Standing at 6 feet 3 inches with tattoos covering most of his arms, Matt Welsch might seem like a daunting figure, as he rides his motorcycle across the Ohio Valley of West Virginia. He calls himself a vagabond, wandering from place to place without a home or job, scraping to get by.
He was a true vagabond at one time, but now he is a highly sought-after chef, who embraces his love of cuisine in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. That passion earned him recognition as one of West Virginia’s inaugural class of chef ambassadors, a position he will hold for a year. Welsch represents the northern panhandle region for the program, which is sponsored by the West Virginia Department of Tourism.
Welsch runs downtown Wheeling’s Vagabond Kitchen restaurant, known for its creative dishes with local flavors. He has been featured on Guy’s Grocery Games, The Cast Iron Cookoff, West Virginia’s 40 Under 40, Taste WV Magazine, and WV Living.
Born premature, with underdeveloped lungs and respiratory issues, Welsch was an introvert growing up. He read a lot and pursued an “active inner life,” as he tells it. “I was rapt with the idea of traveling and exploring the world from a young age,” he said.
And so, he left his hometown, near Limestone, West Virginia, to wander Europe, South America and Japan with no plan other than to experience the local food and culture.
Eventually, he decided to do the same in the U.S. and crossed the country five times in nine months. He discovered new culinary techniques by stopping at more than 60 restaurants and traveling more than 13,000 miles, while maintaining a successful blog documenting the regional flavors in a variety of restaurants.
As exciting as those experiences were, he felt the pull to return 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,” he said. “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.”
He didn’t completely leave his travels behind though. He brings that style to his kitchen. “That balance of safe danger and edgy comfort is something I try to walk in my life and in my cuisine,” he said.
What’s on the menu at Vagabond Kitchen? What is native and in season. Welsch sources ingredients from other local businesses like Wheeling’s Public Market, a nonprofit grocery store with products from more than 40 regional farmers who share in the market’s profits. He also gets fresh food from Jebbiah’s Market, which is family run and offers day-of fruits and vegetables.
“It’s my job to highlight the hard work of markets like this and of the farmers of the state and what they’re doing, so that other people realize they can eat that well at home and they can search that out in their everyday experience,” he said. “There’s something almost magical about food raised on the very dirt you trod upon daily.”
1201 Market St.
Wheeling, WV 26003
For Welsch, food is not only a creative outlet but a lesson in regional roots with dishes like “root cellar ravioli” and “mountain top meatloaf.” “What I’m trying to do is reaching back a generation,” he said. It’s “slow food.”
Chef Matt uses cast iron and bacon fat for many of his meals. He searches and spins Appalachian heritage dishes while exploring his own cultural identity and takes his time making dishes. Sometimes, it takes hours, and sometimes, it’s days.
Pork is always on the menu, as is cornbread while he changes the menu four times a year after a lot of research.
Welsch is also looking forward to helping develop a burgeoning group called WV Cooks, which brings together like-minded individuals across the state to network, commiserate, teach and market.
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