Russ Ferstle: A scratch kitchen



 

Fried green tomatoes with crunchy slaw in hot bacon vinaigrette and scotch bonnet aoili.

Pan-fried Brussel sprouts topped with seared pork belly and smothered in gravy.

Crunchy, thick-crusted, fried chicken on warm, flaky buttermilk biscuits with ghost pepper cheese and spicy sauce. Cast iron shrimp with creamy grits and savory andouille sausage.

These are just a few of the choices on chef Russ Ferstle’s mouth-watering menu at the Southern-inspired restaurant Firefly at 223 Petronia in the heart of Bahama Village. Russ calls the place he works a scratch kitchen. They make everything that they can in-house, from the brine to the batter to the biscuits. A piping hot fried chicken sandwich at Firefly goes through many stages of perfection before ending up on a clean plate only to be devoured unapologetically seconds later.

 

Russ, along with restaurant owner Tricia Coyne and a dedicated team of friendly employees, has created a place that has become the local go-to for comfort food. Here locals and tourists can happily eat themselves to sleep or out of it. It is no secret around town that Firefly is also a popular remedy for the morning after. Not a week goes by without a local checking in on social media at the restaurant and announcing to the world that he has a hangover. Whether you are waking up for brunch or sleeping in until dinner, almost everything that it offers is going to chase all your worries away, if only for a few minutes. It’s the kind of food that you want to eat really, really fast for fear that it might lose is magical powers.

Russ grew up on the east side of Detroit. Looking much like the quintessential bad boy chef, he is covered in tattoos and used to play in a band that performed pyschobilly-rockabilly-punk rock music which he describes as punk rock with horror themes. Yet he comes across somewhat shy, a little reserved and completely absorbed in concentrated creativity that he gets to put to life behind the closed swinging doors at the back of the understated dining room. He boasts a range of culinary experience that is broad and ranges from Italian to Korean. Russ studied culinary arts at School Craft College and completed an internship with Forté Belanger, a high-end and chef-owned catering company. From there he moved to Chicago and became the chef de cuisine at Barcello’s. For two years he was the sous chef for the United Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, where he worked side by side with the female equivalent of a rabbi. He’s even graced one of the island’s favorite restaurants, Louie’s Backyard, for a short moment in time.

But first Russ had to work his way up from dishwasher at a banquet hall to line cook and finally to the serendipitous title of executive chef at Firefly. The chance meeting of Russ and Firefly owner Tricia through a mutual friend would eventually lead to this restaurant becoming what it is today. Between the two of them, it is all heart and soul. That could be why this place has a lot of meaning to people beyond being just another meal. Here, Russ can “mash things up, challenge himself and do specials like fusing Southern flavor with Korean” because Tricia respectfully gives him the freedom to express his vision.

Russ is inspired by the seasons when looking for the ingredients that he will turn into a nightly special or a new dish on the menu. Produce distributors and commercial fishermen keep him constantly up to the minute with what is best eaten at what time of the year and how best to prepare it. These quality driven partnerships allow Russ to showcase the most possible flavor into an already dense cuisine. Patrons are constantly surprised to hear that Russ wasn’t taught to cook by his grandma somewhere in the deep South.

“People get so excited about the food and everyone is always asking where the chef is from thinking that he must be from Georgia or something,” Tricia laughs. “He is just super talented. If we did Asian ,he could do that. If we did French, he could do that, too. He is very focused on researching techniques and has a great feel for ingredients and how they work together. I love working with Russ.”

“I get to do something I’m passionate about,” Russ says.

For him, cooking doesn’t have any set hours. It is seven days a week from morning to night. Whether he is behind the stove or waking up with an idea, Russ tells me that food is something that he lives with. From the outside, this looks like someone who is fulfilling a dream.

If at you haven’t yet taken the time to sneak a peek at the rave reviews about Firefly on the internet, do so.

“This little place is off the beaten path but worth the extra two blocks’ walk!” one TripAdvisor reviewer wrote. “We tried the deviled eggs, fresh crawfish, baked and fried chicken. The restaurant serves southern food so of course, you expect the fried chicken to be good….. AND IT IS!! The best, crispy, flavorful skin and moist on the inside! Everything we tried was delicious actually.”

“Went right at opening for brunch,” another said, “Great service. We had the spicy chicken biscuit sandwich and the shrimp and grits. Sandwich was huge and tasty with the right amount of kick. Grits were creamy and shrimp was seasoned perfectly. We also had the hash brown casserole. Really good as well. Highly recommend!” says another.

It’s a local favorite, but it’s not a secret. Thanks to Russ and Tricia, Key West now has a place that serves the ultimate comfort food that is made with that one ingredient that every Southern restaurant needs: love. ¦

Firefly 223 Petronia St. www.fireflykeywest.com

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