Will Fincher is the chef at The Longboard on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina. The Longboard on Sullivan’s Island is the third Ballast Hospitality restaurant after The Longboard on St. John, Virgin Islands and Easterly on St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.
I grew up in Middle Alabama, so we didn’t eat a lot of seafood there. When I first came to Charleston, it definitely opened my eyes. I don’t think I even had a raw oyster until I moved to Charleston. Once I got here, the abundance of fresh local seafood, oysters and produce was the deciding factor for me to stay. It has a great restaurant scene – a lot of great chefs and a lot of restaurants doing interesting things that I was a part of. Having just graduated from culinary school, I became a restaurant chef, so it was an easy path and I stuck around.
I was the chef at the Monza restaurant in the city center and another restaurant, Closed for Business. Then, about eight plus years ago, I helped open the Stubborn Daughter as a chef at a restaurant across the street from us on Sullivan’s Island.
As soon as I moved to Charleston, I started driving to Sullivan’s Island to go to the beach. The beach here is a bit more pristine. The houses are not on the beach. They actually have a moratorium on opening new restaurants on the island – you can only place a restaurant in a building that used to be a restaurant, so the offer is limited. But I always come here to go to the beach and Po’s Tavern, a burger place across the street. When I opened Stubborn Daughter, it must have been one of the first good restaurants here. I jumped at the chance to be here on the island. It’s a good ride every day and you are close to the beach. There are a lot of good tourists in the summer and a lot of locals in the off-season.
Charleston is definitely known for its seafood. Obviously, we are right on the water. Our local fishermen from Abundant Seafood and Tarvin Seafood, these guys are almost like celebrities here in Charleston.
When Ballast Hospitality approached me to open The Longboard as a chef, it was quite by accident. My friend ran into the owner, Clint Gaskins, and he said, “Hey, I think I might know someone you’d like to chat with.” Then Clint texted me and said, “Come to the islands for a week.” And I’m like, “Of course, that sounds great.” And we checked it a bit, and then we conducted an initial interview. I went to St. Thomas and St. John for about a week and then they offered me a business from there.
Longboard has two sister restaurants in the Virgin Islands. We have a longboard on Saint John. It’s a smaller place – they kind of focus on poke, tacos, small plates and stuff like that. It’s very close to Cruz Bay, where many tourists pass through. It’s a little more random.
Another sister restaurant is on St. Thomas, Easterly and is much more upscale. Complex lunches, wood-fired grill. They make these big steaks, these big grilled lobsters, grilled whole fish. When we opened the longboard here at Sullivan’s, the goal was to combine these two concepts. So, we have the same kitchen as Easterly, with a wood-fired grill, a large open flame oven, a large 12-burner stove, and all the necessary equipment you might need. We’ve taken all those grilled influences from oriental cuisine and a slightly lighter, fresher tropical vibe from longboarding and put them together.
I went to the Virgin Islands once every two weeks 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 in terms of management and ordering. I also filled in some gaps when their chef or line chef was out of town. Then we did a lot of research and development on the menu. I first worked with their recipes to see what they work with and I worked with the products. When I was there, I took on specials so I could get my feet wet using certain ingredients. We did a few trips around the island, eating and exploring a lot, and then we did some photo shoots to conceptualize the food itself. That’s how I spent all my time – just immersing myself in this area for four months.
We had to redesign the menu a bit. We started with a dish, whether it was a low country dish or some other dish, and then added Caribbean flavor to it. I had to adjust the items to fit the space. For example, we make this great toast with curry green mussels. You will see that curry appears there quite a lot. It could have been the French mussel dish we started with, but we added our own twist to it. One day we were having lunch next door at Home Team BBQ and eating the pickled cucumber and tomato salad you see all the time here down south. We thought, what if it was a cucumber and mango salad with red onion and herbs and with the same flavor profile? We start with dishes that we know and think people will love, and then we add a little extra detail that connects them to the menu and the islands.
Charleston and the U.S. Virgin Islands are often transported by boat, which affects which ingredients are available. During our trips, we noticed that most of the food they eat on the islands is worker food: rice and beans, stews and stews, and big, bold flavors. They use a ton of pork. Vegetables are cooked quite strongly. It has parallels to any old school Charleston cuisine. We cook cereals here, they cook porridge from cornmeal. There are definitely many similarities. They have a lot of tropical fruits and things they grow in the area, but in general, many of the methods are very similar. We went to a place that made salted cod pancakes with yellow curry. And it’s the same in Charleston with, say, Country Captain, a dish that also features curry.
To be honest, I expected the local food on the islands to be a little different. I didn’t expect it to be these working stews. I expected things to be much easier. And they do use a lot of ceviche and things brought from nearby islands. I was really surprised at how much of a melting pot it was. We were surprised when we started eating at these local establishments how similar they are to Dutch cuisine.
Lowcountry cuisine is based on what is grown here in South Carolina. Lots of rice, beans, corn, tomatoes, peppers and everything that grows very well here. There is a lot of land in the Lowcountry, so you will get a lot of different squirrels, whereas the islands actually have a lot less land for squirrels and big crops. So, a ton of pork, a lot of slow stewing, very vegetarian.
Our menu is a fusion of these two dishes. A lot of things that you may think don’t go together end up going well together. We now have a salad with strawberries and avocados. Strawberries are local, but avocados are not. There, on the islands, they use a ton of avocados. They are much closer to the source. We just include it there.
There is a big deficit in the industry. Things will just disappear – things that you don’t think are normal. There were months when we couldn’t get cream cheese. We ordered pecan halves last week and the salespeople said, “No, all we have is these tiny pieces of pecans.” I called various providers and none had it. Price increases are definitely a big issue right now. Many suppliers charge extra for shipping and gas, so you’ll need to find a way around this, whether it’s a different meat, a different protein, a different supplier, or someone closer.
Some solutions involve contacting Costco. Most vendors want you to stick to them, but we had to branch out and go looking for ingredients and things people can’t find. Sometimes you can find what you need on Amazon, be it yuzu paste or yuzu juice or something random.
All in all, this is a new restaurant on Sullivan’s Island. If we look at our analytics, we get a ton of visitors, but we have a good customer base that is eaten in our restaurants in the Virgin Islands. The Virgin Islands – I didn’t know about this before I started working for the company – is a pretty popular holiday destination, especially since you don’t need a passport. Getting there is quite easy, a four-hour flight. Many people come and say, “I’m so excited to try this place because I ate at a restaurant in the Virgin Islands.” There are not many restaurants on these islands, especially on Saint John. If they are in the area, they will probably stop at our place at least once. But there are definitely a lot of new people who had no idea. I think the title kind of says it. We’re on the beach, we’re on Sullivan’s Island, our name is Longboard. This gives you a little idea of what you are in for.
One of the reasons I stayed on the island is because you have a fairly developed client base. There isn’t much competition around. It seems like every time something closes for good, something better pops up in its place. So yes, the moratorium works in our favor. There is so much here. We love it at Sullivan’s Island. We hope they don’t allow more restaurants.
The restaurant where I was the chef for seven years is right down the street, so I still keep in touch with them. They come and take things from time to time. Two people I worked with at Stubborn Daughter had just opened Sullivan’s Fish Camp right up the street.
As far as competition is concerned, all the concepts presented here are quite different. We have a barbecue area. We have Poe’s which serves hamburgers and Stubborn Daughter serves pasta and pizza. And then we do this Caribbean menu with small plates forward. Nothing is really the same. Before we go to work, sometimes we go to the co-op and grab a sandwich, or after work we go down the street to Mex 1 and hang out there. Or, if you’re in the middle of the day, you drop by the home team, have lunch, and chat. So all these people hang out at each other’s restaurants and bars. He definitely has a good mood. We have many friends on the island. There is also a correspondence between all the restaurant owners on the island. It’s definitely its own little community of people who work here.