Early on in Chef Dean Neff's career, he worked at Hugh Acheson’s award winning Five & Ten in Athens, GA – which is also where he met partner, Lydia Clopton. They then moved to Asheville, NC where Neff served as Chef de Cuisine for John Fleer’s new Rhubarb, while Clopton worked on Katie Button’s opening Nightbell team and began her own wedding cake business. But by 2015, they longed for the coast, and fell in love with the Wilmington area. Neff opened PinPoint Restaurant in Wilmington as co-owner and chef, and Clopton was the pastry chef. In 2019, Neff earned a James Beard Foundation semifinalist nomination. That same year, he was able to begin his journey for Seabird – a restaurant where he could honor the seasons and the seaside food culture so unique to Wilmington.
Photographs By Doug Young
What makes Seabird unique?
We created Seabird to be THE destination for eating fresh, local seafood in Wilmington! Seabird is all about the ingredients and this is inspired by the relationships we have with local fishermen, farmers and artisans. We’re also quite fortunate to be located in this historic landmark building on Front Street – in the heart of downtown Wilmington.
How would you describe the type of food you like to cook?
It all begins with great ingredients in season. Celebrating local seafood stems from my passion for fishing and respect for the fishing community throughout the east coast, a love affair I developed while growing up in Savannah GA. At Seabird, my goal is to honor ingredients through fun and accessible preparations inspired by classic dishes that highlight intensity of flavor through complementary pairings. For instance, our Peel & Eat Shrimp – this is a classic dish that begins with the flavor profile of New Orleans style barbecue shrimp and we amp up the flavor with a beurre blanc loaded with bright lemon, house-made fermented hot sauce, house-made Worcestershire Sauce – and served alongside our house-made sourdough grit toast.
What motivates and inspires you as a chef?
I’m inspired by the people I’ve met and the work they’re doing on our coast and farms.
Current favorite dish on the Seabird menu.
I’m loving our Eastern NC style Ciopoino right now because it brings together such a variety of local shellfish. I love how we’re able to use seaweed in the broth, and in the sourdough bread we serve with it. It’s that kind of connection to our coast, and work with seaside ingredients, that really gets us excited.
Favorite local produce and how do you use it?
Seabirdies! We have built a relationship with Matt Schwab of Hold Fast Oyster Company, and he is sourcing these incredible oysters exclusively for us. This has allowed us to have a deep connection to an oyster farm, and enables us to make oysters more accessible to our guests. We offer them every day and often for “Seabirdie Happy Hour” specials, for just $1. Watch for those announced on social media @SeabirdNC.
Best foodie city?
There are great food cities all over the world, but here in NC we love going to Asheville because it’s such a different food scene from what we have here on the coast. There are so many amazing artisans, farmers, brewers and distillers working in that area, celebrating Appalachain foodways.
What’s your all-time best comfort food?
Pumpkin Pie. According to my Dad, it was one of the first real foods I ever had, and I’ve loved it ever since!
Describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten.
As a kid growing up, our family often camped out on the barrier islands off Savannah, and we’d always catch our dinner and cook it over the campfire. That smell from the campfire and the super fresh seafood – like speckled trout and redfish… the whole experience still lives with me today.
3 Songs on your current playlist?
Babeheaven’s “Seabird,” Jon Batiste – “Tell the Truth,” and Squeeze’s “Up the Junction.”
If there’s one important piece of advice you might have for cooks, what might that be?
As sure as the changing tide, Seabird’s menu will push the conversation forward on procuring local seafood and celebrate the seasonality while finding the best methods in fishing, aquaculture and farming. The food will be creative, seasonal, fresh and uniquely Wilmington.
1 S. FRONT ST / WILMINGTON, NC 28401