In an instant, the world as you know it can be changed forever. The majority of us will never realize the true impact of this fact. But Chef Christopher Kearse knows it better than anyone.
When he was just 16 years old, his life changed forever after a tragic car accident left him disfigured, along with a pronounced speech impediment. Many people might be tempted to wallow in the associated pain and difficulties following such a traumatic event. Instead, Chris decided to focus on his future. Chris was always interested in cooking, but months in the
hospital, while recovering from 30+ surgeries, inspired him to watch hundreds of hours of Food Network on TV. “It spoke to me,” he said during a telephone interview. “Part of it was something new, and it kept me occupied. I would look forward to it. It gave me daily relief from the frustration and anxiety of being in the hospital.”
Eventually Chris came home and tried to resume a normal life. But after graduating from high school, he found himself on the couch, wasting the days away. “I knew that wasn’t the way forward,” he said. While many people might have turned to drugs or alcohol at this point, Chris made a pivotal decision. At 18, he left home to attend the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia. He worked hard to learn his craft, setting up stages at wd~50 and Café Gray in New York City, and London’s Gordon Ramsay and St. John. While Chris’s future looked bright, a difficult road lay ahead.
Shortly after starting the program, one of his instructors refused to try his food because of the way he looked and talked. “I wasn’t really able to talk for a while,” Chris said. “For about two or three years, I had to carry around a notebook. So that’s how I expressed myself without really having to talk. I couldn’t tell someone how I cared for them, like people in my family. I needed to tell them how thankful I was for being next to me all those days, so I cooked them dinner.”
Despite the ongoing challenges and being the youngest student in his class, Chris graduated with honors and was class valedictorian the following year. “My dad spoke for me on the stage,” he said. “It was a beautiful moment.” After graduation, Chris mailed letters to 10 of America’s greatest chefs, hoping to secure a challenging job. His first opportunity was at The French Laundry (in Yountville, CA) for a two-month stage, followed by a short stint at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago as poissonier. Staying rooted in Chicago, Chris worked for a year and a half under Chef Laurent Gras at Tru, topped off by weekend stages at Chef Grant Achatz’s Alinea.
After mastering his craft, Chris opened Will BYOB, a modern French restaurant with seasonal ingredients, where he focuses on simple dishes with rich texture and consistency. In 2013 he was
named Best New Chef by Philadelphia Magazine and one of StarChefs Rising Stars. In 2018, Will BYOB was named as one of the 10 Best BYOB Fine Dining Spots in Philadelphia by Food & Wine.
Today Chris spends his time running his restaurant and mentoring his staff. Many have gone on to influence other restaurants in the city. He’s also helped some of them choose college or culinary school. “Cooking is basically who I am,” he says. “I mean, my whole day revolves around cooking and the menu. I wake up in the morning, I start getting out dishes and ideas, and I write them down. It’s really a good outlet for me.”
“He’s super-committed to anything he does,” says Leah Kaithern Patterson, General Manager of the Blue Bell Inn in Philadelphia. “He doesn’t half-ass anything and I think that’s really rare.”
On his days off, Chris does CrossFit a few times a week. He also plays guitar every night after work to relax. It helps him manage the stress of the business and traumatic memories of the accident. Even now, Chris is careful when walking down the street. If he sees young children, he’ll go to the other side so he doesn’t frighten them. “I know they’re going to stare, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Just knowing that something was taken away from you, and you can’t ever have it back. You’re never going to be normal. You’ve got to move forward. I have to keep reminding myself about that.”
Chef Kearse is an inspiration to the culinary community and living proof of what is possible when you make a positive choice. Find out more at https://willbyob.com.
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