Charleston chef James London of Chubby Fish soaks in summer with a day on the water followed by a fireside feast
The rain had moved offshore, but roiling waves threatened to sideline James London from a day hooking grouper and black bass off the coast of Charleston last summer. The chef-owner of Chubby Fish, one of downtown Charleston’s most revered seafood restaurants, wasn’t afraid. Gripped with the fishing bug from an early age, he was anxious to get a rod baited that day—high seas be damned.
His friend and charter boat captain Shane Sinclair of Charleston Inshore Charters got London and a few friends about 18 miles out to sea, where the crew wrestled the swells to reel in their haul—one fisherman, Josh, hooked a bull shark that battled for about 45 minutes before the crew got him unhooked. The catch also included several red snappers, but they were quickly thrown back since the season had closed just the day before.
All that rocking kept the group on their toes until they brought the rig back to the home of a friend in West Ashley, where a long walkway over the marsh took them from the dock to the waterfront home. There, London and his wife, Yoanna, known as “YoYo,” along with their puppy, Koji, was hosting a few friends for dinner, thanks to a makeshift outdoor kitchen complete with a Sea Island Forge kettle grill, where London set about prepping the day’s catch.
For London, breaking down fish this fresh—straight off the boat—is an everyday affair at Chubby Fish. Open since 2018, the jewel box of a restaurant doesn’t take reservations, which means there’s a line out the door each night, starting before the doors open. Give them your name and number and cross your fingers for a spot, at which point you’re treated to London’s take on what fresh seafood really means—in the door that day, sourced from trusted fishermen, and limited availability. There’s no menu, just a large magnetic board above the galley kitchen listing what’s available that night. When that item runs out, the magnet comes down. “A lot of first-timers don’t understand, like, why don’t we have a paper menu in front of us?’’ London says. “It’s because we get fish that you don’t get from large seafood companies. We get one-offs. Sometimes we’ll get four banded rudderfish and that’s maybe 10 orders, so when it goes, we pull that magnet. It’s a different beast, a different concept.”
In a way, it’s a little like a live jazz show. For one night only, London and his team play a range of hits in a specific order or with a specific tone—much like he used to do when he was a drummer for jazz, funk, and reggae outfits before he turned to cooking. He was attending the College of Charleston studying music when he started picking up kitchen gigs. Soon, he was drumming three to four nights a week but cooking for five of them at the restaurant Cordavi under chefs Corey Elliott and David Szlam. While others cleaned up his station at the restaurant, he’d go straight to the stage, where bandmates had set up his drum kit. Finally, Elliott sat him down and said, “Tomorrow, you need to come to me and tell me whether you’re going to be a drummer or a chef.”
“I stayed up all night to think about it. And basically never looked back on drumming. I put my horse blinders on,” London says. This all happened during his sophomore year of college. Both parents worked in academia (he was born in Charleston but grew up in Clemson, where his father taught in the planning and urban development program and his mom was a research director) so they insisted he finish school. He switched majors to hospitality management and business and began cooking his way through Charleston, where he was content learning under others and exploring the city’s food scene—at the time, Sean Brock was running McCrady’s and there was electric energy pulsing through the city’s restaurants. Ultimately, his parents were the ones who suggested he spread his wings. “They said, ‘You want to be a cook, go be a cook. But go somewhere else and learn. Go to San Francisco, go to New York. You can always come back,’” he says. “They basically kicked me out. Which is what I needed.”
He went on to New York’s French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center), then spent eight years cooking around New York, where he met YoYo, and together they spent four years in San Francisco. From modern Japanese food to upscale American to New Orleans-inspired Cajun, he honed his skills, always with the intention of coming back to Charleston to open his own place.
The Birth of Chubby Fish
They had already found the Chubby Fish space before they returned in 2017 and quickly got to work launching the mom-and-pop space. Originally, they’d thought of opening a noodle shop, but after looking at the state of the city’s restaurant scene, London recognized a need for a true dock-to-table experience, where seafood would play the lead. London’s father acted as a bookkeeper (he still helps out) while YoYo set about curating the space with a selection of antique and heirloom dishware. The restaurant was an instant hit when it debuted.
Out on the patio, as friends stoked the fire in the kettle grill and Koji scampered in and out of the pool, London started prepping the grouper with the precision of a surgeon—first clipping the fins and then slicing through the top, up and over the grouper’s spine to pull out a perfectly convex filet. (He left the scales on since these filets would go directly onto the grill, skin-side down.) He then slid the knife away from the collar to separate the grouper cheeks—highly coveted delicacies at Chubby Fish.
London typically uses every edible part of the fish, so the collars got a shower of salt and pepper and went straight onto the grate over the fire. Meanwhile, he got to work scaling the black bass (he prefers a simple scaler he picked up from New York’s JB Prince), removing the fins and then quickly hooking his finger through the fish’s jawbone to pull out its innards. Another shower of salt and pepper, and the whole fish went onto the grill next, along with a pile of peppers and a castiron pan full of fairytale eggplants.
The Essence of Chubby Fish
As London put a handful of other dishes together—a quick and easy corn salad with field peas and boiled peanuts, ceviche made from diced grouper and served with green harissa, chermoula and romesco to serve alongside—the weary group of fishermen were joined by their partners and friends, who all congregated near the fire for a few beers and glasses of rosé.
Gatherings like this still feel much needed after years of pandemic separation. London closed Chubby Fish’s dining room for 14 months when Covid-19 hit, putting a dead halt on the business. There was a pivot to takeout, and then, once they were able, he and YoYo started hosting intimate, five-course dinners for up to 12 people. When they reopened in April 2021, all but one of their employees came back. “That was huge for me,” London says. “Our whole mentality changed. How we handle all of it—full health care, full vacation. It changes the bottom line but you have to take care of people.”
Meanwhile, London and YoYo were married in January 2022, in a ceremony officiated by local hog farmer and Chubby Fish purveyor Tank Jackson.
When, at last, it was time to eat, the sun was setting as London set platters down: whole black bass smothered in a ginger-scallion sauce, whole grouper filet tangy with chile butter, simply grilled grouper collar.
“Dig in,” London announced, showing the group how to pull off a bit of each fish and dip it into the romesco. As they dove in, a few more pieces of wood went into the kettle grill, which became a fire pit. Someone turned on some tunes, and London, right in his element, took his time, savoring every bite.
Designed to look like plantation-style kettles, Sea Island Forge kettle grills are the brainchild of artisans Steve and Sandy Schoettle. From their St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, forge, they craft two sizes of these thoughtfully designed and remarkably versatile live-fire stations (30 or 50 gallon) made from cast-iron kettles. They can come equipped with detachable cooking surfaces, like a plancha, grill grates, smoker sleeves, and more. The team also crafts asados and dutch oven “tree” racks for chefs and ambitious home cooks.
For the Schoettles, it’s form following function. There’s the boot rail, an attractively twisted frame that surrounds the kettle, which looks good, but also, Steve notes, “maximizes the surface area to dissipate the heat.” He adds, “I believe if you truly understand your function, then the piece has no choice but to be attractive.”
- by Erin Byers Murray