Seabird's Dean Neff Talks Awards, Community Ahead Of Tonight's James Beard Ceremony

By Jessica Maurer, posted Jun 10, 2024
The Greater Wilmington Business Journal caught up with Dean Neff ahead of Monday's James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony. (Contributed photo by Doug Young)
Dean Neff, owner and head chef at downtown Wilmington restaurant Seabird, is in Chicago today for the 33rd annual James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony. He is among five chefs nominated nationwide for the foundation’s Outstanding Chef award. 

Tonight’s ceremony, co-hosted by Top Chef alums Nyesha Arrington and Richard Blais, can be live-streamed starting at 6:30 p.m. on The Greater Wilmington Business Journal caught up with Neff prior to his departure.

You were a semifinalist in the Best Chef Southeast category in 2019 and again in 2023, and this year you were named one of just five finalists for the Outstanding Chef award. Many consider the semifinalist title to be a stellar recognition in and of itself – what was your reaction to making it to the final round?
Neff: "I don't know exactly what to make of it. In a lot of ways, I think it says something about the community as it relates to the restaurant and all the contributions everyone's made. There are a lot of things at work and when they all come together it creates this atmosphere where the music is great, the service is great, the food is great, the design, it all comes together to provide a great experience. And I think the stories about the people bringing us the food are powerful – they give diners a sense of the area, the season, and all of this seems to elevate the experience and make the food taste better.

I feel like it’s kind of this perfect storm of people who are passionate about bringing us ingredients, people on our team who are passionate about service and cooking, our landlord and our contractor and the designer, and it's just all of these things working together – that's kind of the only thing I can make of it. It's always a shock to see your name on the list."

You’re one of just three chefs from North Carolina who are finalists this year in various categories, and the only Wilmington-based chef to ever make it this far. Has this always been a goal for you?
Neff: "You know, I don't think it ever has been a goal. It's amazing, but it’s just something I never expected. When I started cooking a long time ago, this was not something that was on my radar as something I had to achieve. And it's overwhelming in a lot of ways, I just never expected it at this point. Not that I'm young or anything, it's just something that was never really top of mind. 

I do think maybe it's better put that the types of activities around independent restaurants that I am drawn to have led to this kind of recognition. Things like trying to create a positive work culture, volunteering within the community, being intentional about the ingredients we select and how they're produced. I think it’s these kinds of things that can lead to an award, but it’s never been about the award itself."

Have you attended or cooked at any JBF events in the past?
Neff: "I’ve never attended the awards ceremony, but I have cooked at the James Beard House if I had to guess maybe four or five times. One time I was there cooking on behalf of myself, and the other times I was there to support another chef. The last time was probably in 2017. We corralled a group of people from North Carolina and showcased ingredients from across the state, which was pretty cool."

What are you most looking forward to when you head to Chicago and what does your schedule look like while you’re there? Are there certain events outside of the awards ceremony that you’ll be attending or restaurants you plan to visit? 
Neff: "We booked our flights before we had the full schedule of events relating to the awards so we’re still trying to figure out if we might change our flights to be able to participate in some of those, but we will definitely go and eat some at some different places.

I have a reservation for Monteverde, which is a place I’ve been wanting to go to for a while. I’m also hoping to get to Virtu. And I've had so many people tell me I’ve got to get an Italian beef sandwich so that’s definitely on the list. It doesn’t all have to be fancy. I'm also really looking forward to having a little time together with Lydia (his wife) without the kids, which will be very nice and much needed. Other than that, I don't know what to expect since I've never been to the ceremony before."

Do you have to get really dressed up?
Neff: "Yes, I was fitted for a tux by a really wonderful regular who owns a men's clothing store. I've probably only been in a tux maybe one other time in my life!"

What would an award of this caliber mean to you?
Neff: "I’m not sure I really know how to answer that. I think that it would obviously be an acknowledgment of being on the right track. I think even the nomination solidifies the responsibility of continually trying to improve, to be involved in the community, to always better yourself.

I've always felt more rounded in life when I’m able to not only cook but also to volunteer within the community. Restaurants can be sad places if you plateau or you're not trying to learn and get better. It just becomes a grind if you’re not always looking for new information and learning from it and moving forward. Part of that is creating a good workplace so you can continue to grow in the right way, and that’s not done out of the desire to win awards, but just to remain intentional."
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