I recently had the opportunity to dine at Wilmington, North Carolina’s PinPoint, the winner of Wilmington Magazine’s award for 2016’s best fine dining restaurant and one of the South’s best new restaurants according to Southern Living While there, I had one of the best bowls of soup of my life: Red Beard Butternut Squash Soup with harissa, coconut and pumpkin seed. It was just wonderful. After the soup, I sat down with the restaurant’s 39 year-old chef, Dean Neff.
The Daily Meal: How did you get into cooking?
Chef Dean Neff: I have been cooking almost as long as my first memories. As the youngest of 4 kids, I felt that the kitchen was my domain. I was about 6 years old one summer when I created a menu based on what we had in the fridge, and was charging my sisters and brother for food while my parents were at work. After high school, I moved to Atlanta and attended The School of Culinary Arts.
Do you have a specialty dish?
My answer to this changes often, but right now I love the smoked catfish and grits dish that is on our menu. I love the idea of using technique to make a humble ingredient refined. Catfish as an ingredient has in fact come a long way in the past 10 years. Farming practices have become cleaner and have in turn yielded a cleaner taste. At Pinpoint we brine the catfish for 2 hours in a brine that has lots of lemon and fresh herbs. We then pat the fillets dry with a clean cloth, roll it into great cornmeal, and pan-fry it in a cast-iron skillet. We serve it over Anson Mills white Antebellum grits with a bright and acidic green tomato slaw and cast-iron roasted mushrooms. The result is a comfort food that has great balance and reminds me of camping in the summertime in Georgia as a child. It has made believers out of the most skeptical former catfish haters.
What kind of atmosphere do you create in the kitchen?
I hope to create an atmosphere that has great food at the core. After that I hope to create a place that encourages aspiring chefs/food lovers to grow.
What do you look for when you hire other chefs to assist you in the kitchen?
I look for eager, passionate, professional, and detail-oriented folks. I also look for people who respect food, and find joy while cooking.
What do you plan for your future?
I hope to build a community of restaurants that share a common theme of bringing people who are interested in food together. I feel that restaurants like ours are dependent on so many people to keep everything functioning at the highest level. I hope to help the ones who have devoted so much time and care into PinPoint, and beyond to meet their goals.