By Liz Biro
Talk to Wilmington NC chef Dean Neff for a minute and you’ll end up talking to him for an hour. His soft-spoken passion and deep respect for local ingredients draw you into his comfort zone. Cooking is where he feels most at home.
“I knew very quickly that I was going to do this for a long time,” the 38-year-old chef/owner of downtown Wilmington’s PinPoint restaurant said.
Neff was a latchkey kid along with two sisters and a brother reared in Savannah, Ga. The foursome had to fend for themselves while their parents were at work, but Neff didn’t mind. When weekends came around, he was in the kitchen helping Mom cook.
Neff’s first real job was cooking, too. Immediately after high school, he enrolled in culinary school in Atlanta, but he came of age under celebrity chef Hugh Acheson. Acheson has been a Bravo TV “Top Chef” judge and contestant. The Canadian, who owns four restaurants in Georgia, won a Best Chef Southeast James Beard Award in 2012. That same year, Acheson’s first cookbook, “A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen,” won a James Beard Award for best cookbook in the American cooking category.
After working as sous chef and then head chef at Acheson’s famous 5&10 restaurant in Athens and helping Acheson write that cookbook and open his Empire State South in Atlanta, Neff zoomed in on what mattered.
“I really learned what it meant to cook seasonally and to source the best possible ingredients,” he said.
Those lessons inspire the PinPoint menu, described as “deeply rooted in Southern tradition and foodways.” Neff also sits on the 40 Eats board. The new Wilmington chefs collective touts Wilmington’s best restaurants and encourages development of a quality food scene. He is also one of six chefs cooking for the inaugural 40 Eats five-course dinner 6 p.m. July 17 at Bakery 105. The dinner is sold out, but the 40 Eats mission continues.
“It’s an opportunity to create a loop of communication between chefs locally,” Neff said. “I think it’s so important to constantly be talking food to people. If you kind of stay inside your own world, and you don’t talk to people about food in this area and food in general, you just stop learning.”
Why do you cook?
“There’s something very comforting about being in the kitchen and cooking, whether professional or at home. I taught culinary school for a semester in Asheville (N.C), but I found myself getting very restless because I wasn’t spending the time in the kitchen cooking.”
What’s the best dish you have ever made?
“I think one of the dishes I’m proud of and signifies what I love about cooking is the catfish dish we do at the restaurant. We take this ingredient that lots of people have negative associations with, this simple ingredient, and we just put a lot of thought into preparing it and making it spectacular. We’re getting fish from a really great farm in Ayden, N.C. Catfish farms now use a lot of great filtration. Catfish farming has come a long way. With the catfish we’re using, it’s really clean tasting, not muddy. We take a very simple brine – salt and sugar in water – infuse it with really green herbs – dill, basil, mint, thyme. We steep the fish two hours and then cold-smoke it in apple wood. We press it into really good cornmeal and then it’s pan-fried. It’s served over creamed celery root infused into grits. It’s basically celery root and leeks steeped in cream and infused into the grits. We’re serving that with seared okra now and some hen of the woods mushrooms. And we do a simple slaw with green tomatoes and lemon brown butter sauce. It’s a very comforting dish that reminds me of camping.”
What are you cooking now that diners should know about?
“I think diners should know that farm-raised oysters are a great thing…they’ve being farmed in open waters. We’re doing a great dish right now with farm-raised Rappahannock River (Va.) oysters. We use a hot smoke on them. We have a guy in Wilmington doing bottarga. Bottarga is kind of a classic Italian preparation of curing roe from tuna or mullet. It’s kind of an obscure ingredient. This guy in town is taking local mullet roe, the egg sack from mullet, then rubbing it in olive oil and curing it in salt. If you do it right, it has a very fresh, oceany kind of flavor to it. We’re using it and making sort of an aioli with a grated bottarga in it and serving it with hot-smoked Rappahannock oysters.”
What’s going to be the next big thing in food?
“I think that there’s a movement right now in showcasing vegetables, and I’m really glad that this is happening because I feel like when you go to a restaurant, you should leave full but you should not leave feeling terrible. In food there should be balance. So serving a rich cut of meat with vegetables that will balance that richness…vegetables that were thoughtfully prepared…I think veg prep is something that for a long time was an after-thought for chefs.”
What’s your darkest food secret?
“I did fall into the pond at the James Beard House one night after cooking there. We were finishing up, and I was moving some of the coolers around and stepped into the pond and then was immediately called upstairs to the dining room with one wet pant leg.”
About the author
Liz Biro spent most of her life in Southeastern North Carolina. These days, she is the food/dining reporter for the Indianapolis Star.
Fortunately, Liz travels south often. She writes food, restaurant and culture stories for us on a regular basis. Besides being a longtime, talented journalist who has covered everything from local fisheries to capital politics, Liz has worked as a chef.
She possesses an abiding passion for good food skillfully prepared with wonderful ingredients. Liz has worked with us for the past two years. We’re delighted that she has an expanded role with Wilmington Today.