Travelle Chef de Cuisine Qi Ai
Travelle at the Langham (330 N Wabash Ave.; www.travellechicago.com ) has undergone a major change during the COVID pandemic: New Chef de Cuisine Qi (pronounced "tee") Ai was promoted from sous chef at the end of March, and has brought her own unique flourishes to putting together the restaurant's menus.
Aia relatively new mother who revealed she's also a photographer and an avid hikerrecently chatted with Windy City Times about her background, Travelle's cuisine and her own inner strength.
Windy City Times: You got your degree at Peking University. I'm curious about what brought you specifically to Chicago.
Qi Ai: Well, I've always liked art and food, and I really wanted to pursue something in the food industry. So I came here to study the culinary arts, and here I am, after some years.
WCT: You definitely worked your way up the culinary ladder. At one point, you worked at the legendary Everest restaurant [which is now permanently closed]. What was that experience like?
QA: I was doing an apprenticeship there. It was a very tough kitchen, but you got to work with various ingredientsMichigan blueberries and asparagus. And you got to learn all these very classic French cooking styles. Chef Joho's menus were just beautiful. I learned a lot there.
WCT: You were also at Acadia as well as Sixteen.
QA: YesI was at Sixteen for about a year. It was so impressive, and the chef treated the staff so nicely. He let us try all the foods we wanted to try. The food was so beautiful and tasted so amazing.
WCT: How would you describe the cuisine at Travelle?
QA: It's American cuisine, but there are influences everywhere. We have a very American burgerthe Travelle Burgerwith redeye bacon jam and truffle mayo. But then we have the pork-belly banh mi sandwich that's inspired by my mom. It has all these secret spices and I slowly braise [the meat] for five hours. [Ai put the sandwich on the menu to help stop anti-AAPI hate.] America is such a melting pot, and with Travelle, you get to travel a bit with the food.
WCT: Will the menus change seasonally?
QA: From a budget standpoint, it's not viable to change all the dishes at once, for sure. I'll see what our team is comfortable with, and try to change a few dishes at a time.
WCT: This past year and a half has been trying for all of us, on various levels. What have you learned about yourself during this time?
QA: Personally, I had a baby about a year agoand, with the pandemic, it's been hard. I learned that a person can do so many things if you push yourself. With the baby being born and the restaurant being closed, it was difficult not knowing about the futurebut you have to keep pushing on, doing the daily things and seeing what happens next. The pandemic taught me to be resilient and to never give up hope.
You aim to get better every daywhich is also the motto of this hotel: "Better every day."
REVIEW: Travelle at the Langham
There's always a question of how the food will be once a new chef de cuisine takes over an established spot.
Jeff Vucko enthralled guests for several years with dishes such as his salt-encrusted tomahawk steak (which, sadly, I never got to try). He has now taken his talents to the luxury hotel The Pendry Chicago.
But I have news for those who dine at Travelle (330 N Wabash Ave.; www.travellechicago.com ) now: The quality of the cuisine has, thankfully, not waned one bitand has been thrown a delightful curve.
New Chef de Cuisine Qi (pronounced "tee") Ai, promoted from sous chef, has put together some intriguing menus filled with delicious offerings.
Items under the "Chef's Favorites" portion of the breakfast menu include everything from the healthful (the Power Egg White Scramble) to the indulgent (Skillet Cinnamon Bun). However, I decided to try something from the "Breakfast Notions" part: the Travelle Benedicta sinful dish consisting of generous portions of lobster, spinach and truffle hollandaise, topped by two perfectly poached eggs.
Other items range from buttermilk pancakes to mango-chia seed pudding (very pleasant and light) to avocado toast.
The brunch and lunch menus are more adventurous. English and Travelle Benedicts are still there, but global influences are seen in dishes such as butter chicken and the pork-belly banh mi sandwich. However, one can't go wrong with homegrown standards such as the Travelle Burger (SO delicious) and the lobster roll; or with an innovative offering such as cream of Jerusalem artichoke (which, by the way, is neither from Jerusalem nor is an artichoke), with smoked pear, celery and bacon.
The dinner menuoffered only at Travelle's bar on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 2-10 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday at 2-11 p.m.offers similar items. But there are also Steak & Truffle, salmon poke, crispy calamari and various desserts (like strawberry cheesecake and chocolate cake). These all sound very tempting.
So kudos to Ai for bringing her own touch to Travelle and maintaining the spot's lofty standards. You'll find yourself returning to this restaurant again and again.
NOTE: Regarding COVID-related protocols, Travelle at the Langham requires face masks until you're seated at a table. Social distancing is also observed.
Also, of note: Travelle is open Wednesdays through Sundays only.