Awarded “Best New Chef” by Philadelphia magazine? Named one of the 2013 Philadelphia Rising Stars by StarChefs? Semifinalist for a James Beard Award earlier this year? Check, check and … check! Meet Christopher Kearse, owner/chef of Will BYOB in South Philadelphia. In addition to all the accolades and awards he’s received, Chef Kearse is one of the kindest, most-welcoming industry folk we’ve ever had the opportunity to interview. Chef Kearse is a refreshing reminder that great successful people can also be genuine. We first met Chef Kearse at FEASTIVAL this past September, where he was cooling attendees off with his refreshing green pea gazpacho with verjus foam. (Check out our entire CCM FEASTIVAL recap, including Chef Kearse’s memory of his favorite feast, here.) Food writer Drew Lazor (who we interviewed earlier this year here) recently won the Association of Food Journalists award for his piece on Chef Kearse’s “will” to succeed against all odds. The story behind Chef Kearse’s courageous journey to master his craft is inspiring and perfectly presented in Lazor’s power piece, Acts of Will. We recently dined at Will BYOB, where Chef Kearse displays a uniquely skillful combination of modern French cuisine and a fine eye for artful arrangement of his beautiful dishes. A few of our favorites included: Porc Boudin Blanc in a flageolet cassolette with pickled grapes & chicken liver mousse, Barnegat Light Scallops with sunchoke, artichoke & matsutake mushroom, and Pumpkin Cheesecake with white chocolate snow & green tea sorbet. After our lovely meal, Chef Kearse welcomed us into his kitchen to say hello, take a photograph and cap off the sharing of his own (chocolate covered) memories …
How did you find yourself in this niche of the industry?
I think that’s just my personality. Whatever I’m doing, I want to do it big, and I want to give 110% of myself. So I obviously wanted to try to have one of the best restaurants in Philadelphia. I think it’s a common trait in great chefs — but also a common trait in accomplished people. I always want to learn as much as possible, so that means that I try to keep an open mind toward everything in life, especially when it comes to food and restaurants. That definitely applies to my food and cooking style. I’m constantly pushing forward and doing new things.
Any child/teenage food industry jobs?
I worked in a pizzeria when I was in high school.
What are your earliest childhood memories of food?
My earliest food memories are cooking with my Grandma. She was a great cook. I remember her having a pepper mill and a knife set, and I thought that it was just the coolest thing. She used to make her own salad mix, and on special days, she would get frisée lettuce and mention that it was French. I always felt really grown up when we had it.
Where does your love of food stem from?
When I was 16, I was in a serious car accident and had a lot of damage to my face. I was in and out of the hospital for a long time, and I wasn’t able to eat solid food for close to two years. I think that I love food so much now because I still remember what it was like not to be able to enjoy it.
What foods remind you of childhood?
Grilled cheese reminds me of growing up and buttered noodles. My father never cooked, but when he did, he broke out the grilled cheese and buttered noodles – simple but good. And when you cook for eight kids, it’s got to be quick and easy, and that meal definitely was. But my dad only cooked whenever my mom was sick.
Were you a picky eater as a kid? Any foods you couldn’t stand growing up? Have you overcome those childhood fears, or do they still remain to this day? Any stuff you loved eating as a child that you would never eat now?
I wasn’t really a picky eater when I was a kid, and I’m not really a picky eater now. I loved sweets, especially gummy candy. When I was a kid, one thing that I did hate, though, was olives, and now I love them.
Any childhood cooking accidents in the kitchen? As an adult?
I remember when I first started cooking, I made this cherry-stuffed pork loin for family dinner, and I thought it was cooked, but it wasn’t. It was dead raw inside, and I served it to my family. Pretty funny. Whoops! But as an adult, not too many cooking accidents or mistakes. One time when I was working in a hotel, I didn’t have enough plates for a banquet. That wasn’t fun at all.
Growing up, what was your favorite meal/food/snack to eat outside? Did you enjoy eating outside anywhere in particular?
My favorite meal growing up was cheeseburgers. My father had his own veterinary practice, and I remember when he was moving into a bigger building, he used to spend all night and weekends painting the place. I used to help him, and we would go out and get burgers and fries for lunch and eat them outside. I think that it was more about spending time with my dad than what we were actually eating.
What do you think of the modern food world?
I think, finally in America, food is taken more seriously in our day-to-day lives as it is in France and Italy. It’s a very important part of their culture, and now it’s becoming a much bigger part of our culture, too. I love that really great food is becoming more mainstream here, and that it’s now on TV and blogs. I think it’s a vast step forward for people being more conscious about what they eat. They know good food, and they’ll tell you if what you’re serving them isn’t it.
What family recipes do you want to share with us?
The first thing that I ever cooked with my Grandma was a coffee cake. I don’t make it very often anymore, but whenever I do, I’m reminded of the time that I was able to spend with her. Enjoy my Grandma’s Coffee Cake!
Christopher Kearse is the chef and owner of Will BYOB in South Philadelphia. After graduating as valedictorian from the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College, Chris then moved to Chicago and began a campaign to work in some of the country’s most influential kitchens. Chris sent a letter each week to the same 10 chefs in order to get his foot in the door. Thanks to his diligence, Chris was able to land a variety of positions in some amazing kitchens, including stags and positions at Charlie Trotter’s, Tru, Alinea and Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. Chris eventually returned to Philadelphia, taking positions at Lacroix and Blackfish, and spent more than two years as the chef de cuisine at Pumpkin.
In August 2012, Chris opened Will BYOB on East Passyunk Avenue to rave reviews. Chris was recently named “Best New Chef” by Philadelphia Magazine, has been named one of the 2013 Philadelphia Rising Stars by StarChefs, and was a semifinalist for a James Beard Award earlier this year. For more about Chef Christopher Kearse and Will BYOB, visit WillBYOB.com and link up on Facebook and Twitter.