Some roads to opening a restaurant are riddled with potholes. Others are stony tracks for barefoot pilgrims—for chefs who grind their way through a sort of culinary stations of the cross, begging enlightenment from Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz and the other high priests of cuisine.
Then there’s the path Chris Kearse traversed, which took him halfway across the River Styx with no promise of a safe return.
The story of Will, his new BYO on Passyunk Avenue, is in some ways familiar. After nearly a decade spent apprenticing at the French Laundry and Alinea, cooking fish at Charlie Trotter’s and Lacroix, and coming into his own at Pumpkin, the 28-year-old chef finally felt ready to open a restaurant with his own (middle) name on the marquee. The joys of ownership kicked off the first morning with a gas leak—the kind of thing that might have sent another restaurateur into fits. Kearse overcame it.
But to put that in perspective, you have to go back 12 years, to the October night when a drunk driver plowed into a car in which Kearse was riding, obliterating his mouth and jaw so completely that it would take more than 20 reconstructive surgeries to restore them. Hospital- and home-bound for the next two years, Kearse poured his energy into reading cookbooks and making dinners for his family—despite the fact that for much of that time, he took all his own meals through a feeding tube.
That passion (and the eventual recovery of his ability to eat) is what put him on the path to becoming a chef capable of executing the exquisitely plated and conceptually dexterous food that now defines Will.
There’s no better introduction to Kearse’s menu than the Barnegat scallops that anchored the early autumn appetizer board. White scallops presided over a voluptuous suite of twinned and tripled flavors: Fennel came roasted whole, pureed, and as an anise-perfumed oil. A scattering of whole almonds received a warm bath of almond milk poured tableside, melting a little island of brandied uni mousse into eddies of richness in the deceptively light milk. It was an invention that stimulated one moment, soothed the next, and then swirled the ingredients around just enough to stimulate again.
A similar sort of turbulence gave three dimensions to a sweet corn soup poured over morsels of lobster, blistered shishito peppers and a dusting of vadouvan, giving each little treasure—the deep red shishito foremost among them—its own moment to shine through the clean and focused flavor of the corn velouté.
Or consider the dish built around a single compressed disk of Musque de Provence pumpkin in one of the $45 five-course themed tasting menus Will offers on Tuesday nights. The hockey puck of pumpkin should have been a little warmer, but it could hardly have borne a more varied palette of colors and textures. Shaved golden beets rose cool and crunchy over a warming dollop of chestnut puree. Marble-sized brussels sprouts nestled, nearly raw, against tufts of braised red cabbage. Jerky-like sheets of dehydrated prosciutto awaited dipping in red wine jelly or cider foam—or neither, because they were a splendid salty counterpoint to the pumpkin all on their own. There are plenty of ways to make pumpkin boring (and Kearse found one earlier on, with a mouth-coating but uncharacteristically monotone risotto), but here it supported a kaleidoscopic vision of October’s bounty.
You could label Kearse’s approach French, or seasonal, or postmodern, and be right every time. But add it all up—a red-wine béarnaise of almost liqueur-like depth; the Mexican cucumbers, as small as caper berries, that Kearse scored cheaply from a farmer at Headhouse Square; the crunchified quinoa and puffed wild rice that joined those micro-cukes in a late-season tomato salad—and what you really have is ADHD cooking.
But that’s praise, not criticism. Dish after dish here offered a busy variety that bordered on impatience but never fell victim to it. (Even if I got a little impatient with the lack of leg, waist and elbow room. The place seats 30 but has room for 20.)
And that ADHD description held for a great big hunk of roasted hen-of-the-woods mushroom as well, served with a lusty combination of smoked ricotta and madeira gel, along with shaved black radish disks (something of a signature here) for a peppery crunch. It was true of Kearse’s edgiest dessert, which paired soft gobs of Vermont Creamery’s goat-and-cow-milk Cremont cheese with miniature cherry clafoutis, ribbons of raw celery, and a dust pile of tangy powdered hibiscus so punchy, it almost came off like a fruity chili powder. Don’t ask me how, but it was the celery, of all things, that tied this odd arrangement together into a successful merger of cheese course and dessert.
Yet for the most part, Kearse cooks to please rather than to impress. Witness straight-ahead efforts like a sirloin steak with potato fondant and unusually full-flavored carrots, or a salmon filet with peeled Sungold tomatoes and lobster emulsion. And don’t worry … celery isn’t a dessert requirement. It’s just there for those willing to take the chance, while the pot-de-crème riff on bananas Foster, with a clear caramel jelly and cardamom, is a must. Kearse actually thought about becoming a pastry chef once, rather than a full-on restaurant owner.
“But that was the easy way out,” he says.
So instead he took the hard path, and has given us the BYO of the year.