Monday, July 22, 2024

Seabird chef in top 5 finalists for James Beard Award

The Seabird owner, Chef Dean Neff, has made it to the top finalists in the 2024 Outstanding Chef category from the James Beard Foundation. (Port City Daily/File)

WILMINGTON — Dean Neff has made it to the final round of a prestigious honor in the culinary world: Outstanding Chef from the James Beard Foundation.

READ MORE: Local recognized as Outstanding Chef nationwide in James Beard semifinalist round

Neff is up against chefs from across the United States, including Sarah Minnick from Lovely’s Fifty Fifty in Portland, OR; Michael Rafidi from Albi in D.C.; Renee Touponce from The Port of Call in Mystic, CT; and David Uygur from Lucia in Dallas, TX.

He has been nominated by the foundation in previous years, including for Best Chef: Southeast in 2023 (along with Chef Keith Rhodes), as well as in 2019 when Neff oversaw Pinpoint kitchen.

At the end of January, it was revealed Neff was among the top 10 in the semi-final round. The foundation recognizes chefs as “outstanding” for keeping culinary standards at an optimal high and setting a “positive example for other food professionals while contributing positively to their broader community.”

Since the first round, the foundation judges cull finalists after visiting the restaurants unannounced and dwindling down the list as informed by their dining experiences.

“I am reminded that the only way to sustain the challenges of the hospitality industry is to work to learn and improve everyday,” he wrote in a text message to Port City Daily Wednesday afternoon. “This also shows the importance of this platform and its relationship to community.”

Georgia-born Neff moved to Wilmington to open Pinpoint Restaurant in spring 2015, before exiting four years later to launch his own operation along Front Street in 2021. The 2,600-square-foot restaurant, owned by James Goodnight, was restored to parallel its vintage year: 1927.

Seabird serves elevated Southern cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Neff focuses on sustainable dining, including fresh seafood, farm-grown vegetables and herbs, and artisan-created breads and sauces to accompany each bite.

In January, the chef credited the nomination to the culinary community as a whole, especially the farmers and vendors who work to keep the slow-food movement alive and industry professionals that concentrate on seasonal freshness. He called Wilmington “a very special place for seafood and for oysters.” Seabird often features bivalves from local companies like Hold Fast Oysters, Shell’em Seafood, N Sea Oyster Co., Soundside Oysters and Three Little Spats.

“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.”

Along with Neff, two other North Carolina finalists made it to the last round of the James Beard Awards, including:

  • Outstanding Hospitality — Crawford and Son, Raleigh, NC
  • Best Chef Southeast: Jamie Davis, The Hackney, Washington, NC

Last year’s Outstanding Chef award went to Rob Rubba, of Oyster Oyster from Washington, D.C.

The James Beard Foundation will crown its winner for 2024 in Chicago on June 10. Neff confirmed he looks forward to attending the ceremony.

“What an absolute honor,” he wrote. “I am beyond grateful and can’t believe that we are going to Chicago.”

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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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