"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."
"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."
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."