Chris Kearse’s reputation proceeds him.

And I’m not even referencing his undeniable culinary talent or his success as the owner-chef of Will BYOB, one of the city’s most loved restaurants, oft profiled in local and national food media. In article after article, quote after quote, Chris’ friends, colleagues, and family constantly point to his deep well of kindness as a source of inspiration in their lives.

After sitting with the chef at Rittenhouse’s Rival Brothers, each of us nursing a cup of coffee, I understand why.

Chris* on what brought him back to (and keeps him in) Philadelphia…

Chris grew up in the area and graduated from The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College. While in school, he bounced  between a few different restaurants before his career took him to Chicago post-commencement, but in his own words, he “always had a feeling that [he] would come back.”

Then, fate became involved, “I had to have surgery [for injuries he sustained in a car accident as a teenager]  [in Philadelphia] in ‘08 and it all kind of lined up. I found a job. I had surgery. I found an apartment. All in the same week. It just worked out that way.”

Good fortune might have brought him back to Philadelphia, but it was the community that kept him here:

“Philly feels comfortable and works for me. It’s a very tight-knit community within the [Philadelphia dining] industry. The support for a young entrepreneur or a young chef [like] me was perfect.”

That support came from his colleagues and the clientele alike. “In a city like Philadelphia, when you’re doing [well], they [the clientele] let you know. If you fuck up, they let you know that too.”

Having a front row seat to the reemergence of Philly’s food scene was a nice perk as well. “The food scene when I first came back from Chicago was just getting there again, but in the last seven years, it has blown up! The customers, the clientele in the city—they want fun, new, exciting, playful food which is what I like to do. It’s a win-win. “

Lastly, maybe most importantly, he gets to stay close to his family.

On the support within Philadelphia’s restaurant community…

When asked about the commonality of support within the restaurant industry, Chris took a second before answering. “I think it’s a generation thing. I can’t speak for other generations,” he pondered the best way to explain the inner workings of the kitchen to an outsider like myself. “[But] there’s an old school way of doing things in how you work in the kitchen and in how you earn things. You have to earn someone’s recipe. You have to earn that knowledge. Nowadays with the internet, you don’t have to earn it so much.” True to his reputation, Chris doesn’t lament the end of that particular culinary age or resent the kitchen’s newfound transparency. “Sharing ideas and sharing knowledge allows for growth and expansion and evolution. I think it’s a good thing.”

Chris does suspect that Philadelphia is unique in a lot of ways. “I have a feeling that since Philly is a small community, we are tighter. It’s less people obviously than in New York City, for example. There’s less of us to keep track of. I actually call Philly a large town instead of a small city just ‘cause of the dynamics and the community.”

A friend of his, for example, is a foster parent and one of his high school children needed a job and called on Chris. “Literally, in a half hour, we had 5 interviews lined up for him. That’s the kind of community that people don’t really see until you’re in it, which is amazing” and only possible in a city like Philly.  

Chef Christopher Kearse photographed by Neal Santos for FEASTIVAL 2014

Chef Christopher Kearse photographed by Neal Santos for FEASTIVAL 2014

On the name…

Turning to Will BYOB brings us back to Chris’ family. “There are two answers [to how the restaurant received its name.]  It’s my middle name. My mom’s name is Christine, and I’m Christopher. Chris and Chris was confusing for my dad, so he called me Will, and then it stuck. Someone called me Chris one time in school—my girlfriend—it was weird. “

When the team was finalizing the restaurant’s name, they had a lot of ideas, but again “Will kinda stuck.” Not only did it call to mind the chef-owner himself and his family, but the name also spoke to Chris’ own personal history and the sheer power of his own will.

Don’t expect Chris’ upcoming restaurant to be Will 2, “the new place will be called something else. I don’t know yet, but we’ll see. You’ll find out.”

Also find out why Chef Chris Kearse does not see himself as a rebel, what show business and the restaurant industry have in common, and how Chris is shaping the legacy he hopes to leave behind on the next installment of “The Dish.”

Thank you to Chris Kearse and Will BYOB!

Will BYOB (1911 E Passyunk Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19148) is a modern French-inspired BYOB, located on East Passyunk Avenue in the heart of South Philadelphia. It will be closing later this summer and Chef Kearse will be opening a brand new restaurant called Forsythia.

*Responses edited for clarity.