frozen peas;

2 shallots (peeled and finely sliced);

2 sticks of celery (washed and finely sliced);

1 bay leaf; 75g unsalted butter;

2 litres vegetable stock;

small pot crème fraîche (optional)


Place the butter, celery, shallots, bay leaf and a pinch of salt into a medium-sized pot and cook on a medium heat until softened. Add the vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Add the peas and simmer for 10 minutes (five minutes for frozen peas). Add the wild garlic and cook for no longer than five minutes.

Place the mixture in a food processor; blend until smooth. If the result is a little thick, add more stock to make a consistency to your liking. Add a tablespoon of crème fraîche when blending for extra richness. Season with salt and pepper before serving.

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