A motorcycle-riding, freewheeling English major-turned-professional chef uses travel to inspire his food.
Matt Welsch jokes he should’ve named his restaurant “The Stable and Profitable Kitchen.” Since opening in 2014, his Vagabond Kitchen has occupied three different spaces around Wheeling: the McClure Hotel, the basement of the old state Capitol building, and now, a former Mexican restaurant on the corner of 12th and Market streets. Welsch plans to make this latest location his permanent one and focus his rambling ways on The Vagabond Chef, a blog chronicling his travels to restaurants around the country. The motorcycle-riding restaurateur recently sat down for an interview with WV Living, explaining how traveling got him interested in food, taught him about his home state, and informs the food at The Vagabond Kitchen. thevagabondchefrides.com
➻ I’ve always been a traveler. I’ve always had a lot of wanderlust. It’s tough for me to stay in one place for too long. It was always easy to get a job in a kitchen. It was just a thing I had to fall back on. Then (Don Shepler, co-owner and chef of Galena Lodge in Idaho) gave me the freedom to explore. I was done for. I knew I wouldn’t be able to work outside of a kitchen anymore. You can survive on anything, but we can do so much better than that. It’s making your experience on this planet better.
➻ One day (while working in a coffee shop in Chicago) a regular rode up on a BMW. My jaw hit the floor. “I don’t know what that is, but I need to ride that machine.” It’s so much different than riding in a car. When you’re completely open to the elements and can feel everything and smell everything, it’s raw. It’s like hiking with a machine.
➻ I’d traveled all over the country and felt like there were all these place in West Virginia I hadn’t seen. I’ve sang “Country Roads” all over the world, so I felt like I owed it to West Virginia to get around the state.
➻ There’s so much good food here in West Virginia. Jewel City Seafood in Huntington is probably the best seafood I’ve ever had. The Eastern Panhandle blew me away. People really care about their food in a way they haven’t, maybe, ever. Food is such a cultural touchstone.
➻ I want (the menu at Vagabond Kitchen) to be accessible, but I want to open doors. It’s world food through the filter of the Appalachian biker guy. When people bite into my food, what I hope to see is that they light up. If it’s the best possible reaction, they light up and cuss. That’s when I know it’s perfect, that I’ve nailed it.
➻ Now I’ve really got to focus on getting that flagship location locked down. Once that is solid, then I think I’ll be able to start planning regular Vagabond Chef trips. I’m trying to find a way to have my cake and eat it too. I guess the best way to do it is bake it myself.