Matt Welsch’s Vagabond Kitchen serves up regional favorites in the heart of downtown Wheeling.
Marshall County native Matt Welsch is known as the Vagabond Chef. “Welsch,” after all, is Germanic for “foreigner.” “I’ve got vagabonds in my blood,” he says.
Welsch grew up on Waymans Ridge outside Limestone, in the Northern Panhandle. “When I was younger, I felt like no one ever left the Ohio Valley, or West Virginia for that matter,” he says. “I wanted to show people back home what else was out there.”
So in 2013, he hopped on his motorcycle and headed west. He crossed the country five times in nine months, discovering and documenting new culinary techniques and regional flavors in restaurants across the United States.
“All of my travels have been about connecting with others,” he says. And the closer he got to Appalachia, the easier those connections became. In 2014, he returned to Wheeling to open the Vagabond Kitchen, where he uses locally sourced ingredients to make darn good down home comfort food.
“I put my flagship location in downtown Wheeling because I feel like I can give back and make a positive change in my community through doing what I love to do,” he says. “I might miss the Sawtooth mountains or the High Desert in Utah, but I can never replace the people of West Virginia.”
We sat down with Welsch to discuss the power of food, his almost religious passion for it, and what makes a dish truly Appalachian.
interviewed by Jordan Carter
photographed by Carla Witt Ford
How can food change a community?
Through food, we can bypass a lot of preconceptions that we hold. Put a beautiful plate in front of someone; they can’t refuse to acknowledge that it’s beautiful. And if you get good, local, handcrafted food in someone’s mouth, there’s a visceral reaction. We’re called the Vagabond Kitchen because the kitchen is the heart of the home; we’re in the heart of downtown Wheeling; West Virginia is the heart of Appalachia. It’s all about connecting with people. That’s where the magic happens.
tell us ABOUT YOUR PASSION FOR FOOD.
I think people who look at food the way I do—people who are really passionate about it—it’s like a religion.
When did that passion start?
It wasn’t a passion until I was at Galena Lodge in the Idaho Rockies. Before that, it was just a job—a job I could always get. But at Galena, I started seeing what you can do with food. I learned a lot about my palate and got the chance to play with pairings of flavors. I did a deep dive into it and got so much back out of it, I thought, “this might be my thing.”
The Vagabond kitchen serves appalachian cuisine. What makes a dish appalachian?
I had a conversation with Tim Urbanic (at Cafe Cimino in Sutton) about this. He said Appalachian food began when people came from other places looking to make the same food they’d always made, but using the ingredients they found here. I want to bring in some of this world food, world culture I’ve seen, and do it in an Appalachian way.