Monday, July 22, 2024

Local recognized as Outstanding Chef nationwide in James Beard semifinalist round

James Beard Foundation announced its 2024 semifinalists Wednesday, with a nod going to Neff for Outstanding Chef overall. (Courtesy photo)

WILMINGTON — It’s the second year in a row Seabird’s chef, Dean Neff, has been recognized by the Oscars of the culinary world.

FROM THE VAULT: In Photos: Seabird Restaurant opens for dinner, breakfast launches Wednesday

James Beard Foundation announced its 2024 semifinalists Wednesday, with a nod going to Neff for Outstanding Chef nationwide. According to the foundation, the category exemplifies working chefs that set “high culinary standards,” plus stand as a “positive example for other food professionals while contributing positively to their broader community.”

The James Beard Foundation lists 10 “Outstanding” categories nationwide — from restaurateur to restaurant, bakery to bar — but also 12 regional Best Chef awards.

It’s not the first time Neff has landed on the James Beard Foundation list. He scored a nomination for Best Chef: Southeast in 2023 (along with Chef Keith Rhodes), as well as in 2019 when Neff oversaw PinPoint kitchen.

Neff opened Seabird in 2021, which centers on fresh seafood, locally procured ingredients and sustainable dining. Aside from being a revered dinner spot — from its fresh local oysters to craft cocktails to homemade bread, sauces and other items — Seabird also has breakfast and lunch services.

When he spoke to Port City Daily Wednesday, Neff said he was shocked to learn about his nomination.

“I found out this morning when an industry friend sent out a text message congratulating an Outstanding Chef,” Neff said. “I was like, ‘They sent that to the wrong person.'”

This category hits a little differently, Neff added, as he isn’t just against culinarians doing great things in the Southeast, but also chefs recognized from New York to San Francisco, larger cities well-known for their culinary outreach. Neff credits the recognition to Wilmington’s food community-at-large. Seabird prides itself on working with local fishermen and women, farmers, and other industry professionals to continue bringing the forth the best of seasonal flavors to diners.

“This is a very special place for seafood and for oysters,” Neff said. “It’s kind of like Asheville’s food culture but with a coastal focus.”

When he moved to the area in 2015, he said he was working with three or four oyster farmers. Today, more than four dozen are farming the waters region-wide.

Neff utilizes product from Hold Fast Oysters, Shell’em Seafood, N Sea Oyster Co., Soundside Oysters and Three Little Spats. Fresh vegetables and greens come from Changing Ways, Red Beard Farms and Farmage, among other local vendors and growers. He sources fresh clams locally, among other seafood items on the Seabird menu.

“There’s just a lot of care and sustainability put toward our food,” Neff said. “I’ve always been the type of chef that is more about the ingredients and the stories of the ingredients. And so I kind of feel similarly in this scenario … this nomination is about all of the team we have here, the ingredients that come through our door. It takes a very large army to make a restaurant work day in day out.”

Outside of Seabird’s kitchen, Neff is continuing to educate on the local food movement and fighting hunger. He is a new council member for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina and has done dinners with the Northside Food Co-op.

“A long time ago, when I was a young cook at a restaurant in Athens, I kind of was able to see how independent restaurants can contribute things that are positive and beyond just cooking food for the community,” he said. “There are worthwhile things to come out of cooking.”

Established in 1990, James Beard recognizes restaurants across the nation from casual to fine-dining. It lists the awards committee, subcommittees and judges make up the voting body. Entries for recommendations were open from Oct. 3 through Nov. 30, which included public input as well. Since then, the committees have been reviewing eligibility.

The finalists — top five in each category — will be announced April 3, determined by subcommittee members and judges visiting semifinalists’ restaurants, participating in discussions, and voting on specific criteria. The chef and restaurant winners will be judged similarly and announced at a formal ceremony in Chicago on June 10.

Other North Carolina people and places recognized in the 2024 semifinalist round are:

  • Outstanding Restaurant: The Market Place in Asheville, The Restaurant at Gideon Ridge Inn in Blowing Rock
  • Best New Restaurant: Ajja in Raleigh
  • Outstanding Bakery: Bobby Boy Bakeshop in Winston-Salem
  • Outstanding Hospitality: Crawford and Son in Raleigh
  • Outstanding Bar: Bittersweet in Raleigh
  • Best Chef Southeast: Daryl Cooper and Oscar Johnson, Jimmy Pearls, in Charlotte; Jamie Davis, The Hackney, in Washington; Jason Sellers, Plant, in Asheville; Kanlaya “Gun” Supachana, Dalaya Thai Cuisine, in Sylva; and Preeti Waas, Cheeni Indian Food Emporium in Raleigh

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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