I got to know COOK alum Chris Kearse over the past year through writing this profile of him for Philadelphia City Paper. The Levittown native and former chef of Pumpkin, who’s cooked in some of America’s best kitchens, will be the first to tell you he’s not fond of attention, but his latest accomplishment demands it. This weekend, he opens Will (1911 E. Passyunk Ave.), the 28-year-old’s long-awaited chance to be both chef and owner.
Situated on the far end of Restaurant Row 2.0 East Passyunk, not far from fellow friend of COOK Le Virtu, Kearse’s restaurant has two meanings as far as its moniker goes. “Will” is his middle name, and it’s what the members of his big family call him. But it also represents the will Kearse has had to muster to get to this point in his career. He’s never let the obstacles stemming from a childhood accident hinder his progress toward the ultimate goal: owning his own place, built around his own food. He was able to realize this dream through a partnership with the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation, which owns the cozy space Kearse now calls home. The pair of two-tops in the fold-in windows looking out onto P’yunk look destined to be the most coveted tables in the candelit powder blue room, a straight shot back to a small but highly functional kitchen Kearse designed and built himself.
“I want it to be an experience,” Kearse told me a few months ago about the plan for Will, a 30-seat BYOB. “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.” Anyone who’s had the opportunity eat Kearse’s food in the past knows that he has a knack for providing a markedly different experience, starting with his plating (see Neal Santos’ incredible photos for more), the result of a singular skill set, meticulous prep and an eye for color and detail. But what separates his cooking from other chefs well-versed in modern technique is the fact that he doesn’t employ visual whimsy for its sake alone — there’s incredible function and flavor bolstering the artistry. His opening dinner menu and opening dessert menu read conservatively, but don’t let the undersell fool you — you’ll receive much more than you read.