On a plate: Shetland’s finest food

Chef Andrew Spence honed his skills at one of Scotland’s leading hotels and has worked at five-star European resorts. But his Shetland upbringing and passion for local food had a massive influence on his cooking.

“Growing up in Shetland, my father and mother always wanted to use very good ingredients – I remember them cutting up a whole sheep on the kitchen table and putting it in the freezer for a rainy day or a Sunday roast.”

Chef Andrew Spence might have learned the tricks of the trade at one of the leading hotels and golf resorts in Scotland, before going on to further his craft at five-star hotels in the Alps, but the influence his native islands have had on his cooking is never far from the surface.

Now cooking at The Boar’s Head, a new pub/restaurant in Auchtermuchty, Fife, Andrew spent some time back home over the summer to make a series of films called ‘Shetland on a Plate’ with local hospitality training business Blyde Welcome.

The ingredients are so much better than what we can get on the mainland. The mussels, scallops… not to boast about Shetland, but genuinely the fish, the seafood, the lamb and everything – it’s pretty phenomenal ingredients, you know…

Andrew Spence

Working with produce from the islands is second nature to Andrew, a son to Maggie and Willm Spence from Lerwick, who always tries to “hae something fae Shetland on the menu” down in Fife.

Andrew’s career in hospitality started at Osla’s on Lerwick’s Commercial Street, where he helped make pizzas and pancakes from the age of 15.

He then went on to Perth to study music, another of his passions, but attempts to carve out a career proved fruitless.

He had been working in a bar that served food and found his way into the kitchen, developing “a bit of a passion for it” and progressing to the five-star Gleneagles Hotel for a four-year stint where he was taught “everything fae doing afternoon teas and simple things like making sandwiches to learning how to make sauces”.

It was a “learning curve” that further stimulated his interest in cooking before he moved on to a small, highly-rated Perth restaurant called Postbox working alongside “amazing” head chef Wesley Watt, which Andrew describes as an “unbelievable” experience.

By then in his mid-twenties, he decided to go away to cook in the French Alps where he was “kind of left to my own devices” and found himself cooking for guests who were spending thousands of pounds a week on accommodation.

“When you’re just put in that position, you end up realising how much you’ve actually learned from different jobs and different places,” Andrew says. He then found his fortunes in the kitchen “going from strength to strength” as he seesawed between various seasonal jobs in French and Austrian resorts.

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, Andrew and his fiancée Charlotte Modley found themselves with half an hour’s notice to leave Austria and returned to Perth.

After restrictions eased in summer 2021 he took the plunge and is now head chef at The Boar’s Head on Auchtermuchty’s High Street, where the mouth-watering menu is that of an upmarket pub kitchen featuring staples such as burgers or fish & chips alongside pan-fried whitefish and glazed pork belly.

He says opening a new business was “a bit of a worry” amid Covid-19 uncertainty, but things have been going well and “we’re getting really good reviews”.

Shetland on a plate

Andrew Spence prepares meat for cooking (left), and a finished beef shin dish (centre) and panna cotta with poached rhubarb.

Celia Smith of Shetland hospitality training organisation Blyde Welcome, who commissioned the ‘Shetland on a Plate’ series, says Andrew “jumped at the challenge when I put it to him” and “we were so lucky – he’d never done it before” and took very naturally to the camera’s glare. The films were put together with the filmmaking expertise of JJ Jamieson and Liz Musser.

“He’s local, he’s very talented and he was up for the challenge,” Celia says of Andrew. “He literally came off the plane and went straight to filming. I didn’t know what he was going to be cooking – I went and picked up the meat from Jakob [Eunson of Uradale Farm]. It was done on a wing, but I think he enjoyed it.”

Andrew is a hugely likeable presence both during a telephone interview with Promote Shetland and on camera, where he is very much at ease as he talks viewers through how to bone and roll a lamb joint, prepare a braised beef shin dish or whip up a vanilla panna cotta with poached rhubarb.

He had known Celia for “many years” and she has been “a really big help in my life”. It was “amazing to be able to come back” and indulge his passion for cooking over the summer while also being able to take the time to see his new niece and nephew.

Andrew was particularly taken with the quality of Shetland Farm Dairies’ produce, describing its butter and milk as “among the best I’ve ever tasted”. He points out that its high fat percentage makes it “incredibly creamy and tasty” but its natural genesis means you could “lather your bread full of butter and it’s still reasonably healthy”.

The Uradale Farm lamb and beef that is one of the stars of the ‘Shetland on a Plate’ show, meanwhile, was sent off for lab analysis that showed it was actually higher in Omega-3 oils than some fish: “That’s unbelievable, really.”

While Andrew currently has no plans to settle back home he will “definitely be back to cook in Shetland from time to time”, speculating about the possibility of a pop-up restaurant to “promote Shetland produce, get some young folk that are interested in cooking, and get the locals tasting my kind of food – classic, modern cuisine.”

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