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Neil Borthwick was introduced to Soho institution the French House by a friend before being invited to head up the dining room by landlady Lesley Lewis, who gave the chef free rein to "do what I love best".
The menu at the French House is short and ever-changing, handwritten by Borthwick each day and influenced by the quality of produce. The chef has no time for trends, cooking the classically French-influenced dishes that he enjoys eating. It's a recipe that the judges felt befitting of the times through which we are living.
He explains: "People do like choice, but I think if what's on the menu sounds appetising and tastes delicious, people are OK with it.
"I know it's boring and everybody goes on about it, but definitely for me, cooking is all about simplicity; you start with a good ingredient and you don't really have to do much."
It's an approach that has seen the French House's small, 24-cover, first-floor dining room become the toast of critics, with the Financial Times' Tim Hayward praising Borthwick's shortbread as "evidence of the existence of god", while The Sunday Times' Marina O'Loughlin summarised her joy with a simple "yes, yes, yes".
Some signature dishes have emerged, including a head of confit garlic served over goats' curd on toast; calves' brains with brown butter, capers and parsley; and a side of aligot; as well as Paris-Brest with chocolate sauce.
With the pub's dining room having previously hosted Fergus and Margot Henderson, Borthwick could be confident in placing offal front and centre of his menu. He explains that he had never cooked brains before his arrival at the French House, but felt "it would likely be the kind of crowd that would like brains".
He adds: "It's a lot harder to make something delicious out of a low-cost ingredient than it is out of milk-fed lamb. It takes a bit more knowledge and a bit more experience."
Borthwick's own experience includes leading the brigade at Merchants Tavern and posts at Gordon Ramsay's Amaryllis in Glasgow; Restaurant Tom Aikens; four years at Maison Pic in France; three years at Phil Howard's the Square; and stints working for Angela Hartnett at the Connaught.
His time in France has left him with a deep appreciation of the "beautiful country" and its "fantastic heritage", as well as a respect for the classics; although this can reach a limit, if French customers question the addition of chocolate sauce to his Paris-Brest.
Borthwick explains: "There's nothing better than a classic done well. A lot of people say this is my take on this, but maybe you could just do a classic. The classics are timeless for a reason. I would have loved to be in my thirties in the 1980s. When you look back, a lot of it was just classic French dishes."
Borthwick says the French House is the kind of place where "anything can happen". Currently he can revel in this being people continuing to enjoy great food, good wine and good company.
What the judges said
"When no one knows what the future holds, Neil's confidence in the past and in his own place in the present feels like a secure anchor for this most iconic of British institutions. He has understood his brief, and the brevity and restraint in his cooking illuminate a path for us all to take next." – Pam Brunton
"A gifted chef who captured the spirit of Soho." – Jeremy Lee
- Darsham Nurseries, Suffolk
- The French House, London
- Hide and Fox, Kent
- Wilder, London
- Sally Abé, head chef, Harwood Arms, London
- Pam Brunton, chef-owner, Inver, Argyll
- Richard Corrigan, vhef-owner, Corrigan Restaurants
- Giovanna Grossi, director, Sauce Intelligence
- Jeremy Lee, chef-patron, Quo Vadis, London
- James Mackenzie, chef-owner, the Pipe and Glass Inn, East Riding of Yorkshire
- Michael Raffael, writer and editor
- Jennifer Sharp, writer and editor