Chef David Ansill

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After one of the best pop-up dinners I’ve ever experienced, I can answer the question a reader messaged me three months ago:

Where’s David Ansill cooking these days?

The fan was hoping to track down the chef she’d happily followed from spot to spot through his multi-decade Philly career. And she wasn’t alone. A few weeks later, a different chef sent me a text lamenting a lack of finesse in the cuisine at a restaurant after Ansill’s departure. When I ended up in a third conversation with a food industry vet about Ansill’s talent in the kitchen, I decided to try to track him down.

There was a good chance I’d find him somewhere, I thought, since he’d been known to bop around.

After rising through the ranks at early Philadelphia hotspots like Judy’s, The Continental and Lucy’s Hat Shop, Ansill gained national acclaim with his own restaurant, Pif, a tiny French BYOB launched in 2001. But his second, much larger spot proved unable to make ends meet. After Ansill Food + Wine closed, the chef landed at Ladder 15, giving the party bar a culinary reputation it somehow still hangs onto today. He moved to Jamaica, but the gig there didn’t last, and Ansill returned to Philly in 2013. He showed up at Bar Ferdinand, garnering more rave reviews. Next on his tour was the Good King Tavern, and then consulting at Wash West newcomer Pinefish.

But around August of last year, he left Pinefish and… disappeared. Fell off the radar. My casual inquiries about his whereabouts went nowhere.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, I finally found him.

I was interviewing another chef when their phone buzzed. The name on the screen: David Ansill. “Get me in touch with him!” I said. “What’s he doing, anyway?”

The answer was better than I expected.

“He’s hosting these weed pop-up dinners…”

Verlasso salmon tartare with cucumbers, chile oil, salmon roe and a fried lotus chip Credit: Danya Henninger

‘Marijuana fine dining is a thing’

Cooking with marijuana is nothing new, but as more and more states decriminalize, the practice has spread and matured.

We’re not talking pot brownies here. This also goes beyond the booming market for ganja-laced edibles like chocolates and candy. In cities where recreational use is fully legit, high-end chefs have begun to explore using herb as…an herb.

“Marijuana fine dining is slowly becoming a thing,” declared an October 2016 article in the Denver Post (though it’s important to note that marijuana is legal in Colorado).

Although the Denver chefs interviewed admitted it would take several more years, they easily envisioned a future where connoisseurs debate the merits of various marijuana-and-food pairings just like wine is discussed today. They also expounded on the difficulties of weed dinners, from dosage uncertainties to Colorado regulations that bar dispensaries from selling food.

In Pennsylvania, of course, recreational marijuana use is still illegal. But things are changing.

The state recently approved cannabis’ use as medicine, and applications are currently being accepted for a small number or medical dispensary licenses. And the City of Philadelphia decriminalized possession of small amounts all the way back in 2014 — instead of a misdemeanor or felony charge, perpetrators get citations similar to parking tickets.

So when Ansill began talking with a former colleague about perhaps doing a series of Jamaican food pop-ups, she made the suggestion to do weed dinners instead.

“It hit me like an icicle bullet through the skull,” Ansill said. “Why didn’t I think of that? It’s such a perfect idea.”

Parmesan semolina dumpling (aka gnocchi Romano) with goat cheese, tomato coulis and basil Credit: Danya Henninger

Thanks, internet

Using online videos and forums, Ansill taught himself the intricacies of making infused butter and oil and tinctures, and began experimenting with recipes.

He tapped a friend for the use of her cafe kitchen, texted a bunch of other folks he knew were into pot, and hosted his first pop-up dinner in late fall 2016. It was a relative success. A second dinner at the same cafe followed, and then two more at a different BYOB with a full kitchen.

The most recent dinner, which I attended, had 18 guests — twice as many as at the previous one — and it was all thanks to Instagram.

A journalist he ran into last December suggested he start an account to help get the word out, so he did. He doesn’t run it himself (a younger former colleague helps him out), but he’s been wowed by the community he discovered there.

“I’m not really into edibles, I don’t go out of my way to eat it,” he said. “But there’s all kinds of companies all over the place doing it.”

Grilled quail glazed with an orange juice-Jamaican rum sauce over duck fat potatoes and arugula Credit: Danya Henninger

When quality trumps legality

Ansill’s wife was not thrilled with the idea of this article.

Back in 2012, when Victor Fiorillo broke the news that Ansill was expatriating to Jamaica, he did it in signature tabloid-esque style. The main gist — “He’s moving there to smoke lots of weed” — did not please the chef’s family, per a subsequent story. “My dad saw [the Philly Mag article] and was disappointed,” Ansill told Eater Philly.

But the 56-year-old has always been relatively open about his embrace of marijuana. (See this Zagat Philly story I did about “ramp selfies,” wherein Ansill posed with the greens held up to his lips like a gigantic joint.)

And he needs the publicity. These pop-ups are how he’s planning to make a living, at least for now.

A source in the Philadelphia Police Department suggested that busting an event this small and low-key would hardly be a good use of the department’s time, and that if cops did show up, they’d probably just issue citations.

Plus, not writing about a dining experience this great would be a damn shame.

Marquise de chocolat with mirabelle chocolate sauce and whipped cream

A stunning meal

Marijuana-infused chile oil on salmon tartare. Bone marrow whipped with ganja butter, spread across crostini placed in a bowl of truffle mushroom soup. Tomato coulis with herb butter melted into it, swirled around a semolina goat cheese dumpling. Grilled marinated quail glazed with “medicated” Jamaican rum. Syrup based on a weed tincture of French mirabelle eau de vie, drizzled over a marquise de chocolat — a dish Ansill described as “basically chocolate butter.”

That dessert, made by Ansill’s wife with plum liqueur her family distills at home in France, was a highlight, but all the food was exquisite.

My enjoyment of the meal was not simply a side effect of its potency. (Swearsies.)

Marijuana has a very distinctive taste. It varies from strain to strain and batch to batch, but it’s rarely subtle. Ansill was able to weave it into his dishes deftly, like any other flavorful ingredient. It was especially notable in the mushroom soup, which was rich but also wildly floral.

There was another ingredient that made the event so much fun: The people who were there.

Within minutes of sitting down, just about all the guests were engrossed in lively conversation. It ebbed and flowed throughout the night, sometimes drawing everyone into a common thread, sometimes breaking apart into more intense splinter discussions. It felt like the communal table was finally getting the kind of meal it was designed for, but almost never happens.

Infusions helped with the camaraderie, no doubt, but the audience for a weed dinner is also self-selecting.

However, Ansill noted that he can make the dinner dishes without marijuana, in case anyone is interested in attended but wary of the buzz. (He recently did a private dinner for 10 where three of the guests requested “non-medicated” food, and it went off without a hitch.)

And the price is right — $100 for five stellar courses at a pop-up is de rigueur. Anyone who chooses to go for the infusions is pretty much getting the bud for free.

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...