For Yvette Hopkins, putting her time and energy into Shetland’s food and drink sector is all about investing in the community which she has made her home.
Yvette brings a broad world vision to Shetland Food and Drink but carries her Shetland heritage very close to her heart.
The make-up of Shetland Food & Drink’s board is nothing if not eclectic: it is probably one of relatively few food and drink groups in the north of Scotland boasting a member whose life has mostly been spent on the road in the US military.
Yvette Hopkins, now residing in the South Mainland where she has deep-rooted family ties, brings “great enthusiasm and a wealth and breadth of experience” to SFAD’s board discussions, says chairwoman Marian Armitage.
She is the daughter of Jean, one of four Morrison sisters from the tight-knit community of Bigton, and Virginian man William ‘Hop’ Hopkins.
Her father served in the military, her mother in a civilian department supporting the air force and her sister Shelby – who also returned to Bigton with her four bairns shortly before the Covid-19 lockdown – worked as a federal air marshal.
Yvette fondly recalls childhood visits to Shetland and says she feels “extremely lucky to be, as the Italians would say, ‘straniera’ – a stranger coming in, but having that history and heritage”.
Towards the end of her three decades in military service Yvette found herself “getting called back to Washington DC” more and more. A few years ago she bought a place in the city, in the historic Bloomingdale neighbourhood under two miles from the State Capitol building, where “I got my foodie on”.
“A city paper came out every Thursday and what me and my friends would do was search out the obscure restaurants. That’s what we did for fun, and that’s really how I became a little bit of a foodie.”
She remembers sitting on the steps outside her house with a neighbour who had moved from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, gazing at a beautiful brick building across the street thinking “I wish that was a wine bar”.
Yvette joined forces with a sommelier and a “fabulous chef”, Michael O'Malley, and invested in what became the acclaimed Red Hen, among the highest rated of the US capital’s 2,000-plus restaurants.
It is described in the MICHELIN guide as a “rustic Italian gem” that is “decked out in full country charm with exposed brick walls, reclaimed timber and beamed ceilings."
Not to be confused with the Virginian eatery of the same name that famously ordered Donald Trump’s press secretary to leave the premises, The Red Hen serves up squid ink pasta, mezzi rigatoni and a mouth-watering mafalde verde – braised duck ragu with chilli and pecorino. "If I ever find myself in Washington again I’m 100 per cent making a beeline for it."
“For me it wasn’t investing in a restaurant – I know all of the pitfalls – it was about investing in the neighbourhood,” Yvette says. “And it changed it, it completely changed the neighbourhood just like I hoped.”
Having relocated across the Atlantic, Yvette has now sold her stake to the family who run it.
An eclectic mix of Mediterranean inspired dishes on offer at the Red Hen today.
She has thrown herself into community life of a very different sort here. Yet the same public-spirited principle and sense of civic duty remains.
She is a trustee of Shetland Charitable Trust and, amongst other things, is also involved in plans for a Shetland Space Centre in Unst. It all ensures the 54 year old is “retired” in name only.
“Part of the reason I’m so involved in so many things is that I don’t know any other way,” Yvette explains. “In the military you always have a mission, focus, direction – it’s always giving back, it’s never about you, it’s about the team. That muscle memory is really what I’m working off of – how can I give back to my new community?”
Her final military assignment was in Stuttgart, Germany, and she found herself coming to Shetland much more. She bought a house in preparation before she “hung up the uniform and put on my wellies” in 2017.
“We cleaned the place, painted the place, put up shelves, and borrowed all the furtniture. Then we set up the shop, learned how to do sales slips and then started to set up a voluntary rota.”
From there she was soon asked to become a director and jumped at the chance.
“I’m a foodie, I’m an investor, I’m wildly curious about the provenance of Shetland food and drink,” she says. “We know where we’re at. It’s difficult times for everybody, particularly the hospitality industry.
“One of the things my training has shown me is that when there are difficult times, that’s when people get really creative, and what emerges out of that will be something new.”
She pinpoints Joel D’Eathe and Grant O’Neil at Busta House Hotel as a shining example: entrepreneurs who “pivoted hard” during lockdown and found themselves driving halfway around the islands delivering meals.
Yvette makes for warm, engaging and highly amusing company. Her energy, drive and “can-do” spirit are just what is called for amid undeniably trying times for the sector.
“It’s been an incredible time for people who are taking refuge in Shetland food,” she says. “Nearly everybody I know is building a polycrub!
“We’re not in the middle of nowhere, but we are a sub-Arctic archipelago with a long history of what some people call the ‘crofter mentality’, having to do it for ourselves.
“A lot of people have been bringing out the old recipes. I get lamb and I have made every single permutation of lamb dishes you possibly can do.”
Like many others she is heartened to see support for village shops during the pandemic, none more so than Bigton Community Shop in her own neck of the woods.
“Our shop is more than a shop; it was always a community anchor point. We started delivering food, which I’m sure a lot of local shops did, delivered to people who needed to shield or didn’t want to go into town, so the spirit of community spread even more.”
The absence of another “anchor point” – the community village hall, her “local” being expertly run by SFAD bookkeeper Mary Andreas and other volunteers – has been tough.
As councillors have pointed out, while hospitality premises were reopened primarily on the grounds of providing a communal meeting point when household visits were prohibited, many smaller villages do not have a café or a pub.
Covid-19 restrictions have persisted for eight months. Yvette – and pretty well everyone else – yearns for more social times and the return of “that opportunity to sit and chew the fat”.
“It’s tough times and we can’t ignore that,” she says. “But this is the time for food and drink, this is the time to take deeper pride in what we have to offer here. It’s something we can offer year-round.
“I’m not saying we have to go back to the Stone Age, but hopefully our collective Shetland memory will bring provenance and recipes to help shift back towards living farm-to-table.”