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Bridging Low-Country Dishes With Caribbean Flavors On Sullivan’s Island

Will Fincher is executive chef of The Longboard on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. The Longboard on Sullivan’s Island is Ballast Hospitality’s third restaurant after The Longboard on St. John, USVI, and The Easterly on St. Thomas, USVI.

I grew up in Middle Alabama, so we didn’t eat a lot of seafood there. The first time I came to Charleston, it was definitely eye-opening. I don’t think I had even had a raw oyster until I moved to Charleston. Once I got down here, the abundance of fresh local seafood, oysters, and produce was a deciding factor on me staying. There’s a great restaurant scene—a lot of cool chefs and a lot of restaurants doing interesting stuff I was able to be a part of. Fresh out of culinary school I became the chef of a restaurant, so it was an easy path, and I stuck around.

I was the executive chef at a restaurant downtown called Monza, and another restaurant called Closed for Business. Then, about eight plus years ago, I helped open The Obstinate Daughter as its chef de cuisine, which is down the street from us on Sullivan’s Island.

Will Fincher, executive chef at The Longboard restaurant on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. Photo: Sarah Swan.

As soon as I moved to Charleston, I started coming out to Sullivan’s Island to go to the beach. The beach out here is a little bit more pristine. The houses aren’t right on the beach. They actually have a moratorium on new restaurants on the island—you can only put a restaurant in a building that was once a restaurant, so there’s a limited supply. But I always come out here to go to the beach and to Poe’s Tavern, a burger place across the street. When I opened up Obstinate Daughter, it was going to be one of the first nicer restaurants out here. I jumped at the chance to be out here on the island. It’s a nice drive every day, and you’re close to the beach. A lot of good tourist action during the summer, and then lots of locals during the off season.

Charleston’s definitely known for its seafood. Obviously, we’re right on the water. Our local fishermen from Abundant Seafood and Tarvin Seafood, those guys are almost like celebrities here in Charleston.

When Ballast Hospitality approached me about opening The Longboard as its executive chef, it was sort of random. I had a friend run into the owner, Clint Gaskins, and he said, “Hey, I think I might know someone you’ll want to chat with.” Clint then shot me a text and was like, “Come down to the islands for a week.” And I was like, “Sure, that sounds wonderful.” And we checked it a little bit, and then did an initial interview. I went down to St. Thomas and St. John for about a week, and then they offered me the business from there.

The Longboard has two sister restaurants in the Virgin Islands. We have a Longboard on St. John. It’s a smaller spot—they sort of focus on pokes, tacos, small plates, things like that. It’s very close to Cruz Bay where a lot of the tourists come through. It’s a little more casual.

The other sister restaurant is on St. Thomas, the Easterly, and it’s a lot more upscale. Coursed-out dinners, a wood-fire grill. They do these large steaks, these big grilled lobsters, grilled whole fish. When we opened up the Longboard here on Sullivan’s, the goal was to fuse those two concepts. So we have the same kitchen as the Easterly with a wood-fired grill, a big open-flame oven, a big 12-top range, and all the equipment you could possibly need. We took all those grill influences from the Easterly and some of that lighter, fresh, tropical vibe from the Longboard and put them together.

Photo: Sarah Swan.

I went down to the Virgin Islands every other week for about four months, so I was there quite a lot. I spent a lot of time in the kitchens, learning what they do and some of their systems as far as management and ordering goes. I also filled some gaps whenever their chef or a line cook was out of town. Then we did a lot of menu research and development. I worked with their recipes first to see what they were working with, and I worked with the products. I took over the specials when I was down there so I could get my feet wet using certain ingredients. We did some trips around the island, a lot of eating and researching, then some photo shoots to conceptualize the food itself. That’s how I spent all my time—just immersing myself in the area over the course of four months.

We had to reverse-engineer the menu just a little bit. We would start with a dish, whether it be a Lowcountry dish or some other dish, and then add that Caribbean flavor to it. We had to tailor items to fit the space. For example, we do this great green curry mussel toast. You’ll see curries pop up over there quite a lot. It could have been a French mussel dish, which is what we started with, but we added our own move to it. We were eating lunch next door at Home Team BBQ one day, and we were eating a marinated cucumber and tomato salad that you see here in the South all the time. We thought, what if it was a cucumber and mango salad with red onions and herbs and that same kind of flavor profile? We start with dishes that we know and think that people would enjoy, then add that little extra thing that ties it back into the menu and the islands.

Photo: Sarah Swan.

Charleston and the US Virgin Islands are trafficked a lot by boat, which influences which ingredients are available. We noticed on our trips that a lot of the food they eat on the islands is workingman’s food—rice and beans, braised and stewed meats, and big, bold flavors. They use a ton of pork. The vegetables are cooked pretty strong. It has parallels to what you would get with any kind of old-school Charleston cooking. We make grits here, they make cornmeal porridge. There’s definitely a lot of similarities. They have a greater plethora of tropical fruits and things that they grow in that area, but generally speaking, a lot of the techniques are really similar. We went to a place that was doing salt cod empanadas with yellow curry in them. And it’s the same thing in Charleston, with, say, Country Captain, a dish that features curry as well.

Honestly, I was expecting the local food on the islands to be a little bit different. I wasn’t expecting it to be these workingman’s braises. I was expecting everything to be a lot lighter. And they do utilize a lot of ceviches and things that have come from the surrounding islands. I was really surprised at how much of a melting pot it was of different stuff. We were surprised when we started eating at these local spots how similar they were to Lowcountry cuisine.

Photo: Sarah Swan.

Lowcountry cuisine is based on what grows in the area here in South Carolina. Lots of rice, beans, corn, tomatoes, peppers, and things that grow really well here. The Lowcountry has a lot of land, so you’ll get a lot of different proteins, whereas on the islands they actually have a lot less land for proteins and big crops. So a ton of pork, lots of slow braises, very veggie centric.

Our menu is a fusion of the two. A lot of stuff that you might not think goes together ends up going together pretty well. We have a strawberry and avocado salad right now. The strawberries are local, but the avocados are not. They use a ton of avocados down there in the islands. They’re much closer to the source. We just incorporate that in there.

There’s a lot of shortages going on across the industry. Things will just sort of disappear—things that you wouldn’t think are normal. There were months when we couldn’t get cream cheese. We were ordering halved pecans the other week, and the vendors were like, “Nope, all we have are these little tiny pieces of pecans.” I called different purveyors and none of them had it. Price increases are definitely a big thing right now. Lots of purveyors are tacking on extra delivery fees and gas fees, so you have to find a way to navigate around that, whether it’s a different meat or a different protein or a different purveyor or someone who’s closer.

Some solutions involve going to Costco. Most purveyors like you to stick with them, but we’ve had to branch out and go searching for ingredients and things that people can’t find. Sometimes you can find what you need on Amazon, whether it’s yuzu paste or yuzu juice or something kind of random.

Photo: Sarah Swan.

On the whole, it’s a new restaurant on Sullivan’s Island. If we look at our analytics, we get a ton of walk-in traffic, but we do have a good customer base that’s eaten in our restaurants in the Virgin Islands. The Virgin Islands—this was unknown to me before I started with a company—are a pretty popular place to go on vacation, especially since you don’t need a passport. It’s pretty easy to get there, a four-hour flight. There’s a lot of people who come in and are like, “I’m so excited to try this place because I ate at the one in the Virgin Islands.” There’s not a ton of restaurants on those islands, especially St. John. If they’re in that area, they would probably end up stopping at our spot at least once. But there are definitely a lot of new people who had no idea. I think the name kind of speaks for it. We’re on the beach, we’re on Sullivan’s Island, we’re called the Longboard. It gives you a little bit of an idea of what you’re in for.

Part of the reason I’ve stayed on the island is because you get a pretty set customer base. There’s not as much competition around. It seems like whenever something closes for good, something better pops up in its space. So yeah, the moratorium absolutely works in our favor. There’s only so much out here. We love that about Sullivan’s Island. We hope that they don’t allow more restaurants.

The restaurant that I was the chef de cuisine at for seven years is right down the street, so I still stay in touch with them. They pop over and borrow things every now and again. Two people that I used to work with at the Obstinate Daughter, they just opened up a restaurant called Sullivan’s Fish Camp right down the street.

Photo: Sarah Swan.

As far as competition goes, the concepts that are out here are all fairly different. We have a barbecue place. We’ve got Poe’s, which is a burger place, and the Obstinate Daughter is pastas and pizza. And then we do this Caribbean small-plate-forward menu. Nothing’s really the same. Before we head to work, sometimes we pop down to the co-op and grab a sandwich, or after we get off of work we head up the street to Mex 1 and hang out there. Or if you’re in the middle of the day, you pop over to Home Team and have lunch and chat. So all of these people hang out in each other’s restaurants and bars. It definitely has a good vibe to it. We’ve got a lot of friends on the island. There’s a text thread between all the restaurant owners on the island as well. It’s definitely its own little community of people that work out here.