Ryan Leinonen, exec chef/owner of Trillium, wants to stage at Le Bernardin
This is part two of my interview with Ryan Leinonen, exec chef/owner of Trillium. Part one of that interview ran in this space yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: Gotham Bar and Grill in New York. I really like Alfred Portale's take on what a whimsical dinner menu should be. He's playful with his food, adding certain twists and turns, but he still stays true to the origin of the ingredients, whether in technique or in the inspiration. The menu has a nice selection of different cuisines -- French, Japanese, Italian and American influence all on a twenty-item menu. I also love his dramatic presentations. They sometimes border on circus-like, but they're still functional and approachable.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: It depends on my mood. I like Fruition when I want some killer food and service, but I'll also be at the bar at Jax eating a gargantuan piece of Merus king crab with mustard sauce and a cold beer. I usually don't eat out too much, and if I have family in town, I prefer to cook at home.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More exotic foodstuffs. Give me more than just good burritos, steakhouses and pho. I want to see some stuff I've never seen before -- stuff that Bourdain writes about.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Steakhouses. I guess I don't like them because I grew up in Michigan, which is the country capital, in my mind, of meat and potatoes. Anyone can roast some potatoes and throw a charred steak on the same plate at home. Why go out and pay $40 for it? Get creative, get seasonal, and put some heart, love, soul and passion into your food.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: The best compliments are from guests who thank me for such a great meal and tell me they'll be back.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? I'm pretty simple. When it comes to wines, I lean toward whites, especially Riesling. As far as beers, I like Hazed & Infused, and this awesome beer Dogfish makes called Sah'Tea, which is brewed as a modern version of a traditional ninth-century Finnish beer. I also love old Michigan favorites like Bell's Oberon, which, unfortunately, isn't available here in Colorado.
Favorite food from your childhood: Pasties from Mackinaw Island in Michigan. It's a baked pastry filled with ground beef or lamb and root vegetables like carrots, onions, turnips and rutabaga, and it's traditional fare for the Scandinavian transplants of the Midwest and the North Woods. The best pasties are made with lard in the pastry dough, like my grandma used to make. All you need is two or three pasties, along with some ketchup for dipping -- oh, and a glass of milk. Look for them in the future on the Trillium menu.
One book that every chef should read: I always try to stick to the basics and where I started, so I would have to say Escoffier -- Le Guide Culinaire. It was the first book I read when I decided to take my culinary career seriously. Even if you've read it before, read it again, because it humbles you. Here's this chef, in the late nineteenth and twentieth century, cooking amazing things -- and thinking up amazing things -- without any of the modern conveniences that we have today. No food processors, blenders, convection ovens, Pacojets, exotic knives from some far-away country, or liquid nitrogen. He was the inspiration for every stellar chef today like Thomas Keller and Ferran Adrià, and should be a big part of every chef's inspiration. This past summer, while I was getting Trillium together, I went back to Michigan for a few weeks to visit family, get some inspiration and pull my head out of my backside. I took one book with me to read: Escoffier. Sometimes as a chef, your head gets a little high up in the clouds; Escoffier keeps you grounded.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? That's tough. I usually buy all of my own kitchen-related gadgets because I'm so picky, or they're too expensive for someone else to buy. I usually get some great cookbooks for Christmas and such, but right now, I really love my current knife case, which my wonderful wife bought for me for my birthday a few years ago. She picked out the perfect one, with no hints or coaching.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Get a gas range if you can. Electric ranges just won't cut it, because the burners don't get hot enough, and you can't break it down for a good cleaning. That said, I have an electric range at home because I don't have a gas line in my kitchen. A good substitute is to have a kick-ass grill with a supplemental side burner. That way, if you need to sear the hell out of something, you can use your grill or that side burner, because it kicks out a good amount of heat.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? A hand-tossed medium crust, an extra helping of a super-robust sauce, mushrooms, onions and La Quercia speck. I don't like thin crust, and sometimes deep-dish is just too much bread. Oh, and I'll need some sort of sauce to dip the crust in, usually ranch.
Guiltiest food pleasure: Ice cream. I usually never have it at home, because once I start eating it, I can't seem to stop. I make my own at Trillium or go out for it. I shy away from those corporate places, though. I love Little Man, and I like to go there on a hot summer night, grab some green tea ice cream, have a seat and people-watch. I never get a cone, though -- just ice cream in a cup. Some people will think I'm crazy, like my wife, but the cone just gets in the way of the miraculousness of the ice cream. I don't like toppings or other shit on there, either -- just the ice cream and a spoon.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be: Easy. Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin. I have a penchant for all things that come from the Great Lakes or the sea, I've read most of his books, and I love his show Avec Eric, but actually being there to absorb the subtle nuances of prep and service, experience what goes into getting ready for service and be a sponge for everything he had to teach me, would be incredible. I'd give anything to stage there. Can someone hook me up?
Which Denver/Boulder chef do you most respect? Adam Watts, the chef de cuisine at Jax Boulder. He's a fellow Michigan boy, has a work ethic parallel to -- or maybe slightly better than -- mine, and he used to be my sous chef at the Kitchen in Boulder. I'm always rooting for him. We have a similar Midwest upbringing and a similar mental plane, and even though we have different approaches to Midwestern food, both of our inspirations come from our childhood. Mine is more rooted in Scandinavian inspiration, and his is more focused on his early interaction with the farming and fishing communities of rural western Michigan. He always comes up with some knockout dishes.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I've always had one, but now I have two. The first was cooking at the James Beard House with the team from the Kitchen in August of 2005. I used to daydream in culinary school about cooking at the James Beard House for the formidable foodie set. But now my greatest accomplishment is the opening of Trillium, a lifelong dream and nearly a year's worth of blood, sweat and tears to get the doors open and get the space, food and staff the way I wanted it. Still, there's always more to be done, and the "to do" list never ends. We'll always evolve with our guests to make sure they have an incredible experience. Maybe my greatest accomplishments are yet to come.
Favorite celebrity chef: Anthony Bourdain. He makes me proud to be what I am. When he was in Denver in 2009, I got the opportunity to go backstage and chat with him for a while. What a great dude.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Guy Fieri. He's not about cooking; he's about selling stuff and stuffing his face with crappy food. He's so "extreme": Oh, man, don't scare me, bro, with your piercings, tats, crazy hair and weirdo shades. His cookbooks are filled with ripoffs of corporate chain restaurants -- pepper Jack pretzels and margarita-chicken sandwiches.
Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion on food writers and social review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? Of course I'm affected. I really care what our guests have to say about us -- that's the definition of hospitality, right? -- but I don't lose sleep or drink myself into a stupor because of a bad review. The simple fact is that not everyone is going to like your food, your concept or your restaurant for the same reason not everyone likes or drives the same car. People like what they like. Our job is to yank them out of their comfort zone and introduce them to something they're not used to -- or something that they're familiar with, but with a twist -- and give them an enjoyable experience. It's their feedback and expectations that help us to get better and grow over time. I just think of sites like Yelp as a giant comment card for us, and every good restaurant should have a comment card to give to their guests. Still, it should be kept as a professional medium. I don't always agree with people "trashing" restaurants.
Last restaurant you visited: I go to Hana Matsuri Sushi in Westminster at least once a month. I live in the north 'burbs, it's close to my home, and it's the best sushi I've eaten in a long time. A father and son work the sushi line together, they source all of their fish from the same places that I do, their portions are bigger than most places, and the price point is a little lower. It's a really great place. It's fun to trek around the suburbs to see what little gem of a restaurant you can find. Sometimes you're disappointed, but once in a while, you find a great little place like Hana Matsuri.
What's your favorite knife? My workhorse chef knife. It's a white-handled, ten-inch, hollow-ground Wüsthof Icon. I like the white handle, because it lets me know if I'm not working clean enough. I tend to like German knives and not Japanese knives, probably because my fingers are too fat.
If you weren't a chef, what would you be? A cardiothoracic surgeon, an astrophysicist, or maybe an astronaut.
What's one thing about you or your restaurant that people would be surprised to know? Trillium occupies a space that was a decrepit pawn shop for many years, and the first time I looked at it, I wasn't so sure, but after it we started gutting it, it all came to me -- and came to be, and I was really in love with the location in the Ballpark neighborhood, so I decided to go for it. We demolished the space down to a dirt floor and the walls and then rebuilt it new. We salvaged what we could, like the 108-year-old pine posts and beams, and we refurbished the beautiful brick wall on the north side of the dining room. Our new additions were the five-foot linear fireplace, a "cloud" bar and the open kitchen.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Treat people the way you want to be treated. I worked for some pretty iron-headed, downright mean chefs back in the day, and as a younger cook who hadn't cut his teeth yet, I thought that's how you had to act to be a successful chef. These guys used to throw hot pans, knives, choke cooks out on the line, and take half your paycheck if you burned something. There's something to be said for discipline, but that's not a good way to treat people
What's next for you? Right now I'm focused on all things Trillium: creating a good staff, teaching everything I can to my cooks and looking forward to a busy summer in the Ballpark neighborhood. It's such a great, vibrant area. At some point I might like to do another venture -- who knows? Maybe Denver's first Scandinavian ice bar.
Last meal before you die: Before I die? This assumes I know my death is imminent, in which case, death by foie gras. Consume so much, so rapidly that my heart actually stops and I don't have to face the other death that's coming to me.
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