Chances are, if you’ve had delicious cornbread on Hilton Head, it came from Chef David Vincent Young’s kitchen.
Story by Luana M. Graves + Photography by Mike Ritterbeck
His cooking, like our beautiful beaches, is a staple around here and just as soothing as the taste of warm buttery cornbread. Talking to Chef David is like comfort food, it’s easy to do and is an impressive experience. Chef David is a Native Islander whose family roots come from one of the oldest families on the island, dating back over 185 years. Raised by his great-grandmother in Spanish Wells, she wanted to make sure that he would be prepared to take care of himself after she passed on. She gave him all of the skills that he needed; from growing his own vegetables to canning, especially how to cook. Looking back to his childhood, his favorite time was eating at his great-grandmother’s table. “Cooking takes me back to my upbringing and the love that was put into her food,” he says.
Somehow, his great-grandmother knew what he needed. On his own at an early age, Chef David went to the Culinary School at Madison College, graduating at the top of his class. He then realized that he “always had a flair for cooking,” but doesn’t like “working with sugar or chocolate.” For Chef David, who considers himself as “the peoples’ chef,” he says, “It’s not a job, it’s just what I like doing.” Especially when he sees the enjoyment that his food brings to people.
Pleasing people with his cooking is only part of what Chef’s known for. Among a limited number of people who stayed behind on the island during Hurricane Matthew, he became a critical lifeline of information for hundreds of nervous residents who had evacuated by posting hours of videos as he toured the devastation of the island. His videos helped relieve a lot of anxiety for people, giving them an idea of what to expect when they returned home after the storm.
Author of the cookbook “Burnin’ Down South,” Chef David is now working on his second book. This time, he’s incorporating some of his daughter Imani’s recipes. Imani was diagnosed with Lyme disease about three years ago. Since then, Chef has made her health and developing the correct dietary and homeopathic approach and with finding ways to eliminate plastics and anything artificial, a top priority. In an effort to help handle the high cost of Imani’s medical treatments and to raise awareness of the disease, Chef does fundraisers through T-shirt sales and a GoFundMe page.
Known for experimenting with different flavors, like combining non-traditional ingredients into his Lowcounrty cuisine, he can take a typical rice stir-fry and add an Asian barbecue sauce for an unexpected twist. It’s that desire to search for new flavor combinations that made his famous sweet potato cornbread come to be while working at the Sea Shack restaurant on Hilton Head Island years ago. He might be known for his cornbread, but his favorite dishes to cook are gumbo and red rice, because it’s one sauce for two different meals.
You can find Chef David at the Skull Creek Dockside restaurant. “I want to bring more awareness to Gullah cuisine and give people a healthy taste when they come here,” he says. “I like taking care of people and seeing them smile afterwards.”
Chef David’s Famous Sweet Potato Cornbread
It took over a year to perfect this recipe. I did not want to recreate the same old cornbread; I wanted to make something that was unique with flavor that would punch you in the taste buds. I took two traditional ingredients, cornmeal and sweet potatoes and created this taste sensation. Enjoy!
Step 1: Sweet potatoes and simple syrup
6 medium sweet potatoes, medium diced
3 cups sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
Directions  Place sweet potatoes in a 4-quart saucepan. Add sugar and light brown sugar.  Cover potatoes with water and boil until tender (25-35 minutes). Test for doneness with a fork.  Drain and set aside, reserving the sweet potato simple syrup.  Bring the simple syrup back to a boil until it thickens. Allow to cool and set aside.
Step 2: Cornbread batter
2 cups fine cornmeal
2 cups medium to coarse cornmeal
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup white granulated sugar
1/2 pound light brown sugar
6 tablespoons baking powder
1/4 cup ground ginger
2 tablespoons Jamaican jerk seasoning
1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon
2 cups sour cream
1 cup melted butter
4 ounces vanilla extract
4 cups water
Directions  Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all dry ingredients in the bowl. Mix well to incorporate ingredients.  Make a well in the center of the mixture. Add vanilla, butter, sour cream and two cups of sweet potatoes. Mix with a rubber spatula from the center. Add 1 cup of water at a time up to 4 cups. Mix well. The batter should be soft, but not runny. Fold in remaining sweet potatoes.  Moderately grease two baking pans and fill each pan about 3/4 full. Bake at 350 degrees for 60 to 90 minutes.  Check for doneness by inserting a knife or toothpick. When it comes out clean, the cornbread is done.  Remove from oven and drizzle with sweet potato syrup. Cool for 30 minutes. Serve.