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For Kern, James Beard nom reaffirms farm-to-table dream

Katie Tabeling
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Chef Matt Kern has earned three regional restaurant nominations, and the latest comes two years after he and his wife bought a restaurant. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MATT KERN

Matt Kern was in the middle of his typical morning prep at One Coastal when he got the word.

His friend and Wilmington barbeque chef Gerald Allen texted at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday: “Congrats, man.”

Kern was too wrapped up in preparing the menu at the Fenwick Island restaurant to let it sink in. “What’d I do,” he texted back.

“You need to get on the Beard website,” Allen replied.

There it was, in a long list of names for the semifinalists of the coveted James Beard Foundation awards. Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic, the only nominee from the First State: Matt Kern of One Coastal.

“I cried a little,” Kern told the Delaware Business Times. “It’s huge and humbling. I didn’t think I’d be capable of national recognition when I left Heirloom and all its whistles and bells. But I’m very proud of the food we’ve made here and our staff.”

In a sense, this isn’t new territory for Kern. He’s been nominated for the Beard awards, the equivalent of the Oscars for the restaurant industry, twice before. The James Beard foundation is one of the highest honors for American chefs, and Delaware has made the elite list a handful of times over the years. The semifinalist list released on Jan. 24 included 10 nominees from the Philadelphia region out of scores of chefs across the nation.

But for Kern, this is a vindication that the risk and the struggles he faced over the last years have been worth it. He earned his first two nominations in 2019 and 2020 while working at Heirloom in Lewes, a restaurant that sought to evolve its menu over the course of days.

In July 2021, Kern parted ways with Heirloom and was at a crossroads. As a firm believer in the farm-to-table concept, he told DBT he saw plenty of opportunity to work with the farmers and seafood vendors in the Delmarva region. But he was uncertain whether there was a restaurant in southern Delaware to realize that mission.

“I have always felt more comfortable being outdoors. I also believe that in a small way, using seasonal and locally available food, can help save the planet,” Kern said. “We have to do our part, and as a chef, I figure tapping into the local agriculture is our way to do that the best we can. And I was ready to be my own boss at that point.”

About nine days after parting ways with Heirloom, he was starting to think he may have to go to the city for the next chapter. That was when he heard Carlie and Scott Carey looking to sell One Coastal. The Careys also owned a farm and shared Kern’s philosophy on food, but were ready to move on.

With the help of some investors and his wife, Karen, Kern bought the establishment. The restaurant seats 50 people and is in a strip mall on Delaware Route 1. Come February 2022, the deal was struck.

“I knew this would be the biggest chance I would get, and it didn’t disappoint,” Kern said. “I never expected this to happen, all I wanted was to make a name for myself and prove my niche to the community. I had no idea I was even on the radar [for the Beard nominations] this year.”

Kern continues to tap into local vendors to source fresh ingredients in his dishes, aiming to create a true farm-to-table dining experience. Among One Coastal’s notable vendors include East View Farms in Frankford, which supplies the mushrooms and Brussel sprouts on the menu, Ditmar Farms in Felton, Bennett Orchards in Frankford for peaches and blueberries when in season.

He’s also made the restaurant his own too. He hired his tattoo artist Ben Leadlove of Carved Ink Studio to paint a blue crab mural inside the dining room.

Kern credited the nomination to his wife and his staff in following his vision. 

“With Heirloom, I was shocked when I was nominated the first time for the award, and it was the same with the second nomination. But when I started One Coastal, I knew I had to fully believe in myself and my vision. I wanted to do it on my terms, and this nomination just proves that dream is a reality,” he said. 

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