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Delaware beach chef named state’s first Beard finalist

Katie Tabeling
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Chef Matt Kern has been a James Beard Foundation award semifinalist three times. Now, he is the state’s first finalist for the honor. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MATT KERN

FENWICK ISLAND — For the first time, Delaware has a chef in the final round of the James Beard Foundation Awards. One Coastal executive chef and owner Matt Kern is one of 60 chefs around the nation up for the prestigious culinary award.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Kern told the Delaware Business Times. It was the first thing he said in the interview, hours after the foundation revealed the top nominees. 

“I knew today was the day, and I thought, ‘all right, we had a good run,’” Kern added. “I never dreamed this would happen to me.”

The reason behind his disbelief is simple. Kern was nominated to the James Beard awards twice before when he worked with Lewes restaurant Heirloom. Very few from Delaware have made it to the elite list of revered American chefs, like The House of William & Merry chef Bill Hoffman and Antimo DiMeo of Bardea. None of them made it to the final round.

That is, until today.

“I can’t believe I’m here. This is super validating,” Kern told DBT. Immediately after he got the news, he called his wife and One Coastal co-owner Karen Kern, and cried. His phone has been blowing up with messages and calls ever since.

“I’ve had a harder path than others. I never went to culinary school,” he said. “I started washing dishes when I was 14 and the restaurant industry just comforted me like a warm blanket. And this honor just reaffirms to me that there’s a place for me and my vision of locally-sourced food from people who still love what they do.”

Between October and November, the James Beard Foundation puts in an open call for nominations for culinary professionals and food journalists in the country. The James Beard Foundation announced semifinalist nominations on Jan. 24, which included 10 nominees from the Philadelphia region out of scores of chefs across the nation.

Since the semifinalist nominees were announced, foundation members pay a visit to each restaurant to ensure the top-shelf quality of the chef’s dishes that he plates. 

Kern will have to face four other chefs who hail from Philadelphia, Easton, Md. and the Washington D.C. area to be named best chef of the mid-Atlantic region. The awards are voted on by more than 600 culinary professionals.

Kern’s cuisine focuses on locally-sourced ingredients to create a true farm-to-table experience in a sustainable mindset. Among One Coastal’s notable vendors include East View Farms in Frankford, which supplies the mushrooms and brussel sprouts on the menu, Dittmar Farms in Felton, and Bennett Orchards in Frankford for peaches and blueberries when in season.

In early 2022, Kern and his wife worked with investors to buy One Coastal, a small restaurant that seats 50 people in a strip mall on Delaware Route 1. He told DBT his goal is to share his passion for food and nature with all who walk in the restaurant.

“I’m not in this to make lots of money. I have two kids, my wife’s hobby is thrift shopping. But I believe in sharing what I can do and what I love with people. If I wasn’t a chef, I don’t know what I’d do,” Kern said. “But as a business owner, it’s been a humbling experience as you have to handle things like the point of sale system and issues when your air condition dumps two gallons of water in your dining room.”

As the word has spread about One Coastal’s high honors, sales have been on the rise. Kern said over the last few months, the restaurant’s sales have been up between 30% and 35% compared to the previous year. 

Delaware restaurant and tourism officials have celebrated the groundbreaking announcement, noting that Kern’s nod comes at a time when Delaware is looking to capitalize on its culinary scene that surrounds the beaches. Southern Delaware Tourism has recently launched a website to draw more attention to the self-proclaimed “mecca of mid-Atlantic cuisine.”

“Chef Kern being named a James Beard finalist further elevates recognition of Southern Delaware’s culinary coast and the foodie destination that it has become,” Southern Delaware Tourism Executive Director Scott Thomas told DBT. “To me, it just adds more star power to what we have here at our beaches. The publicity will draw all of our chefs further into the national spotlight.”

Delaware Restaurant Association Senior Director of Communications Karen Stauffer told DBT that her trade organization was incredibly excited at the news, noting that he has served as a mentor with rising culinary professionals through the years and won a DRA Cornerstone award in 2019.

“We are so proud of Chef Kern and the team at One Coastal for achieving such a high honor. This shows that a chef in small Fenwick Island in southern Delaware, and in the smallest towns and cities, are a big part of our communities,” Stauffer said. “Cheers to the Beard Foundation for seeking out talent and dedication to the industry in all areas.”

The James Beard Foundation will announce chef award winners in a ceremony on June 10 in Chicago.

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