Matt Kern, chef/owner of One Coastal.

Delaware’s Matt Kern of One Coastal is a James Beard Finalist

Pam GeorgeHeadlines, Culture

Matt Kern, chef/owner of One Coastal.

Matt Kern, chef/owner of One Coastal.

When Matt Kern was growing up in the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, area, he often felt like he didn’t belong. That changed when he was 14 and started working in a restaurant kitchen. “I immediately felt comfortable,” recalled Kern, who couldn’t afford culinary school tuition.

His sense of belonging has reached a new level.

This morning, the James Beard Foundation released the Restaurant and Chef Award nominees, and Kern is in the running for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic. Kern, chef/owner of One Coastal in Fenwick Island, learned he was a semi-finalist in January.

Winners will be celebrated at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony on Monday, June 10, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Third time is a charm

Kern is no stranger to the nomination process; he was a semifinalist in 2019 and 2020 while working at Heirloom in Lewes.

But being a restaurateur sweetens the honor, he said in January.

“I have put everything I have into this tiny 50-seat strip mall restaurant—everything. I’ve spent God knows how many hours believing in this place—painting, struggling, failing, thriving, teaching and believing in my staff—just to be able to do this on my own terms,” he explained at the time.

He says past recipients helped whittle down the semi-finalist list by dining at the nominated restaurants. “There would have been handful of people that dined here under the radar,” he noted.

Locavore lore

Although One Coastal is small, Kern did not recognize any of the diners as past James Beard Award honorees.

Sam Calagione, for instance, wasn’t a recent guest. Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, received the Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional award in 2017. The company’s Chesapeake & Maine restaurant in Rehoboth has received semifinalist honors for the bar program.

“I’m excited to hear Matt Kern is a finalist, Calagoine said. “Goodness knows Delaware has a wonderful and under-recognized restaurant scene. It was never stressful to be nominated; always an honor and something we were proud to promote. It was stressful to be a finalists and to go to New York and Chicago many times before I won but on those trips I always built a lot of character and a really good buzz on the complimentary cocktails and beers.”

But those who did eat at the restaurant undoubtedly tasted Kern’s dedication to using local ingredients and supporting area vendors.

While Kern adapted that philosophy on his own, purchasing One Coastal in 2022 emphasized his mission. Original owners Scott and Carlie Carey opened the restaurant as an extension of their small farm. They sold the restaurant to focus on their young family.

Kern’s dishes have included corn-fried wild blue catfish, an invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay, with stewed Sea Island red peas in adobo and Anson Mills Carolina gold rice. He’s also featured beef from Virginia and sunchokes from Chesterfield, Maryland.

In good company

Kern is in a category with Tony Conte of Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana in Darnestown, Maryland; Jesse Ito of Royal Sushi & Izakaya in Philadelphia; Harley Peet of Bas Rouge in Easton, Maryland, and Kevin Tien of Moon Rabbit in Washington, D.C.

The chef and wife/business partner Karen plan to attend the award ceremony, partly because Kern has never visited Chicago.

Some might say that the nomination adds a new layer of expectation; guests will demand award-winning cuisine.

Kern isn’t feeling the stress.

“I believe in my food,” he said. “I want to make a living doing this for as long as I possibly can, and I want to teach my team. There’s no reason why any one of them can’t be better than I am. I will give them everything I know.”

And he will do it with “empathy and integrity. They will go on to do all the right things.”

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