The long-standing ambassador for islander cuisine turns his sights on the Lowcountry’s sweet tooth.
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Lisa Staff
For the majority of his culinary career, cooking has been just part of what Belfair banquet chef David Young represents. Part of a family with ties to the island stretching back 200 years, he has served as a de facto ambassador for Native Islander foodways, helping tell the story of a culture that lived off the land.
Sharing DNA with creole and Southern soul food, Gullah cuisine generally rests on the pillars of seafood, vegetables and rice. As a people who lived off the land, these were the bounties they received, and their cuisine reflects their singular skill in transforming these elements into something truly unique. For many, that is the story told by Young, and it is a story that skews decidedly savory. But don’t think for a second that living off the land meant skipping dessert.
“I remember being a kid, my cousin Emory Campbell used to take us up to St. Helena Island, and on the way we’d pull off the road to buy these big softball-sized peaches,” Young recalled. “You’d bite into one, and the juice would just be running down your arms. That’s the flavor I envision.”
That vision informs his famed peach cobbler, one of the many ways Young is bringing Native Islander influence to the dessert table at Belfair.
From the earth
At the heart of Native Islander cooking is the ingredients. This vibrant culture lived largely untouched by the modern world until the resort era brought it screeching to the shores of Hilton Head Island, but for centuries prior to that, this culture lived off the land. Thankfully, the island’s sandy soil is remarkably bountiful, which has helped Young’s family continue to thrive in the world of local produce.
No doubt you’ve seen the wide gazebo-like fruit stand that awaits hungry travelers just past the bridge onto the mainland. Young’s family runs that stand, along with the stand at Spanish Wells Road, and he still turns to family first when sourcing for his desserts.
“The peaches make the cobbler,” he said. “If you don’t have a good, ripe peach, it’s just not the same.”
Beyond peaches, Young has helped turn local pecans into a delicacy, serving them up candied where they take center stage on their own or lend a delicate crunch to housemade ice cream. He’s also brought one of his grandmother’s recipes out of the kitchen and into the dining halls at Belfair.
“My grandma used to make blackberry dumplings,” he said. “And blackberries grew all over. We’d go out and fill up a five-gallon bucket when she’d make dumplings.”
Grandma’s influence can be felt in nearly all of Young’s desserts, a link in a chain that goes back centuries. “She’d take potatoes shredded with eggs, add some cinnamon and raisins and bake that – it was heavenly,” he said. “There are so many different things that so many people don’t know about.”
Into the future
Through his culinary education in Wisconsin, Young expanded his horizons beyond the recipes and ingredients that had informed his cooking growing up. Studying baking and pastry, with an emphasis on experimental baking, gave him the tools to craft local ingredients into dishes that would bring them into the future.
An excellent example can be found in his cheesecake, which swirls a traditional cheesecake base in with a cobbler enjoying deep local roots. “Growing up, one of my good friend’s mom made the best peach cobbler on the entire planet. I tried to get mine to taste as good as hers, and I think I’ve got it,” he said. Blending that cobbler batter with a traditional cheesecake results in something decadently soft and delicious.
A lot of the inspiration behind that came from his experimental baking classes. “When you’re doing a recipe, you have to follow the formulation. If you take one ingredient out, it stops the process of two other ingredients from acting on each other,” he said. “But you can always marry things together to get something different.”
Long an ambassador for Native Island cuisine, perhaps that ultimately should be Chef David’s claim to fame. Marrying two things together – native Gullah influence and extensive culinary training – to create something different.
1/2 stick of butter, melted
4 cups fresh peaches, sliced
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup half and half
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Directions  Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9×9 pan generously with butter. Place peaches in a bowl. Toss with 1/2 cup of sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Set aside.  For batter, combine sugar, flour, baking powder. 1/2 tsp cinnamon. Stir to combine. Add butter, half and half and vanilla. Mix well. Add batter to baking pan.  Pour peaches into the center of the batter. Bake 35 to 40 minutes. Insert toothpick. If it comes out clean and the crust is golden brown, it’s done. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream (or both).