Chef Matt Kern & Karen Kern. Photo by Megan Steele

Tasting Success!

From dishwasher to James Beard hopeful, One Coastal Chef Matt Kern opens up about his culinary journey and the unwavering support of his wife Karen, who has sweetened every step along the way.

Matt and Karen Kern have little time for weekend getaways in June. They own One Coastal in Fenwick Island, where Matt is the chef and Karen works up to 48 hours a week at Quiet Surf Storm Shop in Rehoboth Beach and is a part-time Realtor. In short, their professions are some of the most stressful at the beach, especially during the season. Nevertheless, the couple will be heading to Chicago on June 9 for a two-night trip because Matt is a finalist for a James Beard Award—the Oscar of the culinary world. The ceremony is on June 10, and if Matt wins Best Chef Mid-Atlantic, he will be the first Delaware chef to earn the achievement for his culinary skills.

In 2014, Matt Haley received the Humanitarian of the Year Award, and in 2017, Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, won the Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional Award. However, to date, no Delawareans have won for their cooking. While being a finalist is a tremendous honor, the self-taught chef considers it a reward for staying true to his vision. He has no culinary degree, but he has an artistic spirit, a keen eye and the support of his wife, his biggest cheerleader.

On-the-Job Training

Food was part of Matt’s life from an early age. The Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, native often cooked with his stepmother, Gina, who was from a big Italian family. His mother was Pennsylvania Dutch and proud of the cuisine. At age 14, he became a restaurant dishwasher and moved up the ranks. Although a loner in school, he blossomed in the chaotic kitchen. At every new job, the young cook watched the other chefs. “I would say my two best assets in the kitchen are observation and adaptability,” he says. He still remembers the first time he smelled veal stock. “It was intense; I’ve never smelled anything like that before.”

Matt spent three years at The Edge, where French and Asian influences collided, before moving to Bolete, co-owned by Lee Chizmar, a James Beard award semifinalist. “He is so humble but such a badass,” Matt says. Everything was made from scratch.” At Bolete, Matt learned the true definition of a “restaurant family,” composed of the kitchen crew and front-of-the-house servers and managers. He now nurtures those bonds at One Coastal. Admittedly, some learning experiences weren’t pleasant. One night, after cleaning and draining the deep fryer, he poured fresh oil into the machine which leaked from the nozzle he’d neglected to close. The chef and others working the line were far from pleased. Ready for adventure, Matt moved to Rehoboth in 2010 to work at Atlantic Jazz Yard, a new Wilmington Avenue restaurant owned by investors from the Lehigh Valley. He’d never been to Rehoboth and had a job lined up in California, so he figured he’d make some money over the summer.

A Serendipitous Situation

Raised in Lewes, Karen’s first job was at the Dairy Queen on Lewes Beach, and that was the extent of her hospitality experience until she and Matt bought One Coastal. While a senior at Cape Henlopen High School, she started working at Quiet Storm, and the owners have become like family. She started taking college classes until she got pregnant. As she puts it: “Life happened.” She and her daughter, Chloe, lived above the flower shop in downtown Lewes and later moved to Dagsboro. She continued working at Quiet Storm, whose parking area was adjacent to Atlantic Jazz.

Matt quickly noticed the shy, dark-haired girl. “He came into the store quite a few times, and I would just run away,” Karen recalls. “I was a mom. I didn’t need a man—I was good.” Nevertheless, her coworker played matchmaker by telling Matt that Karen was “crazy about you.” He walked over with a peanut butter dessert in a to-go box and asked her out. “I said, ‘Yes,’ and that’s all she wrote.” Indeed, when Atlantic Jazz closed without making it through the first season, Matt stayed in Delaware to successfully woo Karen. They wed in 2011 and now have a son, Asher.

Whether Matt wins or not on June 10, he knows that dreams do come true. He got the woman, the family—both at home and on the job—and the kudos. Life is good.

Turning Tables

Matt worked at Blue Moon in Rehoboth, Perucci’s Classic Italian Restaurant in Millville, and for SoDel Concepts before landing at Salt Air. The hours would be hard on most young families. Karen, however, was accustomed to being a young, independent mom, and she was so busy raising the children that she didn’t miss weekend socializing as a couple. “The kids are a priority, and it just works,” she says. “I never got mad about him working because it’s seasonal in restaurants and retail: weekends, holidays—I totally get it.”

Matt, however, was growing weary of the hours and the inability to fully source sustainable products from local providers, the goal he had set since working with Lehigh Valley chefs who followed that philosophy. He felt that too many establishments wanted cooks who could “turn and burn” through service. Lion Gardner, with whom he worked at Blue Moon, knew that Heirloom in Lewes needed an executive chef. Owner Meghan Lee’s opening chef had left before the well-received eatery marked its first anniversary in 2016.

The kitchen in the Victorian house was new and filled with equipment, and Lee shared Matt’s passion for a fresh, seasonal menu. Matt hit the ground running, applying the techniques he learned at previous restaurants and building team spirit. He also turned out beautiful plates. Always interested in art, the chef studied color and texture combinations as intently as he watched his mentors. The result is a photo-worthy dish ready for a social media post. While at Heirloom, Matt was a semi-finalist for a James Beard Award in 2019 and 2020, and his name became known in dining and hospitality circles. Despite the accolades, Matt realized he wanted to be a restaurateur. Karen agreed: “I just know he needed his own place,” she recalls. He left Heirloom in 2021 to consider his options, which included leaving the state.

Farm to Table

The Kerns learned through the grapevine that Scott and Carlie Carey were considering selling their Fenwick Island restaurant, One Coastal, which used local products, including produce grown on the Careys’ property. Matt was intrigued. “Out of 1,200 restaurants in Sussex County, there are about 2% that are farm to table,” he says. “This place had such a strong, local following.” The excellent reputation was an advantage, considering restaurants took it on the chin during the pandemic.

Karen and Matt met with the Careys and struck a deal, which included Matt becoming their executive chef until the transfer of ownership was complete. The new owners spent a month painting and redecorating the dining room. It was quick work; One Coastal reopened in early 2022 so the staff could make money. Along with keeping his team happy, Matt was on a mission to espouse the slow food movement and support local farmers. In other words, he wanted to “focus on delicious food that is representative of where we live and make everyone who walks in the door feel like a VIP.” The 49-seat restaurant quietly gained new fans while pleasing longtime customers. One Coastal has always had an “if-you-know-you-know” vibe that makes it feel like a hidden gem despite its location on Coastal Highway.

James Beard Recognition and Living the Dream

It was enough to attract the attention of the James Beard Foundation, which manages the nomination process and award ceremony. The foundation honors the legacy of James Beard, a cookbook author, instructor and TV personality who made American cooking respectable. After his death, his friend, Julia Child, led the movement to preserve his New York townhouse. The James Beard Foundation was founded in 1986 in his honor to protect and promote the American culinary tradition. Matt learned he was a semi-finalist in January and a finalist in April. Both announcements were met with tears of gratitude. “I’m just making good food, trying to support local agriculture the best way I can and believe in my staff,” he said in January. “This is how I make my living, and I’m not going to get rich in a 50-seat restaurant.”

To be sure, it’s not an easy profession. After the couple bought One Coastal, Karen would get calls from Matt panicking about a broken oven, or the cook who called out sick. “I would be like, ‘Oh, my god!’” she says of the day’s crisis. For the retail veteran, it was baptism by fire—welcome to the restaurant world. While she pitches in when needed, she primarily works on Thursdays and handles bookkeeping. Despite the daily adrenaline rush, she’s happy that her husband is running a restaurant on his terms—and so is he. “I’m doing what I believe in and what I really love to do,” he says.

When he gets a break in the off-season, he goes camping and fishing in Pennsylvania’s “Grand Canyon.” “I sleep better in a sleeping bag on the ground than on the bed,” he notes. One day, he would love to be a fly-fishing guide who takes groups into the woods to learn to fish. “That’s the dream,” he says. Based on his past, he’ll likely realize it. Because whether Matt wins or not on June 10, he knows that dreams do come true. He got the woman, the family—both at home and on the job—and the kudos. Life is good.

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