“I remember stepping into the little dining room for the first time. The fire was blazing and it was as though I’d come into a cosy living room. It was exactly how I wanted my own restaurant to feel – it was pretty much love at first sight.”
For Eugene Gills, that first impression of the small but perfectly formed Hamnavoe Restaurant convinced him his leap from the world of fine dining to a quiet culinary corner of Orkney was the right move.
Tucked away along the old flagstone street of Stromness, the Hamnavoe has long been a favourite haunt for both local and visiting foodies, famed as much for its quirky character as its delicious dishes. The fact the restaurant was on the market at the same time Eugene was getting ready to launch his own business told its own story.
“I was actually looking for a site in Edinburgh when I decided to visit my sister, who lives in Stromness,” he says. “I mentioned my ambition to start a restaurant of my own and my family told me that the Hamnavoe might be available. The coincidence seemed serendipitous, so I decided to arrange a viewing. And here we are!”
In a way, the move from the bright lights of Edinburgh to the harbourfront in Orkney mirrors Eugene’s career path. After completing a degree in English at Oxford University and then spending the best part of a decade as a teacher in Hawaii and South Korea, he decided a change was needed and gave it all up to celebrate his love for food and cooking with a career in the kitchen.
“I traded my pens and paper for a knife roll and an apron and joined a small soup stall at the Whitecross Market in London,” he says. “It was hard graft but I was sucked in by the hustle and bustle of kitchen life and it quickly affirmed my belief in my ability to develop a career as a chef.”
Fast forward a few years and Eugene was a sous chef at a fine British seafood restaurant, working with the freshest ingredients and further developing his own style, a fusion of Korean, European, and American cooking, influenced by his own heritage.
His final stop before Stromness was at the Waldorf Astoria in Edinburgh where he worked in Mark Greenaway’s restaurant as part of a large kitchen brigade. It was there that his thoughts began to turn to the future.
“I gained a lot of experience in Edinburgh but I also realised I wanted to work in a different environment, one that cared for its workers as much as for its customers, and that’s when I began to dream of running a restaurant of my own.”
When we visited the Hamnavoe Restaurant, Eugene was just collecting a box of fresh scallops, hand-delivered from the diver who had harvested them from the cool and clean local waters that very morning. That connection to the local larder and Orkney’s incredible produce is key to Eugene’s plans for the restaurant. “A lot of the time, we’re serving customers something that’s only been out of the sea for a few hours, it’s a chef’s dream to work in a place like this,” he says.
It's not his first experience of working with Orkney ingredients. He vividly remembers the buzz in his kitchens in London and Edinburgh when a shipment of seafood from Orkney arrived. The chefs there described the lobster, langoustines and scallops as ‘Rolls Royce’ ingredients, further strengthening Eugene’s desire to move to place where he could tap into the natural environment at its source. But there was a business element to it too.
“Edinburgh has the highest number of restaurants per capita in the UK whereas Stromness has been lacking in local eateries recently,” says Eugene. “I felt the town would benefit from an institution like the Hamnavoe being kept alive, but I also felt I could make more of a mark in Orkney and bring something different to the local scene with my style of cooking.”
It appears Eugene’s plan is working. Word of mouth is a big thing in a small community like Orkney and rave reviews of the food being served at the restaurant have spread across the islands since the doors opened in May 2022. Many Stromness residents have become regular patrons at the new-look premises, which Eugene takes as a sign the menu, the food, and the ambiance are all hitting the spot. “I’ve never worked in a place where regulars were this regular,” he smiles. “The local response has just been overwhelmingly positive.”
According to the official website, the restaurant offers a ‘modern take on local produce with a seasonal menu that fuses European and Asian flavours’. The sample menu online showcases the best of Orkney’s produce – crab, hand-dived scallops, Burnside cheese, and lobster – accompanied by more exotic ingredients like morcilla, kimchi, ponzu dashi, and shiitake. There are only four starters and four main courses listed, but there’s always a seafood, meat, and vegetarian option available. The smaller choice fits Eugene’s mantra of quality over quantity – the thinking being that the tighter the menu, the higher the chance of the ingredients being fresh and having been prepared with care and consideration.
“In Korea, it’s common for restaurants to specialise, often in a single dish,” says Eugene. “Our goal is to achieve a very high standard in what we do, and that means following the seasons and focusing our attention on a smaller menu where every dish has been carefully designed and prepared.”
Now, with a first year of living, working, and cooking in the islands under his belt, Eugene and his team are ready for everything a busy summer season in Orkney has to throw at them. “It really feels special to continue this much-loved establishment, and to host both local and visitors who have such fond memories of the place over the years.
“It’s very rewarding to feel that we’re both carrying the torch and ushering in a bright new era for the Hamnavoe.”
Visit the official Hamnavoe Restaurant website to view the sample menu and book your table.