Wheeling’s Vagabond Chef Wanders Home
From an early age Matt Welsch yearned to explore. He studied the great explorers of the world with a wild fascination. It was a fascination primed by a premature birth that left him asthmatic as a child. His young days were consumed by turning the pages of books and unwinding the adventures of explorers like Sir Edmund Hilary. Reading led to a great deal of early introspection and curiosity that would send him on a lifelong journey of the world and himself.
When not consumed with stories and books, he explored the small farm where he and his parents lived, raising vegetables and livestock. It’s where his earliest memories still roam. At the age of eight, they moved to town, Glen Dale, to share the 1905 farmhouse built by his Irish great-grandparents. There, cramped in the small space, they cared for his ailing grandmother who wasn’t expected to live many more years. However, the tough woman of Czech blood lived another twelve years.
“It wasn’t easy all of us there together, but I definitely loved hearing her stories of growing up.” Welsch says proudly.
Family, land, and travel have framed this chef’s life, and for The Vagabond Chef, the road has always led home. Wheeling has always been the place that draws him back. From Pittsburgh to Canaan Valley to Chicago to Idaho and a dozen other dots on the map where he has worked or set up shop, ultimately he finds himself back home.
“My heart is here. That’s what roots are, they are literally in the ground. Mine are here.” Welsch says of the Ohio Valley.
The Hero’s Journey
After twenty years on the road, he found himself weary, worn by the constant reinventing himself and adjusting to each new kitchen. Welsch was ready to bring America home to the valley he loved.
He sees those two decades as education “It’s the hero’s journey, it’s Joseph Campbell. You go out and learn ‘the things’ and you come back and share them with your community.” He embodies this ethic in his menu and kitchen and service. The Vagabond offers a blending and layering of flavors that won’t be found anywhere else in town.
Though perhaps not a modern culinary route for chefs, his journey through the kitchen is a common one. He made stops at the Pittsburgh Technical Institute, but not for culinary studies, worked in construction, worked with youth in wilderness education, and ultimately received a four-year degree in literature and philosophy at West Liberty University.
While studying, he picked up washing dishes in the cafeteria and later worked the short order stand. From there, he skipped over to the kitchen at the Purple Fiddle in Thomas, WV, and then to a coffeehouse in Chicago where he slung food and coffee. However, those kitchens were simply fueling his wanderlust.
That wanderlust led him to Idaho and a construction job. It was the cusp of the Great Recession and that construction job fell through. Welsch found himself in the middle of big sky country, jobless in the worst economic crisis in decades. Never one to sit on his haunches, he put his old skills to work. He found a part-time cooking gig at a ski lodge in Ketchum, Idaho in the depths of the recession.
It would change his life.
Something extraordinary happened in Ketchum, Idaho. An awakening took place. He had come home in that kitchen. Cooking became a passion, a way of life.
Like so many in the recession he was weighing going back to school, but taking on more debt and acquiring necessary certifications didn’t jive with him.
“In that kitchen, we were pirates on the open seas. We made our own rules. It was punk rock. I had found my people.” says Welsch with a laugh.
Around this time, Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential hit shelves, which Welsch devoured. He spent four years at Galena Lodge learning under Chef Don Shepler, who gave Welsch great liberty to ‘play around’.
“Don let me stretch my wings, he let me screw up things. I spent a great deal of time making soups and chili out there. I learned a lot about flavors in that kitchen.” reflects Welsch.
He credits Shepler with helping hone his skill, providing him with culinary textbooks, and being a mentor during his Idaho stint. After four years, Welsch decided it was time for a move, The Vagabond Chef emerged.
A man, his motorcycle, and some culinary knives hit the highways. He would take his first passion in life, writing, and put onto the web his travels and food for everyone to see. It became a winning formula for him to showcase his talents. He zigzagged across the United States, exploring America’s culture and food until he found himself back in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Back home on the banks of the Ohio River, he became the captain of his own pirate ship, The Vagabond Kitchen, or merely The Vagabond as it is known locally. For the past seven years, his kitchen has sought to be an Appalachian filter to what is transpiring in the food world. Translating the latest food trends and twisting them into something that appeals to the Appalachian palate.
2020 was a crash course in a self-care for Welsch. He not only had to strip down and rework the operations of his restaurant, but he welcomed the birth of a son. Time management became more critical than at any other point in his life. He has taken the restaurant from thirteen services a week to five, four dinner services and Sunday brunch.
“The pandemic has not been easy for us, but it has been good,” Welsch says in a reflective tone. He notes that without the crisis, he wouldn’t have simplified his business. The pandemic has helped him scale the restaurant so that it is more manageable, which in turn will help him balance life as a father and partner.
While it has been seven years since The Vagabond Chef has packed up his knives and worked his way across the country on a motorcycle, completely untethered by the worries of his own restaurant, there is one piece of wisdom he learned from the road that will never leave him.
“Be vulnerable, step out of your comfort zone,” Welsch says with a short pause and a deep breath, “that, that is what travel is all about, getting uncomfortable. Don’t put yourself in danger but get uncomfortable.”
Matt still hits the road, not as often as he would like but you can follow his daily adventures in the kitchen on Instagram @thevagabondchef
You can follow the restaurant’s offerings Instagram @vagabondkitchenwv
That Vagabond Kitchen is located at:
1201 Market St, Wheeling, WV 26003
Wed-Sat 4-10PM, Sunday 11AM-3PM