How Neil Borthwick met Angela Hartnett: ‘We were in this tiny lift. All you could do was end up snogging’ | Life and style
In 2002, chef and cookbook author Angela Hartnett was heading the restaurant team at the Connaught hotel in London. When fellow chef Neil Borthwick came to work for her, she was impressed by his skills, as well as his sense of humour. “I was in the meat and fish section,” he says. “I’d previously been working in Scotland but I wanted to train up in London and then go to France.” He soon became good friends with Angela. “She was very pretty and cheeky; we were always laughing,” he says. Although she sensed he “might have a thing for me” they kept things professional. “As well as the fact I was his boss, he was also much younger than me and it wouldn’t have been appropriate,” says Angela.
Four years later, Neil followed his dreams and moved to Valence in France to work for the chef Anne-Sophie Pic at the Maison Pic. He and Angela stayed in touch and continued to meet up several times a year. “We knew a lot of the same people and sometimes a few of us would go to France to visit Neil and try out different restaurants together,” she says. In that time, Angela also opened Murano, a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant in Mayfair.
In April 2010, after a few drinks, they shared a kiss at a mutual friend’s wedding in Argentina, but never spoke about it. “I assumed he’d forgotten,” she says. They stayed friends, but it wasn’t until July 2011 that their dynamic really shifted. By then, Neil had moved to Laguiole, in Averyron, southern France, to work with Michel Bras. He and Angela decided to meet up in Paris, where they went out for dinner together. “In my mind, I felt Neil had matured,” she says. “He looked older and wasn’t a young kid any more. I suddenly thought: ‘Let’s see if anything could happen.’” As the night continued, they became increasingly flirty. “We were both staying in this really rubbish hotel with a tiny lift. It was so small there was nothing else you could do but end up snogging,” laughs Neil. “There were no pretences and silly games. He was just very kind and funny,” says Angela.
Soon after they got together, Neil was offered a job in Japan, but turned it down so he could move back to the UK and be with Angela. She told a friend he was looking for work, and he found a job at the Square restaurant. After he returned that autumn, they didn’t tell anyone about their relationship for six months. “I didn’t want it to look like I’d been recommending my boyfriend,” she says. “We went out a lot together, but people thought it was because we were such good friends.” By the time they told friends and colleagues in 2012, some of them admitted they’d had an idea. The couple moved in together in east London that summer.
In the autumn, disaster struck when Neil was involved in a serious push bike accident. “I didn’t wear my helmet and I hit a pothole and fell off,” he says. “I was taken to hospital by air ambulance.” He suffered a brain injury and spent seven days in a coma, followed by months of recovery. “Angela was incredibly supportive. If it wasn’t for her and her family, I don’t think I’d be back to the person I was before the accident.”
Angela says it was a “scary time … I had no idea what was going to happen.” Thankfully, Neil made a full recovery and was able to return to work the following year. The pair opened the Merchants Tavern restaurant in Shoreditch, east London, with friends and colleagues in October 2013. After five years, they left the restaurant and Neil now runs the French House, in Soho, while Angela remains chef-proprietor at Murano. They still live in London, with their dog, Betty.
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