Chef David Young left his hometown of Hilton Head Island without much intention of returning. But he did, finding success in the culinary world. Now the school district he graduated from is hoping his story can serve as an inspiration to others.
The Foundation for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit foundation established to provide grants to teachers in the Beaufort County School District, is honoring Young at its annual Celebrate Inspiration gala Friday at The Mall at Shelter Cove on Hilton Head.
From the foundation's perspective, Young serves as a model for Beaufort County youth. He's self-made, recently starting his own restaurant, Roastfish & Cornbread, that draws on his heritage as a native islander.
"He's set a precedent that he can inspire others," said schools community services coordinator Carol McMillan.
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Young grew up in the Spanish Wells area of Hilton Head; his family's roots in the Lowcountry stretch back to before the Civil War.
His great-grandmother, Mary Cohen, raised him. At age 77, she taught him to cook when he was just a youngster. They got most of their food from the fields and sea around them. By the age of 6, Young could cook collard greens pulled from their land or shrimp fished from the nearby waters.
"Back then, it was a lot more like an island," Young said. "A lot more trees, a lot more fields, a lot less busy."
His grandmother taught him to cook because she knew she wouldn't always be there for him. She died when Young was 14. He lived in his great-grandmother's house by himself but received guidance from an uncle, Rufus Cohen (who died April 15).
He had worked before but got his first restaurant job at Gruby's New York Deli, finding he still had a flair for cooking. His grandmother instilled in him the value of an education, he said, so he knew he had to stay in school.
He graduated Hilton Head High School in 1989 in a class with a little more than 200 students. He had close friends from Wisconsin, and they encouraged him to apply to school there. He went to the University of Wisconsin and studied biology and Spanish, putting cooking aside.
"It wasn't so much a culture shock," he said about leaving the Lowcountry. "It was something different, a different culture. You have to experience life someplace else."
He ended up staying in Wisconsin for 13 years before he moved to Atlanta to work in a new restaurant started by his former bosses at Gruby's. He returned to the island and worked at Giuseppi's Pizza & Pasta. He became the executive chef at Hilton Head Hospital and was eventually hired at local favorite The Sea Shack. He started Roastfish & Cornbread off Marshland Road two years ago.
He's become ingrained in the community, getting involved in fundraisers for schools and other nonprofit organizations. He's even posed in photos running in Bon Appetit magazine as part of a Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce marketing effort.
Going through the Beaufort County schools, he credits teachers for standing by him, even in his moments of weakness.
"They worked with me. They didn't disown me for cutting class or for being a complete idiot at times," he said with a laugh.
"The lesson I learned from that is you can always help kids do the right thing."