State Park leadership balances forward-thinking with Appalachian culinary heritage.

This story was originally published in the May 2024 issue of Wonderful West Virginia. To subscribe, visit

Written by Tara Wine-Queen

Photos Courtesy of West Virginia Department of Commerce

An artfully arranged and delicious plate at Pipestem Resort State Park

West Virginia has always had two extraordinary resources: its natural beauty and its people.

Within some of those people lies a vision for the future of West Virginia’s State Parks, so vivid and delectable you can almost taste it. In this vision, the state park restaurants are the centerpiece of a banquet filled with stunning vistas and wild adventures. The mountains, lakes, and rivers that have always been the backbone of our tourism industry and called to people near and far will continue to draw them in, but the growing interest in culinary tourism is offering a new way for West Virginia State Parks to not only bring people in but keep them coming back for more. 

Bringing Culinary Tourism to the Parks

Deputy Chief of West Virginia State Parks Paul Redford is one of the men behind the vision. Redford is passionate and deliberate, using his genuine love of West Virginia and keen insight to help shape a brighter future for her that honors her people and vibrant culinary heritage. Employed by the parks since 2009, he stepped up to the Deputy Chief position over a year ago. Immediately, Redford began working toward shifting the backward narrative of West Virginia often presented in the outside world to a more forward-thinking one rooted in intelligent design and the celebration of true Appalachian values and culture. In his time in prior roles, he’d learned that when looking forward for West Virginia, it helped to first look inward at all the state already had to offer. 

“Our state parks are a great location to promote things that are made in West Virginia,” Redford shares. “For our guests, we have handcrafted soaps, shampoos, and all of those things that are part of our guestroom amenities are sourced and made right in West Virginia. The mattresses are made in West Virginia. The room furniture that we have in many of our guest rooms and cabins is made right here. We have the opportunity to promote our state within the state parks, and that’s part of our restaurants, as well.”

The parks work closely with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture to bring West Virginia-grown food to the table, and while they haven’t yet reached 100% locally sourced, the vast majority is, as supporting local farms and businesses is a top priority. “It provides a really interesting story, as well, because part of culinary tourism is telling stories about the food. So you come to our restaurant and you get served your plated meal on a plate that was made in West Virginia from Fiestaware, and then the food itself has an Appalachian flair or it tells a bit of a story about local farms or even a local legend.”

Redford was recently part of a conversation about making changes in menus to nod to local lore. “For example, we were talking about it at North Bend State Park where there’s a great story about the Silver Run Tunnel on the North Bend Rail Trail and the ghost that apparently haunts the tunnel, and we can integrate that into the storytelling behind our menu items. Our intent is that when you leave, it’s not a one-and-done. We want you like, ‘Man, that dinner was so good, I can’t wait to see what they have for breakfast.’ We want people to keep coming back.”

A mouthwatering farm-to-table plate at Holly River State Park

There are currently ten large parks that offer full-service restaurants, and they are as unique as the settings they belong to. “The restaurant at Blackwater Falls is right on the cusp of the Blackwater right there at the lodge. At Tygart Lake, there is a courtesy dock at the bank, so if you’re out on the lake and want to order some lunch, you can give us a call and we’ll walk to down to the courtesy dock and deliver it to you. We also have a brand new restaurant that we’re opening this spring at Holly River called The Cookhouse. I just visited the restaurant for the first time and I would call it cozy. It actually reminded me of a restaurant you would see in a Hallmark movie,” Redford adds with a laugh.

The Vagabond Executive Chef

To help bring the state parks restaurants from vision to reality, Redford brought in local celebrity chef Matt Welsh, also known as the Vagabond Chef, as the West Virginia State Parks Executive Chef. Known for his passionate interest in and defense of Appalachia’s rich culinary history, Welsh is a prevalent online figure and notable West Virginia chef with his award-winning Wheeling-based restaurant The Vagabond Kitchen and popular YouTube videos such as “How to Make a Delicious Pepperoni Roll that Would Make Your Pappy Proud” working overtime to keep West Virginia’s food heritage front and center while embracing the modern age. 

“I am tickled to death to have him on our team,” Redford says of Welsh, a man whose passion and intelligence align with Redford’s own to brilliant effect. “He oversees it all, through visitation and consulting, menu prep, anything and everything that may have to do with restaurant operations. He is our quality control guide for everything from when you pull up to the curb of our restaurants, walk in, the first impressions, all the way down to when you’re paying the bill. Part of what he does is looking for value added things, looking at things like a can of green beans and asking what you can do with it to improve the value of them: the flavor and the appearance and everything else to take it to the next level.” 

For Welsh’s part, he is likewise thrilled to be part of the team moving West Virginia forward. “I love our state parks, and I’ve been welcomed with open arms by everyone,” says Welsh. “Chief Brad Reed and everyone is on board, and we all share a vision for West Virginia parks being a true best of West Virginia. I’m honestly completely blown over by how great I think the system is and the attitudes of leadership. It’s very take-care-of-our-people first, and this is a great attitude to have in the hospitality industry. If you focus on your people and take care of your people, then they take care of the guests. That’s better for everyone. People are looking for that sort of invested leadership, and that’s what I’m doing my best to embody.”

Exceptional food and service is not a new idea in the park restaurants where the staff is capable and the meals are high-quality. What Welsh and his team are trying to do now focuses more on taking the solid foundation already in place and elevating the experience through carefully curated touches designed to appeal not only to those who already love the state parks but those who are interested in culinary tourism. 

When entering this position, it was of utmost importance to Welsh that he not diminish the people who were already doing the work in the restaurants. “I don’t want to walk into these kitchens and say, ‘I’m a chef, you need to listen to me.’ My whole goal with the first year in this position is relationships. I want them to learn who I am, to understand my passion, and to get to a place where they can trust me. I’ve been all over the world and the country and I’ve got experiences and viewpoints that I want to share through an Appalachian lens. I like to think of myself as a culinary anthropologist, and I’m really looking to kind of rediscover Appalachian heritage cuisine, ingredients, techniques, and ask, ‘How do we breathe new life into them and make them current?’”

While Welsh has traveled extensively, coming back home to West Virginia a decade ago and opening The Vagabond Kitchen has been a joy for him. “I love it here. I always have loved it here; I just wanted to see everything. As much as I sometimes miss my lifestyle, nothing has been so fulfilling as really putting my back into West Virginia and her cuisine, history, culture, and all the wonderful things I have attemped to be a part of. I want to show more people what is great about us. That’s always been my twofold goal: to draw people in from outside and to raise the brow of the people already here.”

Culinary Events for All

This is a shared goal for Redford, as well. Culinary tourism may be bringing in new waves of people to the Mountain State, but it’s important to the team that West Virginians are made to feel welcome at the restaurants. 

“We want the local communities to know that our restaurants and our state parks are relevant and a great place to come, especially for special events such as family reunions or celebrating a birthday or anniversary,” Redford says. Locals and newcomers alike can enjoy all the restaurants have to offer, including special events such as seasonal farm to table dinners.

Farm to table dinners, which have become increasingly popular over the last several years, are culinary experiences that honor the heritage of a place by using materials directly from the farm to create the meal. In some cases, the dinner attendees not only get to enjoy a fresh and delicious meal but also have the opportunity to help harvest their food by going to the garden and collecting vegetables directly from the land which will then be used for the meal. 

In addition to the farm-to-table dinners that will take place this summer, a number of other exciting events are held at the restaurants throughout the year such as wine tastings and themed buffets. If you can’t make it to all of the venues separately, though, fear not; there’s still a way for you to get a taste of many of the state park restaurants’ offerings. Mark your calendar for September when the National Hunting and Fishing Days will take place in Lewis County where you’ll be able to enjoy a taste of West Virginia State Parks. “Last year, we brought in several of our state park restaurants and did stations. People could buy tickets to them and try samples of our food. It was amazing, and this year we’re making it bigger and better,” Redford says. 

With the talent, brains, and dedication the team behind the restaurants possesses, it’s easy to believe him. So the next time you’re looking for an incredible dining experience, consider visiting your local West Virginia State Park restaurant to see what it has to offer. The vision-turned-reality just might surprise you.