By Steve Novotney
Go ahead. Ask him.
“How’s life been, Chef?”
Quickly, Matt Welsch will reply, “It’s been an adventure.”
And he means it. Completely.
Since roaming the woods of Marshall County as a child, 37-year-old Matt Welsch has gathered little moss while traipsing much of the globe searching for something. His purpose, perhaps.
Initially, it was Pittsburgh for a technical-school graphic design associate’s degree. Then West Liberty University for English and philosophy … and then?
England, Ireland, Germany, Japan, Chicago.
But once he decided to start cooking, he found himself at an Idaho lodge 7,300 feet up in the Rocky Mountains. After he and his wife, Katie, were chased by a devastating forest fire in 2013, they headed to Arizona to care for her grandmother for three months.
And then they both arrived in Wheeling to begin what already has proven to be his greatest expedition.
“I got really lucky with my parents,” said the owner of the Vagabond Kitchen inside the McLure Hotel in downtown Wheeling. “My parents have every reason to be complete rednecks, but for some reason they’re not. My mother by no means is stuck into the usual woman-gender role at all. She was a farm girl, so we rode horses and did all that sort of stuff, but she’s a sales director for Mary Kay Cosmetics.
“And my father is a steelworker, but he’s the most well-read person I know. He’s the most intelligent person I know, and he’s never gone to anything beyond high school,” Welsch said. “So I hit the lottery somehow.”
His parents encouraged him to attain certain survival skills for a few reasons: first, Welsch was born before his lungs were fully developed, forcing the newborn to live a month inside an incubator in Morgantown; second, he’s had to endure life with asthma; and third, their financial situation demanded he learn to care for himself in many ways.
“Instead of playing sports, I would just wander through the woods and read a lot of books. That’s how I learned how to cook for myself, patch my clothing when it needed it. I learned how to do a lot of self-sufficient things because our family didn’t have a lot of money,” the 1995 John Marshall High graduate said. “Those kinds of activities led to me having a very active imagination, so as soon as I was old enough to live on my own, I wanted to get out there and check it all out.”
Pittsburgh: “And I learned I didn’t want to do that kind of art for a career,” Welsch said. “After that, I figured that because I went to school after high school, I was good in that area.
“But I realized I still didn’t know much so I started trying to educate myself about what really interested me. After 18 months I realized I needed help, and that’s how I ended up going to West Liberty University.”
West Liberty University: “I started cooking while I was at West Liberty, and I got to work with two really talented chefs from Pittsburgh who were best friends their entire lives. We all got along because we were into the same kind of music, so they took me under their wing. They taught me some real skills in the kitchen,” he said. “I did not go to culinary school. I worked myself through the old-fashioned way.
“Cooking has always made sense to me, so it made sense to follow it and see what I could do.”
He was then off to the Rockies in Idaho, but after being employed for four years as a sous chef at the Galena Lodge, he got antsy again. “I’m like a shark. I have to keep swimming. If I stop, I get bored and, I get despondent quickly. That’s when I decided to take some time off and learn more skills from people who were doing some different things in their kitchens.
“There was nowhere to go with position at the lodge,” he explained. “The head chef was the owner, and his wife ran the front of the house, so there wasn’t going to be the chance to move up within the ranks. What was I going to do? Bump them off so I could have the head chef’s job?”
His plan? Take some time off, choose a city with a restaurant that caught his attention, hop on his motorcycle, offer his services for free to any eatery owner who would say yes, and then blog about his experiences until the time to return to the mountains arrived. Initially his writings were published under the moniker, “The Journeyman’s Journey.”
But it bored him.
“That’s when a friend told me about a conversation with her grandmother. She was telling his grandma that I was traveling from one place to another, and her response was, ‘Oh, he’s a vagabond,’” Welsch recalled. “And then soon after that conversation, I was talking to someone about it, and he said, ‘So you’re like a vagabond chef ?’
“Again, it was about making sense, and I liked it because it’s both an edgy term but a classy term, too. So I went with that and kept taking the trips.”
His final exploration in the West was halted by a lightning strike that sparked a forest fire in the area of the couple’s residence. Upon his return, he and Katie packed a U-Haul, said, “See ya,” and escaped to Oregon and California before arriving to Tucson, Ariz., for three months to care for Katie’s grandmother.
Once they received word Katie’s grandmother would fully recover, a homecoming trip to the Friendly City would be next.
“When I got home I started catering and looking for a kitchen to cater out of,” Welsch explained. “I knew I wanted to cater for a while, and I knew I wanted to open a restaurant at some point in time, but I really didn’t know when that would be possible.
“That’s when I learned about the space in the McLure Hotel, and when I first looked at it, I knew there were a lot of possibilities,” he said. “Getting the space to where I wanted it was a lot of work, and many of our friends helped us get it clean and touched up so we could get it open.”
Nearly five months later, the Vagabond Kitchen on the corner of 12th and Market streets in the downtown district is open for lunch on five days and dinner six days, and also for a Sunday breakfast from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Welsch employees 15 local folks, including seven full-timers.
“I guess you could say I am now in a ‘trust-fall’ with the city of Wheeling, and I can say they have caught me so far. Hopefully in the future they are able to hold us a little bit higher, but we truly appreciate the support we’ve received so far,” Welsch said. “I believe engaging people is what it’s all about, so that’s what we make sure we do on a daily basis. That’s why we only do hand-crafted food.
“We always want to be doing interesting stuff that’s not available anywhere else because I don’t see the point of doing the same foods everyone else is doing,” he said. “We want to do stuff that we can do completely in-house and that we can put our own flair on. Right now, I’m really proud of our menu, and I love how we add to it with our specials during our lunch and dinner services.”
Chicharron. Nachos Libre. Brookside Beefalo. Korean Pulled Pork Tacos. Sonoran Hot Dog. The Roasted Beet and Spinach Salad. Apple Bacon Chicken Tenderloin. Summer Squash Sliders.
“Once we get people to come into the restaurant, 98 percent of the people who eat here love it. They think it’s amazing,” he said. “And it seems as if the people of Wheeling can be slow in accepting something like what we are doing, but I feel I am very fortunate to be in the profession during a time when there are 200 cooking shows on TV about food.
“Plus, some folks are telling us that we are Wheeling’s ‘best-kept secret.’ Immediately, we let those folks know not to keep us a secret because we don’t want to be a secret,” Welsch explained. “The integrity of what we are doing here and the passion behind it is important to our survival, so if I were to start opening bags of food and warming them up in the microwave like so many other places are doing now, the heart would be out of it for me.”
For two primary reasons, Welsch did not know what to expect when taking the first steps to open the Vagabond Kitchen: Although he had cooked in a plethora of kitchens across the country, he did so as an employee and not an owner; and because of the difficulties he had been warned about when it dealing with Wheeling city government.
“I heard about it over and over again, and I feared it. But I never encountered any of the nightmares people said would come,” he explained. “Everyone with the city has been awesome to work with, especially in the beginning when we were working hard to get everything completed so we could open.
“And the people with the county health department have been great, too. They have to do their job, and that’s to make sure we’re following all the regulations to keep the public safe,” Welsch continued. “I appreciate their hard work because I want my place to be as sanitary as possible. I want these people to come here and tell me that we have the cleanest kitchen in the county. That’s my goal because people can get extremely sick by eating food that’s been handled the wrong way.”
He’s no longer roaming the busy streets of a big city, nor is he enjoying the Idaho summer or enduring the region’s winter months. He yearns to ride his motorcycle more, but realizes he’s close to finally reaching his unknown destination. His wife is his all-in partner, managing the front of the house at the Vagabond Kitchen nearly every operating hour.
Ironically, the Welsches have undertaken their most challenging escapade in his own back yard.
“People have asked me if I have grown bored because I’m not traveling like I did before,” he said. “I always tell them that I am now on the greatest adventure I have ever taken. It’s tiring, and there are parts that suck. But it’s also awesome, and it’s a super-cool thing to be a part of. I feel very lucky.”