From the Lehigh Valley to the Delmarva Peninsula, Matt Kern’s path to the top job at Heirloom in Lewes has been anything but traditional.
Kern didn’t go to a respected culinary school; he paid his dues in kitchens, worked hard and took every opportunity to learn.
When he landed the job as Heirloom’s executive chef, he knew it would be his time to thrive creatively. After two-and-a-half years at the helm, his hard work has paid off, as he’s been named a semifinalist for a prestigious James Beard Award. He will find out March 27 if he’s made the finals for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic.
“Just getting nominated, you’re recognized as one of the best chefs in the country,” said Kern during a recent afternoon in Heirloom’s dining room, taking a break from prep. “I’m grateful for that.”
Kern was hired by owner Meghan Lee just a few months after opening in December 2015. After the restaurant’s original chef didn’t work out, Lee was in need of a talented replacement.
Kern had been brought to the Cape Region by a restaurant group that opened the short-lived Atlantic Jazz Yard in Rehoboth. After it closed, he worked in a few popular local kitchens, but he was looking for something more.
Lee said she and Kern separately confided in Blue Moon Executive Chef Lion Gardner, who connected the two. They talked about their expectations and goals, and decided to move forward. It didn’t take long to find that it was a great match.
“Matt took us to a whole other level,” Lee said. “We were both instantly on the same page. My biggest fear was that transition, and the best compliment I got, and still get, is that it’s better.”
Kern said he’s grateful Lee took a leap of faith.
“She gave me an opportunity that sort of no one else was willing to give,” he said. “You can tell anyone until you’re blue in the face that you’re creative, passionate and your skill set is focused around this area of food, but most restaurants are looking for turn and burn, just getting people in and making simple food.”
Kern’s vision was to showcase Delaware through ingredients available from local farms and watermen. “I think that’s important because that gives us more of an identity as a state and area,” he said.
He and Lee often walk around the Historic Lewes Farmers Market to see if there’s anything new or if there’s an ingredient that may work well in Kern’s creative mind. After the farmers market shuts down for the winter, he said, he still has farmers and watermen bringing ingredients to the restaurant.
“You have these people with dirty hands and big smiles on their face bring you the best food to your back door. That’s awesome,” he said.
Kern grew up in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. He attended Bethlehem Catholic High School before transferring and graduating from Nazareth High School. He took culinary arts classes at the Career Institute of Technology while in high school.
One of his biggest influences is his stepmom, Gina, who comes from a long line of great Italian cooks.
“The biggest thing I took from her is the power of meal, and the importance of sitting down with your family every day like it’s a ritual and eating dinner together,” he said. “She never made anything fancy, but that played a huge role in my development with food.”
Kern’s first job in restaurants was as a dishwasher at 14 years old. By 21, he was working in the kitchen of Bethlehem Brew Works. “By no means was it fine dining, but we made good food,” he said.
One off night, he had a little extra cash and decided to dine at the Starfish Brasserie, a French bistro in Bethlehem. Everything far exceeded his expectations. “I said to myself, ‘I have to do this,’” he said. “I went back the next day and asked if they were hiring. They said yes.”
He said he still clearly remembers his first day - the sights, the sounds, the smells. “It was great,” he said. “I felt like I belonged to something.”
The kitchen was different from any kitchen he had worked in before. “Everybody was quiet,” he said. “The only words out of a cook’s mouth were ‘yes, chef,’ or ‘no, chef,’ and times. Chef was the only one talking. Everything ran like clockwork.”
He said he tries to run his kitchen in a similar way at Heirloom, but he recognizes times have changed. Still, there is no music playing, and everyone has a job to do.
“You give me someone who will listen to discipline, listen to the orders I give them, be honest when they make a mistake, and just show up on time and work hard, and I’m happy,” he said. “That’s half the battle. I don’t care if they have an arm and leg’s worth of experience, even a culinary degree. It doesn’t matter. You can’t train someone to have work ethic.”
While Kern waits to hear if he’s a James Beard finalist, he’s focusing on putting out flawless plates every night.
“Between Feb. 27 and March 27 we have diners from the James Beard Foundation eating here. They’re undercover,” he said. “It’s exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. I think it’s great because you have to make sure every plate of food that leaves the kitchen and sits in front of a diner is perfect. You want to make a flawless meal for everybody who comes in.”