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Have you ever had “churched-up soup beans?” West Virginia State Parks has hired Wheeling’s Matt Welsch as its new executive chef, who has that Appalachian dish on his menu.
Known on YouTube as “The Vagabond Chef,” The owner and head chef at the Northern Panhandle’s Vagabond Kitchen spoke with Randy Yohe about his plans to enhance the dining experience at state park lodge restaurants.
Yohe: Chef Matt, you’re the new executive chef for the West Virginia State Parks system. They’ve hired you to enhance the dining experience. What does that mean to you?
Welsch: I think it means a lot of attention to detail, and also the value of bringing in an outside perspective. Due to my history with what I’ve done, as the Vagabond Chef, having seen so many different restaurants, and being outside of the park system itself, I can bring a very experienced, fresh perspective to the operations at each of our parks.
Yohe: I understand you have made a commitment to West Virginia’s rich flavors. That’s made you a prominent figure in the industry. Is that going to play into what we see on some of the state park menus?
Welsch: Absolutely. I think one of the great things about the menus at our state parks is they offer us the chance to tell a story. And that story needs to be about who we are as West Virginians, and who each park is as its own individual entity. It’s the little things, the little nuances that we can bring our guests attention to, and I think the menu is an excellent opportunity for us to do that.
Yohe: So, will that be regionally sourced menu items? I know that my wife is always talking about how she would like to taste some smoked West Virginia trout and enjoy a good smoked trout spread? We know that up in the Williams River area of the state, they have those trout. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about?
Welsch: Absolutely. I think championing local ingredients and heritage ingredients is 100 percent something that we need to be doing. And it’s that opportunity to share what makes West Virginia great by highlighting those heritage ingredients and heritage recipes and preparations.
Yohe: I’m taking a look at the dinner menu at the Hawks Nest State Park, for example. And it looks pretty standard. I don’t know if you’ve seen it or not, but under Greens and Things, we’ve got some salads, broccoli soup. Under Main Dishes, there’s steaks, ribs, barbecue chicken breast, it does have sauteed rainbow trout, and a couple of pasta dishes. What will you do to liven up that menu?
Welsch: I think the Hawks Nest menu should also have some beans and cornbread on there maybe as an appetizer. They’ve touched a little bit of the heritage ingredients there, and I think we can do more. But honestly, Randy, one of the first things that I did coming into this position was say ‘we need to know what our guests want’. We need to do a survey asking them what they are looking for? It’s our job to guide them towards the experience that they’re looking for. We don’t want to be too easy, and just give them exactly what they expect and exactly what they want, but we need to know what that is. We can say ‘okay, you like that, you like salmon, but have you had our trout? You really like steak, but maybe try this West Virginia aspect preparation.
Yohe: When I took a look at the menu for your Vagabond kitchen up there in Wheeling, It’s a little eclectic. Duck Fat Fries, Duck Wings. Your Churched-Up Soup Beans, sounds interesting, and I know you served that at a couple of Farm to Table dinners as well. But, you’ve got Rabbit, you have a 12 ounce Wagyu Burger (That’s a big one). Then, assorted things for brunch like cobbler. It looks like a lot of it is freshly made, not taken out of the freezer.
Welsch: We do handcrafted food rooted in the local community at Vagabond kitchen. We turn things on their heads a little bit, and I’m the Vagabond. I’m looking to update what is Appalachian cuisine with the state parks. We’re going to stay a little bit more rooted in history. The soup beans are a great example. I absolutely love soup beans, I grew up with them, I enjoy making them and feeding them to folks. But at our Churched-Up Soup Beans at Vagabond are garnished with homemade chow-chow, or pickled jalapeno and red onion and cornbread dust and candied bacon, so it brings it into the modern day a little bit. If we were going to do that dish at a state park, we probably go more the traditional route of minced raw onion, and a side of cornbread.
Yohe: You’ll do a survey that will find out what’s of interest at all of our state parks. There’s different things that go on, say at Cacapon State Park over there in the Eastern Panhandle, or up north where you are, or down at Chief Logan State Park, I imagine there might be some different tastes at those different areas.
Welsch: Yes, you’re 100 percent correct. I think it’s important to look at the state parks as a whole, and as a singular entity of what we want to offer to folks. But also, to honor those little variations and discrepancies based upon region. And the demographic that’s being attracted to each individual Park is going to be a little different.
Yohe: Do you have a timetable on when you’re going to make these changes, or is this something that’s going to morph over time,
Welsch: It’s going to morph over time, I think it’s very important to go into all these different kitchens. We have 10 Food and Beverage programs across the 37 parks in our state. And it’s very important that I enter these kitchens, humbly with my hat in my hand and say, ‘Hey, I’m here to help, I’m here to add to, I’m not here to take over. I’m not here to say I know things that no one else knows. I’m here as a resource. And we’re going to figure these things out together, and we’re going to take it to the next level. Right now I’m very much getting the lay of the land. I’m drawing a map and seeing where we are. That way we’ll be able to decide how to get to where we want to go.
Yohe: I noticed that at the bottom of your menu at the Vagabond it says you can buy the kitchen a round of drinks for $6 each. Tell me about that?
Welsch: I think it’s important I grew up in the kitchen, I started out as a dishwasher. And I worked my way up to where I am now. It’s really weird these days that this celebrity chef gig exists. And that people actually want to hear what the people who cook your food have to say. It’s a very interesting and weird time for us to have that status. For years, the kitchen is what we called ‘the back of the house’, in kitchen restaurant lingo, and it was very much kept out of view. You didn’t see what happened and a lot of times you didn’t know what happened back there. A lot of times the kitchen staff were largely ignored. Coming up that way, being a cook myself. I wanted the opportunity that when people really enjoyed their meal, they also had the opportunity to say thank you to the people who prepare their food. And when there’s a lot of skill going into that, a lot of intention, the customers that I’ve had have been very excited to have that opportunity to say ‘yeah, let’s get those guys a drink’, when they’re done with their work, they can enjoy the fruits of their labors as well.