ONWARD AND UPWARD: James Beard Award semi-finalist Dean Neff talks 2019 plans and goals

Chef Dean Neff breaks down the value of soup much like life: There’s an order to which things get done. Each ingredient matters, of course, but the layers in the pot are added step by step by level of importance. Start by sweating the onions or leeks and celery and carrots; cook the ham separately until it’s nice and tender. The devil is in the details of the process.

IN THE KITCHEN: Chef Dean Neff (above) has been nominated for the prestigious James Beard Award. Photo by Andrew Sherman

“I love that thought process because I feel like it forces you to think about what you’re going to do before you do it,” he says. “And it forces you to also think about each individual ingredient.”

On February 27 the James Beard Foundation announced its list of semifinalists for the 29th annual James Beard Awards. It’s a prestigious group spanning more than 20 categories, including Best Chef: Southeast, of which Neff has been lauded.

“It took a little while to sink in,” he admits. “It’s such an honor. . . . Cooking for a living is very hard work and . . . this is all I’ve ever done. There’s highs and lows, peaks and valleys, and this definitely made me—and this may sound weird because I’m 41 years old—but this makes me feel like I’m on the right path.”

An open call for James Beard Award nominees began in mid-October of 2018 from an independent group of roughly 250 volunteer panelists from around the country. Nominees were then reviewed by the Restaurant and Chef Committee. While finalists will be announced in the coming weeks, Neff is enjoying being a semi-finalist.

“There’s so many amazing chefs on that list,” he says. “I’ve worked with some of them and eaten at a lot of their restaurants and . . . they’re definitely role models for me in a lot of ways.”

Born and raised in Savannah, Georgia, where his parents still live, Neff’s nomination has him listed alongside friends like Chef Mashama Bailey of The Grey. “[Mashama] is amazing,” he praises. “The Grey is a wonderful restaurant. But [Mashama] (I think) was on the front page of the Savannah Morning News. My mom said they opened it up and saw The Grey had been represented. And they were like, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if Dean made it?’ Then they realized I was on the list.”

It’s a surreal moment for the culinary artist but also serendipitous. The former PinPoint head chef and restaurant partner only just left his station at the downtown eatery left his station a couple of weeks ago. In many ways the nomination is a confidence booster for his abilities and process in the kitchen; it acts as reassurance in his decisions. It’s also inspiration for the future, and there’s a lot his had to look forward to in 2019.

He and his long-time fiancée Lydia Clopton of Love, Lydia Bakery are planning their wedding and expecting a baby boy in August. For the next eight months or so, Neff will continue to help out at the bakery as they prepare for their first child. Neff also is slated for a new radio show on WHQR, “A Place at the Table,” which will launch on March 6 as part of “Coastline.” Plus, a culinary venture will begin anew.

“There definitely will be something else to come,” he divulges. “And I’m not sure exactly of the timing, but there’s several plans in the works.”

It’s not a question if Neff will open another restaurant in Wilmington but when. As far as style of food, Neff says he wants to think outside the box, wherein the food will be more inclusive and accessible. Think lunch service and/or cooking classes.

“I’ve got some other ideas,” he notes. “I definitely feel like if it’s higher end, it’s going to be a smaller restaurant that seeks less people.”

In fact, probably a week before finalizing the sell of his share of PinPoint, people were already approaching Neff about spaces—and he even looked at a few. So much hinges on finding the right place to dictate his style of food, service … everything.

“I don’t believe in forcing a concept into a space,” he explains. “So a certain extent of this is finding the space first and then kind of working the concept around it. . . . I went to business school, and I love the idea of branding and making concepts. I’ve got concepts that span from a dive bar with great bar food, up to small fine-dining, with an open kitchen, where you could host cooking classes or something that lends itself to that.”

Downtown Wilmington is a possibility—but not the only front runner. Neff’s also looking at areas leading out to Wrightsville Beach. No matter where he lands, he envisions his next restaurant being a part of the community for the long haul. As well, he’ll continue to tap into the roots of Southern cooking or seasonal ingredients yet enhance it with other techniques of French and Spanish cooking.

“One of the things I realized would result in a short career is if I ever plateau in [cooking],” he notes. “When you stop learning, when you stop trying new things, and you stop reading and you stop networking with friends and chefs, it’s over. All that stuff is inspirational fuel to make you continue to move onward and upward.”

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