Ryan fluffs it off.
“That was great catfish, dude. Wow!”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
“But no, really, there’s never been that taste around here ever.”
“But it is now.”
It is now. That’s the key.
It started with a salad, but not what most folks have grown used to here in the Upper Ohio Valley.
No lunchmeats or grilled chicken or steak and French fries also were sacrificed along the way. Instead, what Ryan Butler created for his family in order to surprise his mother included the common greens and vegetables, but he twisted it a bit with fresh garlic and poppy seeds.
“I was 12 years old, and my mom had never thought of that kind of recipe for a salad,” Butler recalled. “And when my mother came home, the table was set, and the dinner was ready, and she didn’t have to do anything but sit down and have her dinner. It started right there.
“One of my grandfathers was a cook in the Navy, and the other one was a meat cutter for Kroger for 30-some years, so I’ve always been around food. And I was always in the kitchen with my mom and my dad helping to make whatever we were cooking,” the 34-year-old said. “To my father cooking is not woman’s work to him, so at a very early age I was exposed to food, and I realized that it was something I could do to make a living.”
And just three years later Butler found himself working at a restaurant while progressing his way through the grades to become a 2000 graduate of Wheeling Park High School, but he wasn’t cooking anything.
“I was a dishwasher when I was 15 years old, so I was shoulder-deep with chewed food and dirty dishes for five or six hours a night, and the whole time I was watching the cooks make the steaks behind that glass,” Butler said. “I remember thinking, ‘I want to do that, so at 17 years old I was the youngest short-order cook at the lower truck stop in Dallas Pike.”
That’s when alleged reality settled into Butler’s brain, and that train of thoughts carried him away from the Wheeling area and to Marshall University to study elementary education. Once he realized the teaching field wasn’t for him, he transferred to West Liberty University to concentrate on graphic design. But the kitchen called him back.
“Applebee’s, Garfield’s at the Ohio Valley Mall, Ruttenbuck’s two different times. Deano’s in Clator, Later Gator, a couple of other places … so I’ve been around that’s for sure,” he said with a laugh. “There was a time when I would try to be all fancy by adding a secret ingredient, but I’ve learned to leave that stuff out because Mother Nature is the best cook you are ever going to find. My job is to bring those flavors all together in a way no one has ever thought of.”
In that 12-year span during which he worked in the cooking industry at several restaurants and with local chef Rocco Basil’s catering company, Butler moved west to Colorado in an attempt to find a new home and a fresh career. All he discovered, though, was something he wished to bring back to his hometown.
“Colorado was a lot of fun because I had the chance to eat at a lot of the diners and to experience much different foods from what I had grown used to. That really opened my eyes as far as what a city could look like as far as doing things locally,” Butler said. “I knew immediately that it was something I wanted to bring here, and it has started, and it’s been great to see.”
Upon his return to the Upper Ohio Valley he enrolled in the Culinary Arts Program at West Virginia Northern Community College with his mission in mind. Two years later, he’s now “Chef” Ryan Butler, a man determined to open minds and delight palates.
“I’ve worked at a lot of the chain restaurants around here, and it seemed like this Valley has been a meat-and-potatoes place for as long as I can remember,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to liven that up a little but by bringing something in from outside the box. I’ve wanted to make people say, ‘Wow! What is that?’
“If that happens, then they’re probably thinking that they have to have it again. That’s the goal,” he continued. “I used to watch all of the cooking shows, and now I have people telling me I should be on them, and that’s a great compliment. But I’ve never really got into the whole commercialized part of the cooking scene. I concentrate on making great food.”
And that’s what Butler does most days of each week at a pair of Wheeling eateries. Prior to lunch he’s at the State Cellar in the First Capitol Building on Eoff Street in downtown, and then he reports to the Wheeling Brewing Company in Centre Market for the pub’s dinner service.
“My common day usually goes something like this: I go the Cellar and speak with Kelli, the cook over there who is doing an amazing job, and I see what she needs as far as prep is concerned; then I go to Wheeling Brewing to do what we need there, and I also put together the special for that evening’s dinner; and then I get into all the prepping for both places, and I also work on the orders we need for the catering that we do out of both places. And then I do the cooking.
“It’s a great team, and Matt Welsch does a great job with public relations with making the contacts for the catering jobs that we do,” he continued. “When people hear something about the Vagabond Kitchen, they think of the Vagabond Chef, and that is the brand that Matt has built. People want to see him, and he’s done a great job with recruiting people for me to feed, and that’s very cool.”
Butler’s culinary work, though, often takes him outside the commercial kitchen and back to his roots. Some refer to it as, “charcuterie,” but Butler calls it, “making great meat.” Pork, beef, chicken, salmon, and even fruits and vegetables, have all found their way into Butler’s smoky pit.
“The first thing I do to a great piece of ham is coat it with a dry rub that includes salts and sugars, and then I let it dry age in a walk-in cooler, and then after two weeks it goes into my smoker over apple wood, and that’s all,” he revealed. “There’s no special seasoning I put on them. I just let the ham speak. All I do is get good pieces of meat and let time do its work.”
Butler advised local “foodies” to expect the same great lunch items on the menu at the State Cellar but also to look for some changes to the dinner menu at the Wheeling Brewing Company. At this time it’s all about small-plate meals at the Centre Market pub, but Butler is looking to expand the offerings to full-plate entrees featuring lamb, fish, shrimp, and scallops, as well as brisket, pulled pork, and many vegetables grown on local ground.
“If I’m not talking, then I am thinking about recipes. I’m thinking about the way I’ve done one meal and how I could make it better the next time,” Butler explained. “From sunup to sundown I’m thinking about food, and that’s why I picked it as a career.
“People just have to let go of that meat-and-potato box that most people around here eat in, and that’s started to happen. We have pork belly sliders at the Wheeling Brewing Company, and you’re not going to find that anywhere else. And that’s awesome,” he said. “If people would just try something new once, they would find out the difference.”
“Ryan is awesome, just awesome, and I love working with him; I can tell you that,” Basil said. “What he does in the kitchen is excellent, and anyone who tries to tell you differently simply knows nothing about making great food.
“He can give whatever credit he wants to try to give me, but he knew what he was doing when I hired him, and that’s why I hired him in the first place,” the chef continued. “We’ll always be friends, and I can’t watch where his career takes him, but selfishly I hope he always stays in this area because I want to continue eating what he prepares.”
A kitchen is a kitchen is a kitchen to Butler, and his resume proves that true. He has been a bit of a vagabond himself, in fact, but he loves his current situation and is confident that no matter what he may do next, it will be in or near his hometown of Wheeling.
“What the future holds for me is cooking food for the people of this area,” Butler said. “I am going to be part of this food revitalization in the Wheeling area, and I hope others start using the ingredients that you can get at Jebbia’s Market or at Coleman’s, and also using the foods that are grown in this area.
“We have a wealth of talent in this area, so I would love to see a warehouse setting where you can find the meats on one floor, the veggies and fruits on another floor, and so on. I think we have enough people in this area that could make such a thing take place,” he added. “Plus, Grow Ohio Valley is a group of people who are working their fingers to the bone to try and get us healthy food, and that’s something I know I appreciate very much.”
Ryan stepped away for moment, and then he returned to say one more thing.
“Man, we just have a wealth of culture in this area, and the people are freaking outstanding. So those two things allow me to believe anything is possible in this industry and a lot of others. The future is going to be fun.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)