We've all heard stories about two of Philadelphia's most missed restaurants, Ansill Food + Wine and Pif. Some of us, the lucky ones, can even remember the tastes of some of our favorite dishes. When I sat down with Chef David Ansill at his new digs, Bar Ferdinand, he reminisced about his former establishments. I assumed it was Ansill, his namesake, that was his favorite.
"It’s just the opposite — I get more sentimental feelings from people about Pif. I miss Pif more than Ansill," he confided. "Pif was intimate. I was always floating around the dining room, talking to customers. It had a smaller menu and offered cooking from the heart. At Ansill, I was trying to find the right niche of food that people were interested in trying."
In the Beginning
Ansill, an Elkins Park native, has spent most of the last 25 years cooking professionally in kitchens across Philadelphia. His passion for the culinary arts started in junior high home economics class. "A couple of friends and I took the class," he recalled. "One of the first things we did was bake bread. That was an epiphany! Then, on Saturday afternoons, instead of going out to play football, a couple of guys and I baked bread and cinnamon buns. It was like chemistry that you can eat."
With his newly honed skills, he was put in charge of making salads at home during dinnertime. "I went down to the booktore on Cheltemham Avenue to get a salad cookbook." It was around that time that his mom took cooking classes at the Cheltenham Art Center. "Our house went from canned vegetables to fresh vegetables" soon after that, he remembers.
Ansill celebrated the bigger Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Passover at the homes of his aunt and grandmother. His mom hosted the family's annual Thanksgiving dinner, which he claims was the one that his family most looked forward to because of his mom's dishes.
His food education was encouraged by his parents. "One of my first memorable meals was at 16 years old when my dad took us on a trip to Spain. At our first lunch, my dad ordered chilled garlic soup with grapes. It was the first time I'd ever heard of cold soup. He wanted me to taste it and I was scared. Since I’ve been cooking, I’ve had chilled garlic soup on probably every menu in the summertime. It opened up my eyes a little bit; after that, I was never scared to be adventurous."
Ansill didn't go directly into professional chefdom. Rather, he tended bar for 13 years before going to The Restaurant School (the tuition was a wedding gift from his father). Fast forward to the 1990s, when Ansill landed on Miami's South Beach. It was around that time that, back in Philly, Stephen Starr was opening Continental in Old City. The budding restaurateur soon recruited Ansill to join him.
The relationship between Starr and Ansill soon proved to be a tumultuous one, though, and it didn't last too long. In 2001, Ansill left to open Pif, a small French restaurant with a daily changing menu. Five years later, Ansill's namesake restaurant opened on the corner of 3rd and Bainbridge. By 2009, both restaurants were closed. Ansill moved on to Ladder 15 in Center City on Sansom Street, where his treif pork belly Korean tacos drew his followers from across the city. He stayed at Ladder 15 until 2012, when he left the States and migrated semi-permanently to Jamaica, where he used to regularly vacation. Surprised by the lack of quality ingredients and food on the island, Ansill began cooking at Wild Parrot Guest Cottages in Negril. Once, when the restaurant got a delivery of sour cream and potatoes, he whipped up traditional potato latkes. They were requested by the staff for the entire next week.
The New Gig
Ansill has been friends with Owen Kamihira, the owner of Bar Ferdinand, for the past 30 years. "I’ve been impressed with Owen ever since I worked at the Copa and he came in wearing his own design of clothes," said Ansill. "We've always talked about working together." Finally, the timing seemed right: Ansill officially came on board as Bar Ferdinand's executive chef in July 2012. In early 2013, Ansill changed about 90 percent of the tapas-style menu. Even more additions, like a pizza oven, are on the horizon.
Definitely try the house-cured salmon, Ansill's nod to the traditional Jewish lox platter with a twist— mustard oil. The oxtail stew was deliciously complex and hearty, but perfectly portioned. My favorite item was the eggplant, sliced long and covered in toasted almonds then served with a habeñaro hot sauce.
At a glance, Ansill resembles a younger Keith Richards or Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp's character in Pirates of the Caribbean (which was also based off of Richards). But, he's not a pirate. Actually, Ansill is very friendly so the next time you are in Bar Ferndinand, ask him a question or two!
At the end of my conversation, Ansill shared what he has been recently searching for, "Stuffed cabbage. "It's one of my favorite things in the world. I crave it.” Someone needs to get this stellar chef some golupkes, stat!
1030 N. Second St., (215) 923-1313
The Bubbi Project