WILMINGTON — The area dining scene received a boost of recognition Wednesday as the 2023 James Beard Awards announced its semifinalists.
Securing two of 20 spots for Best Chef Southeast are Keith Rhodes from Catch Modern Seafood and Dean Neff of Seabird. The final nominees will be announced March 29 with winners recognized June 5 in Chicago.
The Oscars of the culinary world, the James Beard Foundation’s honors have been hosted annually since 1991. It recognizes excellence across a multitude of categories — from fine dining to casual eateries, chefs to cookbooks, TV programs and beyond.
The Best Chef category is broken down across a dozen regions — Midwest, Northeast, Southeast, South, etc. 2023 has introduced separate awards for California, Texas, and New York.
Other new categories include Outstanding Bakery and Outstanding Pastry Chef.
The foundation touts professionals whose culinary skills and leadership abilities remain the crème de la crème in dining nationwide.
It’s not Rhodes’ first time making the list. He was nominated in 2011 in the same category — and during the same year he appeared on “Top Chef” season 9.
“The feeling is even more surreal,” Rhodes wrote to Port City Daily Wednesday, comparing his nominations 12 years apart — “having the skin in the game and the longevity really solidifies what the team and I reflect in the community: excellence!”
Rhodes opened Catch Modern Seafood in 2006 after he left downtown’s former fine-dining establishment Deluxe. Since, he said he has worked hard to “assemble an awesome team.”
“Take care of them and they will take care of you,” Rhodes wrote and explained he was referring to more than staff — also farmers, “fisher folks” and food and beverage purveyors.
With his team, Rhodes hones in on a Southern-Asian fusion of flavors, from one-of-a-kind sauces to unique preparations of dishes. The restaurant sources local seafood and organic vegetables that support area fisheries and farmers.
Boards and committees have been assessing nominees for the 2023 awards year after a call opened in the fall for anyone to submit. Subcommittees then honed in on the comprehensive lists to sort who is creating “a sustainable work culture in their respective regions while contributing positively to their broader community,” as described in the foundation press release Wednesday.
“The last few years really has expedited our mentorship and consulting work,” Rhodes said.
A panel consisting of judges and subcommittee members rank the 20 semifinalists. In 2023, the James Beard Foundation expanded its diversity by ensuring at least half of committee members and judges are people of color, it noted in the release.
To cull the finalists, they visit the restaurants and dwindle down the list to the top five finalists after a tasting. Rhodes said he is unsure right now what his team will prepare when the time comes.
“We will continue with creative preparations and quality control, never sacrificing quality, service or our hospitality integrity,” he said. “We always have a lot going on behind the seasons.”
Neff was nominated in 2019 as a semifinalist; at the time his creations were coming out of PinPoint — the restaurant he helped launch in the former Deluxe space in 2015.
The Georgia-born chef left in 2019 and launched a 2,600-square-foot restaurant that James Goodnight restored to look like its original 1927 vintage. At the corner of Front and Market streets, Seabird has honed in on crafting flavors based on the seasonality of seafood and ingredients found in North Carolina.
“Like many, at the core of our work is a mission to use the best industry practices, to grow with our team, to make a positive impact on our community, to support our local economy through staff, farmers and fishermen and women, and above all, to serve as a team of professionals,” Neff said. “No doubt, this is a nomination of our entire team.”
The chef explained the restaurant will not be alerted upon the James Beard Foundation judges and subcommittee’s visit. Nonetheless, he said at Seabird, endeavoring to offer a consistent attention to detail keeps the experience memorable for every guest.
“We’re excited to be in good company with Keith Rhodes,” Neff said. “It means a lot to see our Wilmington community well represented … And it’s also important to keep in mind, for every person and place nominated, there are 50 more just as deserving of it.”
Last year’s Best Chef Southeast went to Durham’s Saltbox owner Ricky Moore.
Other North Carolinians recognized in 2023 are Sam Hart of Counter in Charlotte, Josiah McGaughey of Vivian in Asheville, Stephanie Tyson of Sweet Potatoes in Winston-Salem, and Preeti Waas of Raleigh’s Cheeni Indian Food Emporium.
Outstanding Chef nods also went to Greg Collier of Charlotte’s Leah & Louise, and Best New Restaurant semifinalists include Heff’s Burger Club in Winston-Salem and Neng Jr.’s in Asheville.
Kingfisher in Durham was nominated for Outstanding Bar. Charlotte’s Salud Cerveceria was also recognized in the category.
Have comments or tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org