Chef who helped shape Wilmington food scene dies after second cancer diagnosis

·2 min read
Wilmington chef Shawn Wellersdick, as he prepares to run in the Boston Marathon. FILE PHOTO
Wilmington chef Shawn Wellersdick, as he prepares to run in the Boston Marathon. FILE PHOTO

Months after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, one of Wilmington’s preeminent chefs has died.

Shawn Wellersdick opened Port Land Grille with wife Anne Steketee in 2000. In the years since, it has become one of the area’s most popular fine dining restaurants and has helped foster new generations of local hospitality professionals.

Friends posted that the chef passed away early Wednesday morning.

Billy Mellon, owner of manna restaurant in downtown Wilmington, worked at Port Land Grille for many years and called Wellersdick both a friend and a mentor — and someone whose passion and work ethic raised the standard of what local restaurants could be.

"When he was in the window, there was no better cook. Period," he recently wrote about Wellersdick, adding that the chef helped put Wilmington on the culinary map.

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James Doss, chef and co-owner of Rx Restaurant and Bar in downtown Wilmington, also worked with Wellersdick early in his career.

"Great learning experience for me," he said. "Shawn was very dedicated to his craft and ran one of the tightest and cleanest kitchens I've seen... Along with Anne, they shared their extensive knowledge with a great deal of cooks, bartenders and servers."

In this photo from 2013, Shawn Wellersdick, of Port Land Grille cooks steak over the wood grill in the Wilmington restaurant. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO
In this photo from 2013, Shawn Wellersdick, of Port Land Grille cooks steak over the wood grill in the Wilmington restaurant. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO

After getting a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, Wellersdick moved to North Carolina to become an executive chef with Noble’s Restaurant Group. In 1998, he became part-owner and executive chef of the acclaimed Under Currant in Wilmington.

He left that restaurant in 1999. At the time, he and Steketee left for Oregon with the idea of moving to Portland. Ultimately, though, they received many calls to return to the North Carolina coast.

That adventure was the inspiration for Port Land Grille, which remains one of the oldest local fine-dining eatery that has not changed chefs or owners. The restaurant has won many awards for its food, service and wine. More than a few famous guests have dined there over the years, too.

More recently, Wellersdick had also become well-known for his running pastime. Almost a decade ago, when he decided he wanted to be healthier, he started exercising on the treadmill.

With his competitive nature, that led to marathon running. Despite a setback of a throat and neck cancer diagnosis in 2015, Wellersdick had run in 13 marathons by the end of 2019, as well as a handful of Ironman competitions. He became a part of the prestigious Abbott World Marathon Majors by competing in Boston, New York, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo.

According to friends and family, he was diagnosed with a particularly egregious form of cancer in January, which robbed him of much as the disease progressed.

Allison Ballard is the food and dining reporter at the StarNews. You can reach her at aballard@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Chef Shawn Wellersdick, of Port Land Grille restaurant, dies of cancer