Having spent over two decades cooking, Travis Vaughn was thrown a curveball in the earlier days of the pandemic: Graft would temporarily close. Vaughn is the executive chef for the restaurant, a long-time favorite for Madison residents, which offers a front-row seat to the Capitol.
“Unfortunately, we were really kind of hitting our stride when the pandemic hit. It was a shame for us to close our doors,” Vaughn says.
But some good news finally arrived as Graft reopened its doors July 16. With extra time on his hands, Vaughn sought to test his creative juices at home. He experimented with various flavors and recipes, concocting new courses and completely transforming the menu.
“I really enjoyed the time off that I got during COVID but I’m really excited to pick up where we left off,” Vaughn says. “It was a lot of cooking at home and that’s where a lot of the inspiration for the new menu items came in.”
The menu includes some riffs on a classic, such as short rib served with potato salad, Swiss chard and mustard barbeque and albacore tuna dish served with mango, jicama, jalapeño and cilantro. Vaughn also arranged various vegetable- and grain-focused options including croquettes, gratin and monkey bread. One of his favorites is the grilled green bean salad with pickled red onions, buttermilk dressing and bacon. A fine dessert selection accompanies the menu, but a standout is the spoon cake, a blend of strawberry, rhubarb, vanilla ice cream and balsamic vinegar.
Deciding on menu items came with plenty of trial-and-error. Vaughn says it required experimenting and tasting with the management staff and ownership. Vaughn found his inspiration all from the ingredients, and he says some items that didn’t make it onto the current menu are still in the works for the future.
He also says the restaurant is “very fortunate” in terms of staffing. Most employees returned, renewing a sense of comfort as they collectively joined forces to bring a new and classy dining experience for visitors.
Still, Vaughn says they wondered, “Are we gonna be a little bit rusty or are we gonna pull it off? It was definitely challenging in that regard.”
From his perspective, the restaurant emerged stronger than ever.
“In all honesty, it’s been such a great reopening. We feel like this time closed during COVID almost didn’t exist, because I feel like we’re firing on all cylinders,” Vaughn says. “To see the same guests that we had seen in the past, walk through the doors with the same smile and be able to deliver our service and hospitality … it’s just been amazing.”
The most important part for Vaughn, aside from cooking in a professional kitchen again, is bringing people together.
“Everybody’s gone through some hardships in the past pandemic times, and we’re just excited to do our part to make feet make people feel happy and comfortable again,” he says.
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