Modernism with a side of vicarious travel: Chef Tim Graham on Travelle | Bleader

Modernism with a side of vicarious travel: Chef Tim Graham on Travelle

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Travelle in the Langham Chicago hotel.
Midcentury modernism is often talked about like it's one thing, but it's at least two: the black-box minimalism of Mies van der Rohe and company, and the flamboyant modernism that swept from the Fontainebleau Hotel to Googie coffee shops. The challenge for a hotel in Mies's IBM Building—which is what the new Langham Chicago is—must be to look like you're respecting the former while giving your guests the excitement of the latter.

Travelle, which opened in the Langham this week, will actually be a coffee shop part of the time, and it warms its space with wood, leather, and seating that evokes approved modernist classics like Eames and Barcelona chairs. Then it says what the hell and channels its inner Lapidus with cymbal-like gold light fixtures over the bar, lamps draped over the dining room like peevish Edward Gorey birds, and a wall of see-through Plexiglass tubes that will make for great arty shots in the first thriller to use the place as a location.

As for the food at Travelle—which is under the care of executive chef Tim Graham, formerly of Tru and other Lettuce Entertain You spots—modernism offers no particular direction, and he admits they tried a number of menu concepts before settling on one that focuses on the coastal Mediterranean, including the often overlooked eastern Mediterranean countries, from Greece to Bulgaria to Turkey. I spoke with him Monday about how he wound up at Travelle and what his vision of the Mediterranean would be.

Chef Tim Graham at his pass.

Michael Gebert: So how did you come to Travelle from Tru?

Tim Graham: After Tru I went over to Brasserie Jo to help close it down and reopen it as Paris Club. I had never closed a place before, but this was one with a lot of history, and it still had a fan base. But Hubbard Street had changed so much that it wasn’t the right restaurant for it anymore. So we closed it with a lot of care and respect, and then reopened the space, still as a French place, but changing the menu so it didn't say things like "en papillote" anymore—removing those barriers to entry for the audience in that neighborhood.

And then I was looking for my next project, and talking to three or four different groups. But I really liked the team at the Langham, and I was impressed by the amount of support they put into the restaurant side of the hotel—we had our own design team, completely separate from the hotel's design team. They didn't want to get lobbed in with the typical hotel restaurant. That inspired a lot of trust. And I had never done a hotel before, and I believe in exploring everything.

The bar at Travelle.

How did you arrive at your take on Mediterranean? One has to admit it's kind of a cliche at this point, or just another word for Italian food.

It is. It's very much about Italy, France, Spain, which is just one part of the Mediterranean. The first menu I worked up, they wanted the cuisine to be Asian-Mediterranean. So I created the menu, but it was too scattered. Then we went to exploring global coastal cuisine—but that wasn't precise enough, it was hard to explain.

And I just thought—Mediterranean, what does that even mean? It's a huge and diverse area. That restaurant can't exist. But OK, you need a focus in brainstorming. So for me the focus became the sea. And I had traveled in Spain and France, but I didn't even really know there was an eastern Mediterranean until I started buying cookbooks for research. I mean, I'd learned about the spice routes in sixth grade, but it had never touched my food life.

It was fascinating for me because having cooked French-ish food for so long—Tru wasn't French, but obviously a lot of what we did came out of French fine dining—you discover new things cooking in a totally different way. Only one station in the restaurant even has butter—the thing we run out of the fastest is olive oil. Your natural inclination is to thicken a sauce with a roux, and we don't do that. Our dairy order is basically zero, except Greek yogurt.

Prosciutto-wrapped dates.

It's almost like less is more! You're also doing something you're calling "seacuterie." What is that?

I love charcuterie, I learned a lot about terrines and things like that at Brasserie Jo and Paris Club, but it didn't really fit here. They do salumis in that part of the world, not terrines. With our seafood focus, I had the idea of doing things that are like equivalents with seafood—we do smoked salmon, we do what we call an octopus cochon, which is like tete de cochon, we do rillettes, a scallop boudin blanc. It's a different way to experience those ingredients.

How's the adjustment to running an all-day restaurant? I mean, you've got to be open, what, 16 hours a day—

24! [Travelle serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with late-night hours on weekends and in the lounge.] You know, I had all these breakfast ideas, and I could never use them in the restaurants where I worked. So I pulled out every breakfast idea I ever had. We have six different egg Benedicts. We have things like chocolate and apricot bread pudding French toast.

For lunch we have what we call the Wabash Express, different choices where you get a starter, a main, and a dessert and it all drops at once, for the office worker who has 40 minutes to get lunch but wants to get something well made.

So in the end, how do you think this Mediterranean focus fits in with the midcentury modern design of the building?

You know, the name of the restaurant is Travelle, which suggests traveling. And my grandmother has this collection of National Geographics, going back to before it had pictures even. And I was looking through issues from that [midcentury] era, and so much of it is travel to the Mediterranean. It was new then, and you went to France or Italy and then you brought back your slides and showed them to your neighbors and you cooked that food for a special dinner. We‘re offering you a comfortable vicarious way to experience a world that was what people were discovering back then.

A video artwork in the bar.

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