Chef Matt Welsch
Executive Chef / Owner at the Vagabond Kitchen
Chef Matt is a globe trotter who brings locally sourced fare to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains
“That balance of safe danger and edgy comfort is something I try to walk in my life and in my cuisine.”
Chef Matt Welsch calls himself a “prodigal son of the Ohio Valley”. In fact, he’s known as the Vagabond Chef. And after traveling around the globe and documenting his travels, Chef Matt returned to Wheeling, WV and opened locally sourced Vagabond Kitchen. This Mountaineer entrepreneur and Food Network Winner brings his talent, and some great tales, to Root to Table July 18 at the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, WV. Settle in for an entertaining interview with this creative culinary professional.
“Guilty pleasure” snack: “Ice cream or potato chips. The tasty unfilling things with high cost and no nutritive content. I try to avoid those things, but sometimes they sneak into the house and beg me to eat them.”
Favorite meal growing up: “I absolutely love pizza. My mom used to make the best pizza ever. She would also make an Italian sausage and broccoli bake that we put over buttered noodles, and I still request it. Super simple, but delicious.”
“Can’t live without” ingredient: “Salt. I love all the spices, but salt is simply amazing. I love how when the right amount is used, you don’t even taste it, but without it, everything is dull and banal.”
Most essential kitchen item: “My chef knife. I can use it for most tasks and find many other items are superfluous.”
Get to know “The Vagabond Chef”
How did you get started in the kitchen and what was your first gig?
“When I was younger my Dad taught me how to handle the basics in the kitchen in the spirit of independence. In college, I got my first job in the cafeteria dish pit. I was a punk rock kid and my Head Chef and his sous were old school Pittsburgh punkers. They saw my work ethic, and I progressed onto the grill after a few months scrubbing pots.”
When did you begin your travels around the world and where did they take you?
“I was born premature with underdeveloped lungs and respiratory issues. This pushed me towards introversion, a lot of reading, and an active inner life. I was rapt with the idea of traveling and exploring the world from a young age. My family also struggled quite a bit when I was younger. My Dad was a steelworker and my mom raised us from home. So, family vacations weren’t really a thing.”
“When I turned 18, I moved to Pittsburgh for art school and started meeting like minded people and traveling more. In those days a drive to Somerset, PA or Massilon, OH seemed like a big deal. Slowly, over time, I extended my ranger further and further from home. Eventually, I spent six weeks backpacking through Europe, a month in the Dominican Republic, a month in Japan, and traveled all through the US – extensively in the West.”
“I didn’t do much cooking professionally at first, but I learned in time that the same work ethic that got me onto the line in college, could get me a job just about anywhere. I cooked in Thomas, WV at the Purple Fiddle, at another coffee shop in Chicago, for a week at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, and eventually I got a serious gig cooking at Galena Lodge, a cross country ski spot in Idaho. It’s in the Sawtooth Mountain range and it was like living in a Jack London novel. I loved it!”
The Origins of “The Vagabond Chef”
Can you tell us about your culinary travel blog and how you became the Vagabond Chef?
“After 4+ years at the Lodge in Idaho, I wanted to stretch my legs and pursue more knowledge. I married all my loves – writing, photography, travel, my motorcycle, learning, connecting with people – and from that came the Vagabond Chef. Writing was my first love, and I still hope to write something of substance someday.”
“After visiting a friend in California many years ago, her grandmother asked what it was, exactly, that I did. My friend answered that I traveled around until I ran out of money, then I would get a job and save up until I could travel again. My friend’s grandma said, “Oh! He’s a vagabond!” I always loved that.”
“When I was putting the culinary travel blog together, I was talking it over with a friend and motorcycle mentor, and he said, “You’ll be the Vagabond Chef,” and I thought it was perfect. I love the juxtaposition of the guttural Germanic word with the elegant French word. That balance of safe danger and edgy comfort is something I try to walk in my life and in my cuisine.”
What inspired you to return home and open Vagabond Kitchen?
“There was a time when I didn’t think I would ever come home. It wasn’t until I finally broke free from my hometown’s gravity that I felt like I could make the choice to return. As I met more people across the world, I felt a longing for the folks here. Not only my friends and family, but Appalachians and West Virginians as a whole. Now, having been home for seven years, I feel like my roots here are being cultivated and allow me to grow more.”
“I was motivated to share what I had seen and learned, and I wanted to bring my lessons and experiences home to share with others, as well as possibly inspire people to follow their own heart and live their dreams. Additionally, I felt like there was a real need for the type of food we’re doing here in the Upper Ohio Valley. There’s a need in our state for both a return to the past and strides forward, which makes me think of a tree again. Rooted in heritage, growing towards opportunity.”
What are the benefits – and challenges – of being both chef and restaurant owner?
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve recently added being a father to the list, as well. All three are extremely rewarding. And all three are full-time jobs! I’ve bootstrapped Vagabond Kitchen. This place is my vision, and it’s part of my process and my dreams for myself, my family, and my community. Doing this alone means bearing all the weight of responsibility, and it also means being fully at the rudder controlling our direction. It’s a glorious burden.”
Tell us about techniques and locally sourced products you use.
“I look to things I ate when I was younger, and I also research food made in the Appalachian region traditionally. Sometimes it’s food I’ve never heard of, but often there are familiar traces, and ways to connect dots between past and present. We use cast iron a lot. I look for spins we can put on it to make it unique. I want our food to be recognizable, but original. In a lot of ways my searching for Appalachian heritage dishes is an exploration for my own cultural identity.”
“I’m always thrilled to find local products. We believe firmly in the local economy and the importance of fresh food. A lot of our proteins are sourced locally, and we grab as much produce as we can depending on the season. We also use local honey, maple syrup, dried hot chiles, and those are not only available all year round, but they also add a ton of value to all the dishes they’re used in. Local and fresh food just flat out tastes better. There’s something almost magical about food raised on the very dirt you trod upon daily.
You won Budget War of Guy’s Grocery Games with your decadent Mac n Cheese and signature pork chop. What was your “strategy”?
“I had very little time (about 2 weeks) to prepare for my appearance on GGG. Prior to my trip, I brainstormed with local chef and culinary educator, Chris Kefauver, from West Virginia Northern’s culinary department. I watched as many of the shows as I could, but mostly I went in with an open and clear mind.”
What it was like – Check Out Vagabond Chef’s Interview >>
“For the most part, I didn’t know what I was going to prepare until I was halfway down the first aisle. Then, it was just like how I always build a menu, albeit much faster. I would pick one ingredient and build from there. The advice Chef Chris gave me, and what was my touchstone throughout the filming, was to treat it like any gig, focus on the food, and just cook.”
Looking into the Future
What does the future hold for the Vagabond Chef and Vagabond Kitchen?
“So much! In addition to our flagship location in the heart of beautiful Downtown Wheeling, WV, I am also working on several other directions to develop the Vagabond brand and bang the gong of local, quality food.”
“I am involved with a burgeoning group called WV Cooks, which brings together like-minded individuals across the state to network, commiserate, teach, and market who we all are and what we’re doing. I am also working with Folklore PR on a 12-episode web-based docuseries highlighting specialty crops in WV through a grant with the Department of Agriculture. I think that will very likely develop into an on-going project.”
“And I would love to do over the counter sauces and foods, expand into multiple concepts and locations, work on a cookbook… I have tons of ideas. It’s just a matter of finding the resources to pull everything off. In the meantime, I’m doing a Vagabond Kitchen dinner series and partnering with other cooks across the state to do some events there. It’s fun and gets the name out, and ultimately, it’s all about making connections with people.”
And finally, when you’re not in the kitchen, what do you do for fun?
“I do love riding, and I love spending time with my family. Becoming a father has been the most rewarding and exciting adventure ever. Beyond that, I love being outside. I used to devour books. And I still have a dedication to stories. I enjoy reading them, listening to them, or participating in them – whether through how I live my life or joining others in story-based games like Dungeons & Dragons. A year ago I began training and amateur boxing, and that has helped me get into the shape I’m going to need to be to keep up with my family. I’ve never been one to be bored!”