Standing in the rooftop garden at Bistro 185 (991 East 185th St., 216-481-9635, bistro185.com), Ryan Kaston can name each variety of herb, pepper and tomato that he's been using in his dishes since becoming the eclectic eatery's executive chef earlier this year.
“This restaurant has history,” Kaston says, leaning against the wooden ledge that overlooks the Collinwood neighborhood. “We’re coming up on our 10th year. I can’t wait to take us into 10 more.”
Adventure has always been as much a part of eating as process for Kaston, a perfect pairing for a multi-cultural restaurant like Bistro 185. Growing up with traveling parents, the chef’s intrigue in ethnic cuisines started while tagging along to Haiti, the Caribbean and Jamaica, and it carries into his new role.
For a decade, starting at the age of eight, Kaston trekked through Canada every year on a two-week backpacking excursion, where he caught and made his own food and eventually became a trail guide for others. Pulling fish right from the water left a lasting impression on him, influencing new Bistro dishes like parrot fish and soft shell crabs today.
“I enjoy seafood more than anything else because I can trace it back to its origins; I can figure out when it was caught, how long it’s been out of the water, how fresh it is,” he says. “It’s personal.”
After graduating from Hocking College’s culinary school, Kaston landed in good hands early on in his career, first landing at Moxie, where he worked with seafood, and then at Red, where he applied the same focus to meat. He would later move on to an executive sous chef position at LockKeepers, where the Italian fare recalled his youth spent scratch cooking with his grandmother.
But Kaston also is one for experimentation, swapping cooking with wine for cooking with rum when he took on Latin cuisine at Paladar.
“I was seeing the same fruits and vegetables I did when I was young and traveling,” explains Kaston. “Plantains, banana leaves, mangoes, malanga roots and ingredients you don’t usually think about that look gorgeous on a plate.”
Meeting Abbe Turner of Kent’s Lucky Penny Farm, who he had begun helping with her venture Farm Girls Pub, was influential in his desire to continue developing products from their earliest stages and built on his homegrown passion for farm-to-table. Together they put the given names of pigs and goats on the menu and Turner taught Kaston all about cheese-making. Today, he uses Lucky Penny goat cheese to make his own ranch for the Bistro’s baby bibb salad.
After stints at Deagan’s Kitchen, Heck’s Cafe and Luxe, Kaston started his own catering operation, TasteBudFoods, in 2012. He’s done everything from aiding new gardeners with ways to turn their harvest into feasts to hosting dinner demos that include lessons on wine pairings.
From leading tours through the Canadian wilderness to owning his own business, Kaston has always been a teacher. It’s the reason why he started open-house cooking classes for the staff on days when Bistro 185 is closed.
“I leave it up to my staff whether they want to come in or not,” he says. “If they show up, they get to pick something they want to learn and I’ll spend as much time as we need on it. My biggest thing is that if you want to learn, I’ll be there to teach you.” In his new position, Kaston is transitioning the Bistro away from traditional daily specials to short-run seasonal menus while still honoring the restaurant’s roots.
“I wanted to get back to something small and personal,” he says. “I’ve worked places where at the end of the day you don’t get to meet your customers and have that interaction. Right now is an opportunity for Collinwood and E. 185th to either rise or fall. And we’re going to make it rise.”