Q&A with Chef Shanna Pacifico

Chef dishes on death row meal and more

Back in September, The Graduate Hotel ditched its rooftop restaurant concept for the The Blind, an upscale, fine dining venue, and replaced it with Camp Trippalindee, a much more casual place serving burgers, brats, fries and walking tacos in a Wisconsin cabin nostalgic, campy-style interior. Shanna Pacifico, executive chef and food and beverage director is the boss up there and is carrying out the vision to make this place a beloved Madison locale. I recently sat down with Pacifico at Camp Trippalindee and got a chance to learn more about the chef and how this new brand for a restaurant with one of the best views in town is working out so far.

What has gotten you the most excited about the opening of Camp Trippalindee?
I’ve been cooking since I was 21. This opening has provided me the space to [take part in opening] everything from the front-of-the-house to the back-of-the-house. I know how to open a kitchen and make those systems work, but now I’m in charge of it all. This is a new concept not only for me, but for the hotel group.

What came first, the theme or the menu?
The theme came first–to emulate what the lobby looks like. [At what was originally The Blind restaurant,] higher-end fine dining wasn’t working. The Blind was very pale, very white. We thought, why not do something fun like downstairs has? Sort of that campy vibe. They have a suite here that was designed with Camp Wandawega (of Elkhorn). The idea was to kind of go with a more unified theme. You walk in downstairs and there are upside down canoes hanging from the ceiling and warm colors. Given where we are … [and with Madison] having a ton of restaurants, how do you stand out?

This place looks poised for the winter season. Are you looking forward to winter? For campfires on the rooftop and roasting marshmallows?
We have a pile of [flannel] blankets over there. We make good, boozy hot chocolate with coconut milk, Valrhona dark chocolate, vanilla, put a bunch of booze in it, top it with some whipped cream. We have a spiked cider and passion fruit tea. You might not want to sit out there all night, but you would definitely want to sit out there with a hot drink roasting s’mores.
Q&A with Chef Shanna Pacifico

And then come in here where it feels like you’re in someone’s basement.
I think it’s definitely like Grandpa’s Northwoods cabin in the 1960s. We have games on the tables; yard-sized dominoes, yard Yahtzee, vintage Connect Four and Jenga–people love it. It’s probably the most played game in here. And Battleship, people love playing Battleship. It’s so nostalgic, right? It’s really nice to see how comfortable people look settled in.

You’re getting people to be face-to-face, I think. How many people can be on their phones while playing Battleship?
That’s true. I hadn’t really thought about that. Bringing people face-to-face is really important. I kept saying to the design team, ‘Please make sure [the space] is as interactive as possible.’ If you’re going to be a bar-forward place, it needs to be fun and entertaining in a way that’s not just about drinking shots. We’re getting there. It’s working.

Tell me a little bit about where you come from and what foods formed you?
I became an adult in New York City. I went to culinary school there at 21 in what was known then as the French Culinary Institute and is now the International Culinary Center. It was the reason I went to New York. I worked for Peter Hoffman, one of the first chef/restaurant owners to buy things from the farmers’ market. He helped farmers build their business by showing them what chefs were looking for. I was very impressionable then. I didn’t know what coriander was. I didn’t know about eating strawberries in their season. So it’s always been farm-to-table for me, which is an overused term at the moment, right? My first day working for him was supposed to be September 11, 2001, when the attacks happened. Obviously that didn’t happen. I worked for Geoffrey Zakarian who’s pretty well known. He’s on Food Network now. I worked for his restaurant called Town for two years. From there, I went backpacking around Europe–it was supposed to be two months, but I ended up staying six months.

Did you cook there?
I did. I went to an Austrian-run resort in South Portugal. It was the only two Michelin-starred resort in all of Portugal. I ended up in San Sebastian, Spain, running a tapas bar.

How did you find your way to Madison?
My boyfriend is from here and his family lives here. We moved here in 2016. I grew up in Florida, but my family is originally from Brazil. I also lived in Brazil for a little bit from like 12-13 [years of age]. Born in Ohio. I’ve lived all over the place.

And now you’re home. What’s your favorite cookbook at home?
Au Pied de Cochon. ” It’s a restaurant in Montreal. It’s just kind of like an over-the-top fun place. They’ll put foie gras on top of roasted lobster. It’s very artistic and beautiful to look through. It’s a really cool book.

What about a cookbook that gets you through your day here?
I look at cookbooks for inspiration. For here it’s hard, we’re doing burgers and brats and cheese curds … I don’t really refer to a lot of cookbooks for this particular menu. “ The Flavor Bible .” When I first became a chef and didn’t have a clue how to write a menu, it was a really good tool.

What’s the first restaurant dining experience you remember?
We ate out a lot when I was a kid. We were trained to be really well behaved kids when we were going out. We would get “the look.” It was never like, “You get the kids’ menu and eat the chicken fingers.” We ate what the family ate. Anything seafood I would eat as a kid, lobster, crab legs.

You cost your parents money.
I was the youngest, so I got away with it.

Who’s your favorite person to cook for when you’re not at Camp Tripalindee.
My boyfriend.

What do you make him?
It’s a steak, wedge salad and shrimp cocktail. If I’m cooking for myself, but for both of us, it’s spaghetti and clams. Spaghetti and clams is my death row meal.

How do you make yours?
Steam the clams in lots of garlic, white wine and onions. Put the pasta in, with lemon juice, butter, olive oil, lots of cheese, lemon zest, some leftover pasta water and then it’s done. It’s super simple.

Tell me a little more about the Camp Trippalindee menu.
It’s your favorite going to camp/camping out type of thing: hot dogs, burgers–that easy quick stuff. What I think is exciting about here is, yes, we’re doing burgers, brats and hot dogs, but [we] sourced locally as much as possible. All the meats are coming from Fox Heritage Farms. It’s all Wisconsin beef and chicken. We have a fried chicken sandwich, but it has kimchi slaw, ranch and bacon and lettuce. You go up to the bar, you order your drinks, your cocktails and food and we’ll page you when your food is ready. There’s no table service. Everything is casual. A lot of people when they come in are like, “Oh you’re really going for the college students.” I tell them, “No, this is still too expensive for the college students. They don’t want our $7 cheeseburger. They want the $3.99 cheeseburger that they’re going to get on State Street. But it’s $7 because we’re using really good meat and Organic Valley organic American cheese.” I think it’s great for locals. It’s more about being inclusive to everybody. It’s free valet parking any time. All you have to say is you’re going to Camp Trippalindee.