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"Iconic" Chef David Ansill Reflects on Pif, Stephen Starr, and 30 Years on the Line in Philly

David Ansill was an original.
David Ansill was an original.
Photo: Eater Philly

As of early Sunday morning, Chef David Ansill has traded in the chilly air of a Northeast winter for sun and sand on the beach in Jamaica. He has left the Philly culinary landscape for good.

"It's the opportunity of a lifetime," Ansill told Eater the night before he took off. "I'm going to be cooking at The Wild Parrot in Jamaica. Teaching some basic techniques to a kitchen crew that took 25 minutes to make me a fucking grilled cheese on my last visit."

Ansill got his start in the business bar-backing at the long-forgotten Grendel's Lair at 5th and South Street in 1976, a live music venue that was famous for the production of Let My People Come. "It was one of those 70's sex musicals, with men and women, gay and straight," said Ansill. "As I'm grabbing ice buckets and trash, every room had half-naked people in it. I knew I was going to love this industry."

After heading to The Restaurant School in 1987, Ansill bounced around numerous local institutions like Serrano's, The Bank, Treetops at The Rittenhouse Hotel (which has since evolved into Philly's famous Lacroix), and finally Judy's at 3rd and Bainbridge Street. After flying the coop to Miami for a few months, upstart restaurateur Stephen Starr called him back home to work at this new concept called The Continental, and ultimately sparked one of the most compelling chef journeys of Philly's culinary renaissance.

"I knew immediately after starting the gig that this was a doomed partnership," recalls Ansill. "Stephen hired me as sous chef, but told me that I should cook my food the way I wanted. Then the next day he'd yell at me because the exec was complaining that I wasn't listening. I had to get the fuck out of there, the kitchen was run so damn poorly."

While The Continental took off and became an overnight sensation, Ansill moved across the street to Lucy's Hat Shop. In the kitchen at Lucy's, he conceived the idea of what was to ultimately become Pif, one of Philly's most revered and beloved restaurants of all time.

"It was the late 90's, and Philly was still in cheesesteak mode, and I wanted to do French peasant bistro food in a town that hadn't really seen it yet. Pif was my baby. It still is," said Ansill. "We opened on July 17, 2001. That's when she was born at 8th and Carpenter Street."

"David was always five years ahead of the curve, using ingredients people weren't ready for, or thought they weren't ready for," said Inquirer critic Craig LaBan. "Here was this journeyman chef that ended up achieving more than anyone could ever dream. He was an icon to the BYOB movement, and developed sophisticated cuisine we had yet to experience. A truly talented and visionary cook."

Ansill's arsenal at Pif included several dishes that are still talked about and replicated more than ten years later, like his steak tartare with purple mustard, cognac, and fried capers; stuffed pigs feet; and the way-ahead-of-its-time sea urchin toast.

"Before any trip I would take on a plane, I ate at Pif the night before," said long-time Philly Mag food critic Joy Manning. "You know, in case the plane crashed. I always wanted it to be my last meal. It was the first place I ate escargot. His use of lavender stays with me to this day. You never felt like you were at a restaurant. You were at some quirky friends house that knew how to cook. I miss it so much."

Ansill opened his larger and more expensive eponymous restaurant at 3rd and Bainbridge Street a few years later as business was booming at Pif. But, after a walkout by his chef, and with the financial investment of Ansill much more restricting than the low overhead at Pif, he was forced to shutter the jewelbox bistro and focus on his new estalishment.

"My God, that hurt. I still can't drive by the building to this day. Bibou is there now, and I love (owners) Pierre and Charlotte (Calmels), but I can't go in," said Ansill. "I'm not sure I'll ever get over that."

Ansill Food + Wine never saw the success that Pif enjoyed, and got pigeonholed into the "all offal, all the time" category after an article came out proclaiming it as such. "I think it's funny, the menu was largely like Pif, but I got labeled the 'weird food' guy. That killed us," said Ansill. "Those who came loved the restaurant, but enough people just didn't come. We had to shut down after a little more than a year and a half of opening our doors. I'm a much better cook than a businessman. Bottom line, it was over."

"When Ansill closed, telling my husband was difficult," said Manning. "I told him to sit down when he got home from work, and he asked who died. I said it's not that bad, but the next worst thing. He jokingly said, what, is Ansill closing, too?"

After taking a couple of years off, Ansill re-emerged at the unlikeliest of all places, Ladder 15. A sleek, monstrous bar that was known for a young Jersey-fied crowd of Corona drinkers is no place for a chef of Ansill's caliber and pedigree. Wags in the media gave the marriage two months, tops. Ansill left last week, marking more than two years in the kitchen.

"I loved working there. Max Tucker is the most generous and kind business owner I've met, and his knowledge of good food is very underrated. But, because he owns bars with a certain reputation, Philly's elitist food culture slams him." said Ansill. "I applied for the job through Craigslist, and he saw my name and immediately hired me. I liked the direction he wanted the bar to go, and he let me just do what I wanted with the menu. No restaurant owner will ever do that. Trust and respect are invaluable."

Ansill brought some of his classics to Ladder 15, like the pork belly Korean tacos, his fried pig trotters, and the famous beef tartare. He did a four-course chef's tasting every Tuesday to showcase some of the old Pif dishes for a new audience. "I kept coming in from the 'burbs to eat there on Tuesdays. He never lost it," added Manning.

We asked Ansill who he thought were the best chefs in Philly right now, and he named Jeff Michaud (Osteria) and Mike Solomonov (Zahav) without missing a beat. "Jeff has taken Italian food to a whole new level, and I know a lot of that influence is from Marc Vetri, who taught him well," said Ansill. "And Mike, well, Zahav is the best restaurant in Philadelphia, and no one can compare to his creativity, fearlessness, and execution."

News of Ansill's emigration to Jamaica came by way of a tabloid-esque post at local blog Foobooz, announcing that the chef was leaving the U.S. so he could smoke more weed, causing a stir in the local media. Ansill, who is very open about being a proponent of marijuana, was concerned about his family and future business partners seeing the piece, and this being his swan song in Philly.

"I guess it's my fault for talking to the media at all, but with that kind of headline, it felt like my career needed some salacious tidbit to get a click," said Ansill. "My dad saw that and was disappointed. I have a 20-year-old daughter, and a wife who is familiar with everyone in the food industry, and she was pretty upset, too. I got a call from my new bosses down there about it, as well. It went pretty far."

When we asked Chef Ansill what he would want to leave behind as his legacy, he said: "Cook the food you want, and trust your customers. Ultimately, love what you do in the kitchen. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. You don't have to be an asshole to be a chef. It's just food."

As we wrapped up our conversation with Chef Ansill, normally rough and tumble Chef Scott Schroeder of the South Philly Taproom texted: "If you're with David right now, tell him I love him, and we'll miss him."

We feel the same.

· All Eater David Ansill Coverage [EPHI]
· David Ansill to Expatriate to Jamaica, Smoke Lots of Weed [Foobooz]
· Ladder 15 [Official]