Matt Welsch Has Followed His Heart and Stomach To Culinary Success

WHEELING – For Matt Welsch, cooking is more than a way to earn a living – it’s an art form driven by a philosophy that he strives to apply to every aspect of his life.

That philosophy, that the best way to get from point A to point B includes stops at X, Y and Z, has led Welsch on a circuitous route from his childhood in Marshall County to opening one of Wheeling’s newest restaurants, the Vagabond Kitchen located inside the downtown McLure Hotel.

Welsch’s journey from washing dishes in the dining hall at West Liberty University to the June 8 opening of Vagabond Kitchen took him to a ski lodge in Idaho, numerous cross-country trips by motorcycle and months of living in an RV with his wife, Katie, after the emergency evacuation of their Idaho cabin amid a raging forest fire.

In other words, it’s safe to say that “shortcut” isn’t a part of Welsch’s vocabulary.

At Vagabond Kitchen, Welsch focuses on creative menu items using as many locally and regionally sourced ingredients as possible.

The daily menu features unusual selections such as summer squash sliders, with marinated and grilled yellow squash and zucchini with a roasted red pepper aioli, and an apple bacon chicken tenderloin sandwich with grilled apple slices, caramelized onions, bacon, sharp cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomato packed into a hoagie bun.

Another popular item is the restaurant’s beefalo burger, made from hybrid beef cow and buffalo raised on a farm in Preston County, W.Va.

Dinner specials change daily, and run the gamut from Korean-style barbecue pulled pork tacos to seared tuna with a citrus wasabi glaze. Each Sunday features brunch accompanied by live entertainment.

“We try to do things that no one else is doing,” Welsch said. “If it’s on someone else’s menu, we’re probably not going to do it … I don’t think Wheeling has seen anything like us before.”

Welsch, a 1995 John Marshall High School graduate, traces his love of cooking to his days working the dish pit in the college dining hall. He worked his way up from there, soaking up all the knowledge he could from the chefs in the kitchen.

Welsch continued to hone his culinary skills while working at a ski lodge in Idaho, but realized eventually that he wanted more.

“I was a sous-chef there, and that was about as high as I could go. I felt kind of stagnant,” he said.

Using the money he’d saved up during the past several years, Welsch took his motorcycle on the road, visiting restaurants around the country and documenting his experiences on a culinary travel blog, aptly named “The Vagabond Chef.” Over a year and a half, he logged about 13,000 miles, dining everywhere from Wheeling and Pittsburgh to Big Sur, Calif., Spokane, Wash., and Tuscon, Ariz., and dozens of other cities.

It was by happenstance, Welsch said, that he and his wife, Katie, ended up back in the Ohio Valley in December. He began searching for a kitchen to serve as a home base for a catering business he planned to start.

“Being downtown was non-negotiable. I wanted to be a part of the reinvention and revitalization of downtown Wheeling.” Welsch said.

He and Katie found what seemed to be a perfect match at the McLure, but hotel management wanted a sit-down restaurant, not just a catering business, to occupy the space. So began the conversion from Vagabond Chef to Vagabond Kitchen.

Welsch said one of the things that draws him to cooking is that, like a stone carver or a mason, he has the opportunity to take quality ingredients and mold them to bring out the best features of those ingredients. And doing so in a sustainable manner, using fresh items, making as much as possible from scratch and using local ingredients.

The restaurant’s chips and salsa are made fresh, in house. So is the hummus, right down to the tahini paste. They’re still using Heinz ketchup, but one day, Welsch hopes to start making his own from scratch.

For him, it’s all about what he calls “honoring the food” – respecting the role plants and animals play in nourishing us.

“We can’t exist without consuming the life of other things,” Welsch said.

Welsch acknowledges, however, the daily minutiae of running a business leaves him with less time than he’d like to practice his passion.

“I tell people if you love cooking, don’t open a restaurant,” Welsch said. “I get into the kitchen as much as I can, though.”

Vagabond Kitchen is open seven days a week: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.