“We were always outside – tag, hide-n-seek, kickball, riding bikes. You were never allowed to just sit in the house growing up in Scranton.”
For Ryan Von Smith, or Chef Von as he’d been dubbed in LA, the hustle began at the Wendy’s on Wyoming Ave. and Ash. He was a typical teen on the verge of discovering a budding passion for pleasing people with food. His inspiration, though, didn’t quite spring from that fast-food fryer or flat top.
Nope. Chef Von’s culinary curiosity was born in that all-too-familiar breeding ground for the biggest and brightest ideas — mom’s kitchen. He grew up around food with a family that shared and cared and delivered a little lesson with each recipe. And it wasn’t long before he decided he wanted to build a life around cooking.
But first, the trials and tribulations… He set out for LA. A hefty culinary school price tag led him, temporarily, in another direction – celebrity bodyguard. After a few years of hanging out in mansions only to return at night to his tiny, 1-bedroom apartment, he got back into cooking. He started grinding and made a name for himself at renowned LA restaurants. He then bounced to New York and did the same. Then to Vegas and did the same. He made it all the way to Macau where he placed 3rd in the Cantonese Cuisine category at the World Master Chefs Competition.
Finally, he brought it all home to Scranton – including his insanely delicious Peanut Butter Bacon Cheeseburger. Doesn’t seem like it’ll work? It does. I don’t know how, but it does. Trust me. We caught up with Chef Von at the new Downtown spot he opened with his mom called Chef Von & Mom. And before he blew our minds with that burger, we grilled him with tough questions, like Why NEPA?
How long have you lived in NEPA?
Kind of my whole life, I guess. I mean I was gone for a while. So, I’ll say born and raised from 1986 to 2008. So, I was here 22 years. And then I left in 2008 and I was in LA and New York and Vegas. And then I came back home at the end of 2019.
What do you love about your town?
I love that I know a lot of people. A lot of the people that I’ve grown up with are still here. There’s room for change here, of course, but I love that this city is open to embracing that. And I want to be someone who brings on that change through different restaurants and a new, innovative food scene. I also love that a lot of people – young people – are moving back to the area. You know? These are people that I grew up with that moved out to bigger cities and achieved some things and they’re bringing that back here. And there’s been a lot of growth here with jobs and housing options and that’s been bringing people back and new people in. So, I need to get on that with some new restaurants and a whole new cultural approach that is more than hoagies, pizza and wings (laughs).
What’s your favorite NEPA restaurant?
Bank+Vine. Period. No Doubt. Chef Chad’s doing his thing there. Honestly, I knew you were going to ask that, and I didn’t want to answer it, because I have a lot of friends (laughs). I mean I could go down a list, but I’ll be real and pick one – Bank+Vine. That octopus, dude! The Duck Confit! The Arsonist with the branded orange peel! That’s dope. They’re doing it right!
What’s your favorite thing to do in NEPA?
Drink beer and eat wings at Waldo’s. (Thinks a moment) Wait, is that my favorite thing to do? Yeah, I guess it is. I like to drink beer and eat wings. Not gonna’ lie.
What’s next for you?
What’s next for me is a couple more locations here. And then maybe expand it to New York and LA and Miami. Blowing up (laughs). That’s the goal. That’s what I learned throughout my career, through those 100-hour weeks and long days in the kitchen – I learned how to scale, how to market and how to get people in the door. You’ve got to get the right team behind you and keep grinding and it’ll happen. So, yeah, bringing some new restaurants to town. I’m really excited about that. I’m looking into doing something with Korean BBQ. You know, open seating, meat, fresh veggies, cooktops in the tables, beer towers, soju, cool music – you cook your food yourself. It’s fun. It’s interactive and it’s really cool.
Where do you see NEPA heading in the future?
I see it moving forward. I see it changing with a lot of new people coming in. There are a lot of cool things opening up here, and I can see a lot of great things starting to happen and take shape. I think it’s progressing for sure. We’ve come along way. The future is bright here. There’s a lot of possibility. We’re just going to keep building a better community, a better city and a better region altogether. In terms of food, I think it’s going to get way better because I’m here and I’m going to be around for a while (laughs). No, but seriously, I hope that I can help bring in a little more excitement to the area when it comes to food.
Because this is where it all started. And this area played a big part in making me who I am today. I’d like to give some of that back and maybe inspire young people who need someone to look up to — someone that looks like them. You know what I mean? I’d like to reach out to those kids who are like I was back then and show them that they can do anything they want to do if they’re willing to work for it.