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Seabird Chef Calls James Beard Awards 'a Win' Even Without Top Prize

By Staff Reports, posted Jun 11, 2024
Dean Neff and partner Lydia Clopton attend the 33rd annual James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony on Monday. Neff was one of five chefs nominated for the Outstanding Chef award. (Contributed photo)
While Dean Neff, owner and head chef at Seabird, did not take home the James Beard Foundation’s coveted Outstanding Chef award on Monday, he was the first Wilmington chef to make it to the final round and be invited to the awards ceremony. 

As Neff attended the ceremony in Chicago, his staff hosted a watch party at Seabird where guests dined on hors d'oeuvres that included Bluefin Tuna tartare with crème fraîche and caviar, chicken liver mousse, smoked tuna and tuna sausage, octopus, porcini mushrooms and broccoli rabe wrapped in summer squash and several preparations of local oysters. 

All proceeds from the watch party tickets benefited the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. Seabird staff presented the organization with a check on Monday night for $14,740. 

Neff was named a semifinalist in the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southeast category in 2019 and 2023. This was the first time Neff had made it to the final round of the Outstanding Chef award. 

Michael Rafidi from Albi in Washington, D.C. won the Outstanding Chef Award on Monday. Other contenders in the category included Renee Touponce from The Port of Call in Mystic, Connecticut; Sarah Minnick from Lovely’s Fifty Fifty in Portland, Oregon; and David Uygur from Lucia in Dallas, Texas.

Neff was one of three chefs from North Carolina to be named a finalist this year. Other North Carolina chefs included Jamie Davis from The Hackney in Washington, North Carolina, a finalist in the Best Chef Southeast category, and Scott Crawford of Crawford and Son in Raleigh, a finalist for Outstanding Hospitality. Neither Davis nor Crawford took home the top award in their group.

Preeti Waas, owner of Cheeni Durham and a two-time semi-finalist for Best Chef Southeast, also became the first chef from North Carolina to be invited to cook for the ceremony. 

Neff’s nomination for the national award will likely keep him in the spotlight and his supporters believe the attention will benefit not only Seabird but Wilmington’s entire dining scene. 

“Having a chef nominated in this category is amazing for Wilmington and for southeastern North Carolina,” Seabird patron Oliver Earney said at Monday's watch party. “I think it’s going to bring an incredible amount of attention to the region which is just amazing.”

Neff sent his regards to his staff and the community from Chicago in a message to the Business Journal on Tuesday.

“I am so proud of our entire team. This whole experience has made us feel grateful for so many things and especially the Wilmington community,” he wrote. “We were so honored to be present (at the awards) and feel like the evening was a win in both Wilmington and Chicago.”
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