Meet Chef Russ Ferstle: Executive Chef at Key West's Firefly

We recently sat down with Firefly’s executive chef Russ Ferstle to talk about his culinary philosophy, his journey to success, and his appreciation for fresh and locally sourced Key West fish. Originally from Detroit, Russ worked at Sweets and Savories and Barcello's in Chicago before settling in Key West where he served as chef de cuisine at Louie's Backyard before finally landing the executive chef position at Firefly.

Firefly is a modern, chef-driven Southern restaurant. They focus on using the best ingredients and a mixture of traditional and modern techniques to create the best possible versions of familiar dishes.

Growing up in Detroit with a sparse kitchen, Russ learned to think creatively about food at a young age. “My mother wasn’t around for dinner very often, which meant that I was in charge of cooking for my sister and I,” he recalled. “We would have something like bread and mustard in the pantry, and I would have to somehow cook an edible meal. My situation forced me to have an appreciation for ingredients and their flavor profiles.”

Since childhood, cooking has been his art and his outlet to express creativity. Russ has always been drawn to the transformative nature of food; he has a deep appreciation for the way in which each ingredient contributes significantly to a greater whole. “I vividly remember being fascinated by Jell-O,” he said. “You start with two very different ingredients, a powder and a liquid, and end up with a completely different consistency. This sense of fascination and intrigue is still very present in my culinary preparation.”

Russ’ enthusiasm for individual ingredients came to shape his career. When creating a new dish, he doesn’t begin with what’s traditionally viewed as its base, like meat, fish, or a pasta; he begins with whichever ingredient is currently ripest, freshest, or most in-season, regardless of its size. Sometimes that’s a fresh fillet of fish but other times, like during the summer months, he’ll build an entire dish around Zellwood Triple Sweet Corn or Georgia peaches.

At Firefly, Russ takes pride in using only fresh, locally sourced ingredients in the kitchen. He and his staff prepare meals with immense care. Each dish is homemade – freezers are for ice cream only and industrial-sized can openers are not needed. “We’re a scratch kitchen that finds beauty in the craft of cooking,” he said. “Too many places in Key West are doing what tourists expect, like conch fritters and mango salsa. There’s no soul in it. But cooking at Firefly is about putting your hands in the food and getting a bit dirty.”

Russ’ path has been a long and arduous one, which he says is typical for any prospective chef planning to commit to the industry. After graduating from a culinary school in Chicago, he became one of many chefs working long, late hours with a mop in his hand, as opposed to a chopping knife. But his passion remained steadfast. “Far too many culinary school graduates think they graduate and are immediately deserving of a spot on the line. They aren’t,” he laughed. “It’s a long road, and those first years are a challenge. A certain person needs to have a legit enough passion for the craft, the ‘it’ factor, that allows them to put their pride aside and get shit done.”

When Russ left Chicago for Key West, he was certain that the island’s seafood would be both locally-caught and always fresh, given its position between the Gulf and the Atlantic. “I quickly learned that many local restaurants were actually getting their fish from Miami, or a market that purchased from Miami,” he explained. “Beyond that broad detail, no one knew where their fish was actually coming from. I had a lot of questions.”

Three Hands Fish, says Russ, has answered those questions by delivering just-caught seafood directly from Key West fisherman to market to restaurant. His staff and customers now know with 100% certainty when, where, and by whom their fish was caught.

“As a chef that only works with fresh ingredients, Three Hands Fish is an essential partner,” he said. “It’s great to wake up in the morning to a text that outlines which fish were just caught and delivered to the market. I text back what I want, and it’s delivered hours later. It’s a really special and important program for Key West.”

Beyond what Three Hands Fish does for his restaurant specifically, Russ cares about the impact his buying decisions, and his customers buying decisions, have on Key West’s economy and ecosystem. “Life is really just a series of chain reactions – one thing impacting another,” he said. “The decisions we make in the kitchen and dining room have substantial consequences. If we consistently choose foreign over local, or choose the businesses that support foreign over local, it’s only a matter of time before we feel the backlash. Thankfully, there are programs like Three Hands Fish that make the right choice an easy choice.”