Thursday, June 13, 2024

Wilmington chef raises $15K for Food Bank in honor of James Beard nomination

People gathered at Seabird in downtown Wilmington Monday night to watch the James Beard Awards, for whom Chef Dean Neff was nominated as Outstanding Chef 2024. It also acted as a fundraiser for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern NC. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Though Chef Dean Neff did not take home a James Beard Award in Chicago Monday, the community-at-large, particularly a local nonprofit, is reaping the benefit from his nomination.

READ MORE: Seabird chef in top 5 finalists for James Beard Award

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

Neff was one of five nationwide nominated for Outstanding Chef, one of the most coveted awards, presented last at the annual culinary ceremony.

“They’re considered because they embody excellence and set a culinary standard at a national level and serve as positive mentors to the rest of the industry,” 2014 Outstanding Chef Nancy Silverton said when presenting.

Neff, who owns and operates Seabird, was up against:

• Sarah Minnick, Lovely’s Fifty Fifty, Portland, OR
• Michael Rafidi, Albi, Washington, D.C.
• Renee Touponce, The Port of Call, Mystic, CT
• David Uygur, Lucia, Dallas, TX

“What an incredible honor to be on that list,” Neff told PCD from his hotel room in Chicago Tuesday. “Seeing these chefs get up there and talk about where they’re from and what they’re doing — it was powerful.”

Rafidi — whose cuisine is centered on his Palestinian roots — took home the Outstanding Chef award for his Michelin star restaurant Albi.

While Neff was with his partner, Lydia Clopton, at the ceremony, his staff was leading the helm at the seafood-forward Seabird, which opened in 2021 in a renovated historic building on Front and Market streets. A dinner and watch party was hosted and raised $14,750 for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.

The awards streamed live while ticket holders enjoyed artisanal food and cocktails. The fundraiser highlights the give-back nature of Neff’s vision serving the greater Wilmington area. He has helped with the food bank and serves on its council, as well as often donates time to other nonprofits, such as the Northside Food Co-op.

“We started Seabird to be a community restaurant, and it came into being a community restaurant in ways that we couldn’t imagine,” Neff said. “We felt hosting the fundraiser was the right thing to do, to help get rid of hunger in North Carolina and to honor the James Beard Foundation mission.”

The foundation has a goal to celebrate but also nurture food culture, those creating it and leaders who make it diverse and sustainable for everyone. Neff told PCD in January, upon his nomination announcement, it was empowering to be a restaurateur who positively contributes beyond working in a restaurant day-in, day-out. Though he loves that, too: telling stories through food.

Neff also credits his James Beard recognition to Seabird staff: “It’s all about the team.”

This includes local farmers and vendors that help elevate the restaurant, including Hold Fast Oysters, Shell’em Seafood, N Sea Oyster Co., Soundside Oysters and Three Little Spats, as well as Changing Ways, Red Beard Farms and Farmage, among others.

“There’s just a lot of care and sustainability put toward our food,” Neff said, “and that’s also what James Beard is about.”

The chef originally came to the Port City to open Pinpoint in 2015 and has been nominated as Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Foundation twice in the last few years. At Monday’s ceremony, it was revealed many nominees were recognized multiple years before taking home a win. Though the honor would be nice, Neff isn’t concentrating on outcomes as much as experiences and the inspiration he embraced from being at the ceremony, surrounded by like-minded people in the industry.

“I’m feeling revved up about continuing what we’re doing,” he said. “Making food, art and a living — working with an incredible team and growing. We’re just going to continue pushing forward and we’re excited — and down the road, when the time’s right, if it’s ever right, we’ll be there for it [a win].”

His nomination for Outstanding Chef nationwide hit a bit differently than previous years, as Neff was stacked against culinarians pushing the envelope in larger cities. He also noticed the recognition immediately uplifted Searbird’s name. It was a busier winter and spring, with diners traveling from other areas more frequently, it seemed, to experience Seabird.

“We had some people here from Paris who heard about us,” Neff said, as well as West Virginia and Miami. “It’s like, well, that’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also incredible because we built this from the ground up, with relationships from people here, so I think when diners come to Seabird, they hopefully feel Wilmington.”

No North Carolina restaurants or teams were honored Monday, though two others made it to the final found, including:

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

The Hospitality award went to Lula Cafe in Chicago, while Best Chef Southeast was awarded to Paul Smith of 1010 Bridge in West Virginia.

Neighboring South Carolina eateries and drinkeries did win Monday, including Lula Drake Wine Parlour in Columbia, South Carolina, for Outstanding Wine and Beverage Program, and Wade’s Restaurant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, noted as a 2024 America’s Classic.

See all the 2024 winners here.

[Ed. note: The article was updated after press to include input from Neff following the awards.]

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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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