Acts of Will

Photo: Neal Santos

“Good hands.” It’s one of those broad bits of flattery you hear bandied about all sorts of professions. A wide receiver who cushions a rocket-launched football with his gloves has good hands. So does a scalpel-wielding surgeon who suppresses his tremors. Or a pianist whose fingers breeze across black and white keys like the jet stream.

Good hands are invaluable in a restaurant, too. Christopher Kearse has them, and they float around the tiny kitchen of Pumpkin with such ease that they may as well be disembodied. Sprinkling an exacting amount of sea salt onto a cube of seared steak, wielding tweezers to locate the precise resting place for a laser-sliced candy-cane beet, spooning out a jellybean of silky sauce soubise, wiping an imperceptible smudge off a plate with a sponge scissored into the size of a matchbook. Once his good hands pass a plate off to a server, they’re right back at it, rifling through a low boy full of meticulously labeled quart containers for his next dish.

If good hands were all that was required to achieve success as a chef, Kearse would already be a titan. But you need so much more: passion, motivation, inspiration, wits, timing — and maybe a little luck. Kearse’s journey, burdened by uniquely arduous odds, featured none of the last. But that hasn’t stopped him from excelling in some of the world’s best restaurants, and soon, finally, in a kitchen of his own. So much has been taken from him by circumstance, but that hasn’t stopped him from taking it right back.

Kearse grew up in Levittown, he and his twin brother the second-oldest of eight children. Father Frank was a veterinarian before retiring last year, mother Christine was a biology major in college, and his siblings all seem to work in scientific fields — a family physician, a Ph.D. candidate in molecular biology, a soil-conservation specialist with the USDA. Family meals, prepared by Christine, were important in the Kearse house, but the clan rarely went out to restaurants. A young Kearse fished with his grandfather and enjoyed helping his grandmother in the kitchen, but food was not an early lock. A self-described metalhead, he had long hair and listened to Metallica nonstop while holding down an after-school job at a pizza parlor.

In September 2000, a few days after his 16th birthday, Kearse was sitting in the passenger’s seat of a friend’s car when the world changed. A drunk driver T-boned the vehicle, resulting in massive damage to the high school sophomore’s face. He was air-lifted to UPenn and immediately rushed into surgery. “First things first,” says Kearse frankly, “they put me back together.” That involved the doctors’ initial attempt at reconstructing Kearse’s jaw with mesh and metal and introducing a soft-tissue graft from his forearm to his face. “I honestly don’t remember much,” says Kearse, now 27, of that day. “I just remember waking up and seeing my dad there. I [didn’t] see myself in the mirror for a month.”

Kearse’s father doesn’t recall many specifics, either. He basically lived at the hospital so he could be as close as possible to updates on his son’s condition. After several tough weeks, Kearse was able to return home, but his fight had barely begun.

Due to his fragile and heavily medicated state in those early post-accident days, his parents set up a hospital bed in their room so they could constantly monitor his well-being. The injury’s impact on Kearse’s mouth and nose required him to use both a tracheal tube for breathing and a stomach feeding tube for a liquid diet. As a result, “He lost a lot of mass,” says Frank, whose son, a big 250 prior to the incident, dropped 80 pounds, resembling the much slimmer build he carries today. Only 10 of Kearse’s teeth remained intact, all of which fell out in the first month and a half. He has two of his own today.

Photo: Neal Santos

Kearse wasn’t able to speak a single word for the first nine months following the accident, communicating with his family and doctors by scribbling on a notepad. He had to start from scratch with facial expressions. “I remember my dad making a comment on how he could tell [only by how] I wrote if I was upset or calm,” he says. From 16 to 18, for his junior and senior years, Kearse was stuck in his house, switching to home-schooling and making return trips to the hospital multiple times, both for planned surgeries overseen by a team of craniofacial, soft tissue and dental specialists and for unforeseen problems, such as ear infections exacerbated by the trauma.

Between then and now, doctors have performed a total of 23 surgeries on Kearse, follow-ups that involved everything from taking bone grafts from his hip to multiple skin and tissue grafts that rebuilt his mouth and lips. Today, he’s fully adapted to it — he eats, drinks and kisses his girlfriend like anyone else. His primary hindrance is his speech, which can be muffled and difficult to understand if you’re not accustomed to listening and talking to him.

“There was a large focus on his needs,” says Frank. “The rest of the kids were always being careful not to disturb him or jar him. But that wasn’t that big of a deal. It was trying to help him deal with the emotional aspect of it all. Being encouraging … trying to find the positive.”

Starved for a pursuit to occupy the massive amounts of down time he spent in hospitals and at home, Kearse found that positive in food. He began tearing through cookbooks, watching cooking shows, researching online. “I couldn’t go out on the weekends. I couldn’t go out on a date. I couldn’t go out with friends. I was thinking about [my condition] too much,” he says. So instead he channeled his energy into documentation. He still has notepads from those days, their pages stuffed with ideas, to go along with a collection of more than 400 cookbooks. “I don’t know if it’s how I was raised, or what happened to me,” says Kearse of his unwavering focus. “But take life seriously and it’ll make you who you are. I don’t know if the accident set the tone for how I am, but it sure helped.”

A big, hungry family was the ideal proving ground for a budding chef. “My mom would give me free rein on what to cook for dinner,” says Kearse. “I cooked six nights a week for everyone. I would go every day to the supermarket. It was my outlet [between] being home-schooled and all the surgeries.” And his family couldn’t have been happier to support that outlet. Kearse remembers the time they launched an all-out search party for mascarpone cheese because he wanted to try his hand at tiramisu.

The most remarkable irony of this time in Kearse’s life was that, for a large chunk of it, he was unable to actually consume the food he’d become so attached to preparing, medically relegated to his feeding-tube diet — a chef literally unable to eat. But though his sense of smell has been permanently damaged by the accident and its aftermath, his taste wasn’t altered in the least. “I didn’t eat for a few years, so I had to relearn how,” he says. “[But] my taste and tongue weren’t affected. I honestly think that solidified my path.”

After earning his high-school diploma, the path led straight to the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in 2003. “There was the concern with his injury and acceptance, and how he would feel and fit in,” says Frank. “But I’m a firm believer that people need to eventually leave their home.” Most 18-year-olds see freshman year of college as prime time to get stupid, but Kearse took a contrarian approach — in lieu of partying, he’d dig in at the library, committing culinary classics to memory.

Extra effort, repetition, discipline. All were hallmarks for Kearse the student, determined not to squander a situation that seemed implausible for him a few years prior. But his hard work didn’t translate to advancement right away. “I hit reality when I got to college,” says Kearse, who could tell that some restaurants were reluctant to hire him based on his appearance and articulation. He had yet to undergo several additional surgeries, and was not yet fully comfortable with his face and voice. “It was hard to communicate with a chef and show my passion, just because it was difficult to communicate in general.”

John Patterson attended the Restaurant School with Kearse and cooked with him at Blackfish in Conshohocken. “He was the most serious student in that class, and he was also the most difficult to get to know,” says Patterson, who now works at New York’s Gramercy Tavern. “He had a difficult time, which I think is a large part of what makes him so incredibly strong. I’ve never met anyone like him. He was the guy who would show up early and stay late. He’d come in on Monday morning and say he’d made 75 omelettes, for no one in particular, just to perfect it. He’d do it in his one-bedroom apartment over the weekend.”

Those who’ve worked with Kearse recognize his intensity. “What sets him apart from most people that I’ve worked with is his drive,” says Gregory Barr, who cooked with Kearse at Tru in Chicago. “He’s really talented, but he’s [also] going to work harder than anybody else … the accident made him very focused.”

Photos: Neal Santos

Kearse finished as valedictorian of his class in 2005 while holding down a line cook job at West Philly’s Penne, but he took strides to gain serious experience before graduation — through school, he set up stages (kitchen shadows) that saw him putting in brief periods of study in both New York (wd-50, Café Gray) and England (Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, St. John).

The chef admits the challenges he’s faced have caused his patience for less-serious peers to wane. “It stems from all those times in the hospital,” he says. “I almost died. I couldn’t eat. I see others getting every opportunity and just not taking them. How do you not want to learn? All the knowledge is right there. How could you not want that? It amazes me.”

Kearse’s post-graduation plan was simple: He drafted a letter and sent it to 10 top chefs in America, explaining that he was eager to labor in their kitchens. “It basically said, ‘This is my passion. I’m not the most talented or the most experienced, but what I lack in that I make up in discipline,’” Kearse recalls. The letter made no mention of the accident.

He packed his bags once he started getting responses, starting with two months at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in California. After another surgery, it was onto Chicago, where he worked as poissonier (fish cook) at Charlie Trotter’s. He stayed in the city for two years, his most formative experience coming at the Michelin-starred Tru, where he worked as saucier, poissonier and tournant six days a week for a year and a half. On his only day off? He’d stage at Grant Achatz’s renowned Alinea, one of several stops that helped Kearse develop his modern-cookery skill set.

The high-pressure, high-demand environment caused lesser cooks to crack, but it had the opposite effect on Kearse and his contemporaries. “It was 15-hour days,” says Barr, now sous chef at Esca in NYC. “You were running every second. If you weren’t running, you weren’t making it. … It just makes you very, very good.”

At Tru, Kearse also eased into an elite kitchen where his condition was an afterthought. “It was hard to understand him at first,” says Tim Dornon, who cooks at Uchiko in Austin, Texas, and worked under Kearse at Tru. “[But] people still treated him the same. No one shit on him for the fact that he doesn’t look like every other human being. Everybody felt for him, but at the same time they were hard on him.”

Kearse knew he couldn’t stay in Chicago forever. “Chicago was Hollywood,” he says. “It’s not reality. Fine dining is 1 percent of the restaurant industry, then 1 percent of that 1 percent is the restaurants I worked at.” Having his own place was the prize, and the city best suited for that would be Philadelphia. In 2008, he came home.

“We were not going to hire him,” says Matt Levin, the Square Peg chef who held the executive role at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse from 2006 to 2008. “We had [his] resume and there was 100 restaurants on it, but they were always small intervals of time. He jumped around. I said, ‘You’ve got to give me at least a year.’ He agreed.” Kearse came on, first as a seafood specialist (“The kid cooks a piece of fish like nobody”), and then, after about three months, as a sous chef. The promotion forced Kearse out from the behind the scenes and into a position that required him to interact regularly with vendors, front-of-house staffers and guests.

This shift into a more visible role, one Kearse says was challenging to adapt to ( “I don’t really like attention,” he says), came to a head during the restaurant’s always-packed brunch service. “It was an open kitchen, with 200 people walking through,” says Fond’s Lee Styer, who worked many of those Sundays with Kearse. “You’d see people look twice, [and you knew] they were looking for a reason. Anyone who wanted to walk into the kitchen could, and I think that was probably good for Chris, even if it sucked at the time. Interacting with people helped him get more comfortable.”

Kearse brought with him a mastery of contemporary techniques — foams, gels, powders, sous vide — that now complement, but don’t define, his personal cooking. He had the opportunity to stretch his legs during off-menu tastings, which he would contribute to as many as five days a week. “It was just like, ‘Show me something I haven’t seen,’” says Ela’s Jason Cichonski, chef de cuisine at Lacroix during Kearse’s time there. “We were able to incorporate that, [him] teaching us a technique that he had learned at Alinea or Trotter that we hadn’t read or heard about yet.”

Photo: Neal Santos

The peripatetic nature that Levin noted on Kearse’s resume led Kearse away from Lacroix, first to a return stint at Penne, then to Blackfish. “I knew what I wanted out of a job, and a lot of places couldn’t offer it,” says Kearse of his hopping habit. “Even though they’re a great place, it just wasn’t what I wanted. I wasn’t better than them. I just had different goals.” In 2010, after encouragement from Levin and others, he finally settled down in an unlikely kitchen — Pumpkin, the small South Street BYOB owned by chef Ian Moroney and his wife Hillary Bor.

“Chris sent us a resume, and I said, ‘Why the fuck does this guy want to work here?’” Moroney recalls. “It was not a Philadelphia resume. It wasn’t, like, two years at Jose Garces and one year at Mercato. It was a laundry list of every great restaurant you could possibly imagine.”

Observers of Moroney’s hire expressed similar confusion: Why would a successful chef/owner who cooks every day bring in someone so pedigreed, independent and unflinching? Moroney, who invited Kearse to take full control of Pumpkin’s menu after he’d been there a year, doesn’t understand the implication. “For me, it was a no-brainer,” he says. “Just a way to make the restaurant better. It’s OK, for example, for Jose Garces or Marc Vetri to hire talented people. The minute I do it, I get questioned by [Inquirer food critic] Craig LaBan: ‘Well, what do you do now?’ You just try to surround yourself with the most talented people you can.”

“The one thing that he’s done is challenge the way I think, [encouraging me] to keep an open mind,” says Moroney, whose style skews more toward the traditional “peasant food” recipes of Italy, France and Spain. “Having someone like Chris come in, he challenges me. And that’s how you get better.”

Kearse says his food has never grown more than during his time working for Moroney and Bor. The thing people notice before anything else is his plating — his good hands, working angles, carving out negative space with wily dashes of color and an imbalanced balance that’s exacting in its asymmetry. He can be elaborate — a spring salad he’s offering now features almost 25 different elements, from pickled cauliflower and shaved raw watermelon radish to confit baby potatoes and caramelized tomato powder. And he can also deliver classic flavors in an unexpected package — see the smoked quail he put together in the colder months, combining the familiar winter elements of chestnut and salsify onto a plate that featured both agar-thickened mulled red wine and an artful puddle of albufera sauce, a foie-and-cognac classic that’s been around since the days of Escoffier.

Philly diners can be resistant to food that is too left-field, but Kearse manages to balance old and new to compound generational disciplines. “Molecular gastronomy is a flourish,” says Patterson. “It’s something you put on the plate, but it’s not centerstage. That’s what I respect the most about his cooking. It’s classical French — he roasts, he confits, he glazes. But what brings it to the next level is this newer-age cooking and how he ties the two together.”

Photo: Neal Santos

“I want it to be an experience,” says Kearse. “Fun, emotional, satisfying. For me, to eat a big steak, it’s the same thing bite after bite. It gets old. But to have every other bite be different? That’s what makes a great meal.”

“I’ve worked for some of the top chefs in Philadelphia. None of them ever inspired me the way Chris has,” says Leah Kaithern, the general manager of NYC’s Caffe Storico who worked with Kearse at Blackfish. “[His food] is so beautiful, so precisely plated, just gorgeous. I think that attention to detail is so rare.”

“It’s much more refined, it’s much more broad,” says Levin, comparing Kearse’s cooking at Lacroix to now. “There’s much more risk being taken, but it makes sense. It’s focused. It’s not pretty for the sake of being pretty.”

When Cichonski recently dined at Pumpkin, he was immediately struck by “that goosebumpy, tingly, holy-shit-this-is-bangin’-I-would-eat-this-every-day feeling.”

Kearse’s tenure in the Pumpkin kitchen is coming to an end, but for the first time he’s not moving on to work for someone else. In August, he’ll open Will, a small BYOB at 1911 E. Passyunk Ave. Since almost all the places Kearse could envision himself running in Philly are chef-owned, he knew his best move would be to branch out on his own. “I want a special restaurant — not a special occasion, a special restaurant,” says Kearse. “We’re going to push it a little more. Tighter, a lot more finesse. A lot more labor in the prep. I want to give customers what they’re not going to get anywhere else.”

Photo: Drew Lazor

The moniker has multiple meanings. Will is Kearse’s middle name, and it’s what members of his immediate family call him. But it also represents the will he’s tapped throughout his life to kick down the obstacles placed in his way by the accident. “He’s got a lot of inner strength. That’s his saving grace,” says Frank. “A lot of people would not be able to overcome this — not just the injury, because that will always heal, but the defamation it left behind. He’s well past that.”

“He doesn’t want people to feel bad for him,” says Kaithern. “He’s very self-conscious about [that] because he doesn’t feel bad for himself. It’s much easier to wallow in your self-pity than to rise above it. Chris Kearse has risen above it.”

Hearing him talk about food and watching his good hands at fast, fastidious work, it’s sometimes easy to overlook what Kearse has faced. But fathers don’t forget. “It breaks my heart every day,” says Frank. “I’m definitely cognizant of it. But on the flip side, you can’t be more proud of someone who can overcome something like that. You always want the best for your kids. You can’t control everything, that’s for damn sure. But he is in control of today.”

This story was originally published by Philadelphia City Paper on May 17, 2012. It won “Best Newspaper Food Feature” in the 2013 Association of Food Journalists Awards. Republished here on Medium due to CP’s website going dark in 2016.