Sugar-addled children and their weary parents fill every table at Beardcat’s Sweet Shop, a gelateria and coffee shop that sits on the main drag of Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, a short walk from the beach.
Though outside the rain is coming down like stair rods, you’d never know it from the convivial, beach-baked group nested inside. The store, like so many of its kind, is a technicolor, Willy Wonka-esque space with the kind of tables and booths that wipe down easy. But unlike so many gelato and ice cream shops, Beardcat’s sets itself apart by offering inventive flavors of gelato that boast fresh and hyperlocal ingredients, like blackberries from Ambrose Family Farm. That’s due in large part to the involvement of Chef Jacques Larson, who divides his time between Wild Olive on Johns Island, and the Obstinate Daughter, a restaurant that sits directly above Beardcat’s and shares its kitchen space. While geared toward an older and spendier demographic, the restaurants are two of the Charleston area’s most revered spots.
Larson’s got a lot to boast about, but when he bursts through the swinging doors and comes around the case of rainbowed gelatos to say hello, there’s nothing haughty about him. He’s cheery when he shakes hands and flashes a self-conscious smile to the row of patrons. He talks, doesn’t bellow. It’s no wonder that Larson doesn’t act the part. He never wanted to be a chef in the first place. His first job in a kitchen came out of what he thought was going to be an interview for a server job. The chef who hired him gave him two choices: wash dishes or be a cook. Larson needed money in the worst way, so he decided to cook.
Living in his hometown of Iowa City and working toward degrees in English and history at the University of Iowa, Larson was feeling a bit listless. Still, he never thought he’d steer so wildly from the course he’d imagined for himself. What followed were a series of jobs in which Larson found himself shouldering more and more kitchen responsibility.
“I’m always trying to embrace that we are in the South,” he says. “I like to treat the Lowcountry as if it were a region in Italy, highlighting things I feel are under-known or underappreciated.” —Chef Jacques Larson
His most fated position began in 1997 with what he calls the best opportunity he’s ever been given: a job helping to open the swank Peninsula Grill in Charleston’s downtown market district. The restaurant has been a legendary incubator for so many promising chefs, particularly in those years. Under the guidance of Chef Robert Carter, fledglings like Sean Brock and Bruce MacLeod learned the trade and left to become some of today’s most influential chefs. Larson secured his own bragging rights after he left Peninsula, earning his stripes staging both under Mario Batali in New York and in Italy, then serving as executive chef at notable places like Charleston’s now-defunct Union Hall and Mercato restaurants. When he arrived at Wild Olive back in 2009, Larson’s ardent dedication to a true Italian cucina began to bloom on the plate.
“I’m always trying to embrace that we are in the South,” he says. “I like to treat the Lowcountry as if it were a region in Italy, highlighting things I feel are under-known or underappreciated.” The Obstinate Daughter, so-titled for a Revolutionary War-era political cartoon depicting the thwarting of the first British assault on Charleston, is stubborn in more than just name. It’s also the embodiment of Larson’s eschewing of typical tourist trappings in favor of a playful menu balancing wood-fired Italian-inspired and Lowcountry fare.
When the town shot down intentions to build out the restaurant’s artifice into a tiered balcony, Larson suggested making the space beneath Obstinate Daughter into a beach-friendly gelatoria. Architect Reggie Gibson unearthed a random photo of an old sea captain resplendent with a nested bird atop his cap and a kitten peaking out from his formidable beard, and jokes began among the opening crew about a romance between the cat-bearded captain and the cartoon’s “daughter.” The name Beardcat’s was born, and the captain’s portrait now casts its serious gaze over gelato-diners from its prominent space on the wall.
When Beardcat’s opened two years ago, Pastry Chef Caroline Sherman, previously of Wild Olive, took the helm. In preparation for the gelateria opening, she took courses at the Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy. Sherman left to have a child several months ago, and in her stead Victoria Warren now provides the consistent element of innovation and a dedication to local ingredients. There are flavors like the red velvet cake gelato that stay on the menu year-round and others like sweet corn that come and go with the seasons. Larson points out that, with a gelato shop, the experimental risks the chefs take are minimal. When diners found their cucumber gelato odd, they shrugged and chose another flavor.
Business suffers less than it would in Larson’s more expensive restaurants, where one errant dish could upend an entire meal and squander a chance at important first impressions. Larson is constantly trying to balance his desires with his focus on the bottom line. “I don’t consider myself a sell-out,” he says, “but I’ve learned under some really talented people that a restaurant is first and foremost a business, not a chef’s playground. We offer some cutting-edge things that I’m really excited about, and they may or may not sell. But at the end of the day, what’s important is that the customer leaves happy because he ate your food.” Back at Beardcat’s, watching the weary families preparing to duck back out into the rain, they seem to have an extra bounce in their step. They are leaving happy.