“When I first saw the ad for a job in Shetland, my first thought was: Where the Hell’s that?” For chef Akshay Borges, the answer was: somewhere very, very different to home. Akshay was brought up in Mumbai, the Indian megacity which is in the top five most densely populated cities on Earth, with more than 70,000 people per square mile. Shetland averages 40 people per square mile, even if most square miles are home to far fewer than that. Sheep outnumber humans by roughly four to one.
Akshay was living in Edinburgh in 2009, when he saw the job ad for a trainee chef at the Scalloway Hotel, in Shetland’s former capital, six miles from its current one, Lerwick. After his initial reaction, he turned to Google. “Basically, I saw lots of pictures of sheep, hills, a couple of ponies, Fair Isle ganseys [knitted jumpers], and a few people.” He wanted to try somewhere new, but this seemed a little extreme. So he flipped a coin. It landed on heads, and the next day he was packing his bags.
Almost nine years later, it’s fair to say that Akshay has settled into Shetland life. When we meet, he’s channeling his original Google search by wearing a brown Fair Isle jumper. At the fishmongers in Scalloway, and walking down Lerwick’s Commercial Street, he seems to know everyone. As he puts it: “I don’t have any family here, so it feels like everyone’s my family.”
More than simply settling in, Akshay has become an unlikely champion of Shetland local produce, especially its seafood, becoming part of a new wave of Shetlanders who are re-evaluating the islands’ natural offerings. In the summer of 2018, he’s set to open The String, a two-storey Lerwick restaurant and live music venue, which celebrates the Shetland tradition of raucous live jams as well as its position as arguably the fishing capital of the UK.
Akshay learned the ropes at the Scalloway Hotel, which has long focused on Shetland produce, including the lean, succulent lamb reared on the islands. The kitchen is the first in Shetland to boast two AA rosettes, and was named Scotland’s best informal hotel kitchen at the Scottish Hotel Awards in 2017.
It was the seafood that Akshay fell most in love with, which isn’t that surprising when you consider that more fish lands here than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined — including 65,000 tonnes of herring and mackerel, and 70 per cent of the mussels farmed in the UK. “We get the best fish from the North Atlantic, which literally lands on our doorstep,” says Akshay. “You can see the fishing boats coming in, get the fish straight from the boat and fillet it yourself. For a chef, it’s paradise.”
After eight great years at the Scalloway Hotel, Akshay started looking for new challenges. So, in 2017, he decided to test the water (literally) with a seafood pop-up at the Lerwick Boating Club. The concept was simple: choose an ingredient, be it lobster or mussels, add a sauce and a side. Despite cooking in a tiny kitchen, it was a huge success, with the dishes selling out every night. “I realised that there’s a real demand for local seafood,” he says. “I think people are crying out for something like The String.”
The String’s team also includes music promoter Neil Riddell, experienced bar manager Magnus Stout and Mathew Adam, who was until recently the manager at Lerwick’s popular Peerie Shop Cafe. The space is named after Lowrie’s String, a fishing ground off the little Shetland island of Fair Isle, which also inspired a fiddle tune written by Magnus’s grandfather. Akshay’s short locavore menu is set to change every few weeks, depending on what’s in season and available. The dishes will be as clean and simple as the space, he says, but he might bring in subtle Indian or European influences.
The space isn’t finished in late May, with the owners still doing all the painting and decorating themselves. So Akshay takes us to the Blydoit fishmongers in Scalloway to buy fresh-caught Shetland halibut and scallops, then on to Neil’s kitchen, in a beautiful stone manse near the Lerwick waterfront, not far from Jimmy Perez’s house in the Shetland TV series. In Neil’s kitchen, he breezily rustles up a citrus-y scallop ceviche and flaky Shetland halibut with chorizo and green beans. Both are delicious: well-balanced, interesting, but letting the core ingredients steal the show.
The String is just one of a handful of new foodie openings in town. As of this summer, a walk along Lerwick's Commercial Street will feel very different: just along from The String you’ll now find The Dowry, a Scandi-style cafe and craft beer joint, and C’est La Vie, a Paris-style bistro serving plump Shetland mussels, opened by a French couple, Didier and Valerie Piquer. There’s also a new Taste of Shetland pop-up shop just across from C’est La Vie, showcasing food and drink from the islands, from Shetland Reel gin to local lamb, bannocks (a kind of local scone) and “puffin poo” white chocolates.
All of this seemed a long way off when Akshay first got off the plane at Sumburgh Airport, having left behind a group of friends in Edinburgh. His first thought upon seeing the empty, windswept landscape, was: “Oh my God, I’m going to be so bored here.” But he was quickly proved wrong. “There’s actually so much to do, and not just the obvious outdoor stuff like cycling, walking or kayaking. There are yoga classes, fencing classes, MMA, squash, you name it. Just about anything you’d find in a big city, you’ll find it here, it’s just that you don’t have to book. I’m busy all the time.”
He was also scared that people would be insular. “I thought people would have their own groups, and that I’d be all by myself,” he says. “But it was the opposite. From the start, people in Shetland have treated me like family. In the months leading up to Christmas, I’ll get so many people inviting me round to their family homes for Christmas dinner. You can just walk into peoples’ houses and get something from the fridge — it’s that kind of place.”
While working as a chef is demanding, Akshay’s days off include going to the cinema at Mareel, Shetland’s airy arts and culture space, foraging for sorrel or seaweed, playing squash and rowing at the Lerwick Boating Club. He’s also fond of a beer, and the bar staff seem to know him rather well at The Lounge, a well-worn local haunt that was the pub of choice of Shetland guitar legend Peerie Willie Johnson.
Akshay seems like proof that just about anyone can settle in Shetland, and he hasn’t been back to India for three years. “I miss it, of course,” he says. “But if I wasn’t so happy here, I’d be back every six months. This place really feels like my second home. It was such a random decision to come here. But such a good one.”
Since this piece was written, in May 2018, The String has opened. See facebook.com/thestringshetland for more information.
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