[caption id="attachment_220629" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Chef Matt Kern recently took over One Coastal in Fenwick Island and plans to continue a farm-to-table approach. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MATT KERN[/caption]
FENWICK ISLAND — Matt Kern is the definition of perseverance in the hospitality industry. The Bethlehem, Pa., native began working in restaurants at age 14. He never stopped.
[caption id="attachment_220627" align="alignright" width="225"] Chef Matt Kern earned back-to-back best regional chef nominations in the James Beard awards, and he's now opening his open restaurant. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MATT KERN[/caption]
“I was a kid who didn’t go to college, didn’t go to culinary school and worked his way up,” said Kern, a two-time semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Award, the American culinary industry’s top honor. “Now I own a restaurant.”In January, Kern, his wife Karen and their investors purchased One Coastal in Fenwick Island, founded by Carlie and Scott Carey.Kern demonstrates that the hospitality industry provides an opportunity to succeed, said Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Industry.“It’s the only industry where someone who has a true desire and grit to make it can go all the way to the top,” she said. “Matt is someone with an insatiable desire to learn his craft.”Still, some might question the decision to purchase an eatery in 2022 when many restaurants are hemorrhaging money. After being closed for part of 2020 — and limited to takeout for months — Delaware restaurants now face soaring food prices, supply issues and staffing shortages.Kern, however, couldn’t be happier. Not only is he a restaurateur, but he also found an established restaurant that reflects his values.Primed for successKern honed his skill in Bethlehem restaurants, including Bolete, co-owned by Lee Chizmar, a Beard award semifinalist. At 22, Kern decided he wanted his own place.The ambitious chef moved to Delaware when a Bethlehem restaurant group opened a Rehoboth location. The project failed, but Kern was staying put; he’d fallen in love with wife-to-be Karen. He worked at the Blue Moon, Salt Air and then landed at Heirloom in Lewes, owned by Chadds Ford, Pa.-area native Meghan Lee.While at Heirloom, Kern earned his back-to-back James Beard nominations in 2019 and 2020 and national press. Kern kept his head down and stayed dedicated to his craft, his team and his fishing buddies — who benefit from his ability to forage for dinner and cocktail ingredients.The Kerns and their two children live in Dagsboro, so he was acquainted with One Coastal. The restaurant, which opened in 2014 in a former sandwich shop, exemplifies farm-to-table; the Careys own a small nearby farm.“There are maybe 1,200 restaurants in Sussex County, and only 2% are farm-to-table, and they were trying to do that,” Kern said. “They made a good name for themselves.”Spotting the opportunityBut once the Careys had children, being “Mom” and “Dad” became more important than being a boss within 18-hour days, said Carlie Carey, a Bethany Beach native. The pandemic exacerbated the stress.Meanwhile, Kern and Lee, Heirloom’s owner, parted ways. Kern considered finding a job outside of the state, but he was reluctant to work for someone else. “I’ve always wanted to cook from my conscience,” he said.Kern is passionate about farming and local ingredients, Leishman added.“He really is the poster child for that. His soul is in the earth; he’s a fisherman, and he’s very connected to the land,” she said.During the pandemic, when Heirloom was closed, Kern worked on a boutique farm.A mutual friend told Kern that the Careys wanted to sell, and Karen Kern urged her husband to consider One Coastal.“I have the most incredible partner I could ever ask for in life, and I don’t think anybody believes in me as much as she does,” he said. “She was like, ‘Honey, you’ve got to do it. This is you.’”In August 2021, Kern became One Coastal’s executive chef. The transition helped him earn the staff’s trust, but the transaction wasn’t completed until this year.Changing of the guard
[caption id="attachment_220626" align="alignleft" width="234"] Matt and Karen Kern plan are investing their time and money into One Coastal. | PHOTO COURTESY OF MATT KERN[/caption]
One Coastal is a neighborhood restaurant and a cornerstone in the community, which gives Kern an advantage at a time when people want to dine in familiar settings with operators they trust.However, the restaurant’s older building will need “constant love and maintenance,” said Kern, who leases the space. The dining room still has about 50 seats, and there will be outdoor seating in summer. One Coastal closed in January so the Kerns could make some cosmetic improvements. For instance, Ben Leadlove, Kern’s tattoo artist, painted a mural of a crab on the wall. Comfort is key, from the ambiance to the menu, said Kern, who has featured chicken and slippery dumplings — “one of the most iconic mid-Atlantic dishes.”He adds that nearly everything in the dish comes from area purveyors, right down to the flour. Working with small operations has been a plus during supply shortages and price hikes.“You ask the farmer, ‘What do you have that you can’t take to market?’ I’ll happily take Bennett Orchard’s lightly beat-up peaches and make them into delicious things,” he explained.The Kerns have added the tagline “A Delaware Story” to One Coastal’s branding.“It’s a wonderful thing to see something that has meant so much to our family be passed along to theirs,” Carlie Carey said. “We can’t wait to see One Coastal soar to new heights and wish the Kerns continued success in the years to come.”