Ryan Leinonen on "Mr. Wizard," Velveeta, pig's nipples and the raw vegan
Hey!" hollers Ryan Leinonen to one of his cooks. "How's that cauliflower soup doing? Make sure you keep an eye on it." And for the next two hours, Leinonen, the chef-owner of the month-old Trillium, watches from afar at the bar, taking a quick pause every now and then to remind the line that the soup shouldn't be left alone.
"Cooking has always been a big deal in my head," he says, even it wasn't the focus of his family life while he was growing up in Detroit. "When I was young, I watched a lot of Julia Child and Yan Can Cook, but I was a latchkey kid -- my parents both worked full-time -- so there wasn't a lot of time for cooking." He began to cook in earnest, though, when he turned fifteen. "We moved to a smaller town in Michigan, and the dad of one of my best friends owned the nicest bistro in town," he explains, "and I was interested in exploring food and wanted to see what it'd be like working in a professional kitchen."
Turns out, he found a career. "I started out as a dishwasher -- a damn good dishwasher, because I was quick and did it the way the chef wanted me to -- but when I had idle time, I bugged him to let me help out on the line," recalls Leinonen. His persistence paid off, and by the time he exited four years later, he had moved through every station in the kitchen, eventually chaperoning it.
At the same time he was climbing the culinary pecking order, Leinonen was attending culinary school, graduating at a young 21. But that wasn't enough: "I was thinking about my future and wanted to have something to fall back on in case, you know, something happened, like I cut my thumb or my arm off and couldn't cook -- so I got a degree in hospitality management, because I wanted to learn about running a business."
In early 2000, Leinonen moved to Colorado, where his first gig was as the sous chef at Q's in Boulder, followed by nearly four years at the Kitchen, a stint that he calls an "awesome experience" and the "best job I've ever had aside from owning my own place." In fact, he credits his experience at the Kitchen with giving him the confidence to open Trillium. "I really attribute my success to my time at the Kitchen -- not the press we got, but the passion I had," he says. "I was a sponge there, and I loved that job."
Leinonen wasn't quite as enamored with his exec-chef gig at Root Down, which is where he sprouted after a "significant change in staff dynamics" at the Kitchen left him wanting a change of space and pace, which he definitely found at Justin Cucci's Highland restaurant. "I'd worked sixty, maybe seventy days in a row at Root Down and asked for a day off -- a Monday -- and when I got back, things just went downhill," says Leinonen, who admits to being fired, an incident that Westword reported in a piece that ultimately led to Leinonen's next gig. "Nelson Perkins and Brad Rowell from Colt & Gray got in touch with me after they read the story, and said that they'd had my food at the Kitchen and at Root Down and that they wanted a talented sous chef with connections," remembers Leinonen. He was hired -- and left last year for no other reason than to open his own restaurant. "Things are going great here, and people seem to be having a great time and loving the food, which is all I want," he says.
In the following interview, Leinonen weighs in on bringing your brain to the line, the raw-food purist who wouldn't eat raw vegetables, and why Velveeta has its place in the food universe.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, rustic, elegant, eclectic, compelling and crafty.
Ten words to describe you: Astute, idiosyncratic, reflective, intellectual, esoteric, spirited, affable, intrepid, whimsical and magnanimous.
Favorite ingredient: Butter. It's so versatile that's it's almost the natural "Mr. Wizard" of the kitchen. It makes your pastry dough blow apart, it's awesome in sauces, it makes your corn on the cob delightful, and when clarified, it makes your lobster that much more decadent. Had a good Hollandaise or beurre blanc lately? Thank butter.
Best recent food find: Cloudberry preserves from Sweden. Cloudberries are native to the arctic and alpine tundra in Scandinavia, and since they only grow around the Arctic Circle, the growing season is very short; they're also really delicate because they require an acidic ground in which to grow, and if there's a bad growing season, they're even more difficult to find. The color is so deep and rich, and the flavor is amazing -- like a mix of gold raisins and raspberries. They have a simultaneously tart and creamy flavor -- almost like yogurt. It took me six months to source them.
Most overrated ingredient: Veal demiglace. In my humble opinion, most chefs can't make a nice demi to save their life. I ate at a restaurant last year and had a short rib that would have been wonderful except for the completely over-reduced, almost burnt, motor oil-thick sauce that covered it. A reduction sauce takes time, patience and love. You can't just put something on the stove, turn it to high, boil it for an hour and call it done. You can tell which chefs take the time to add those important ingredients and which don't.
Most underrated ingredient: Love -- and, yes, love is an ingredient in cooking. Ever wonder why Grandma's or Mom's food tastes so good? It's because they made it for you with love. I'm a big believer in that when you speak to your food, your food speaks back to you. Have you ever had a broken mayonnaise, Hollandaise or butter sauce right before service? It's because you were rushing and not putting any love into your sauce. Yep, the sauce got mad at you and decided it didn't want to come out right. The next time you made it, you took your time, were a little more patient and put some love into it. It responded by coming out perfectly. Love your food and it will love you back -- just like all things in life.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Any of the various cheese powders from the Savory Spice Shop. I especially like the blue-cheese powder to mix into mashed potatoes or to use in sauces.
Favorite spice: I like weird finishing salts. Each one has its own texture and flavor and, more important, a "soul" behind it. It's fun to take a simple thing like a prawn and see how it tastes after it's finished with many different kinds of salt. Right now, my favorite is a black Indian salt called Kala Namak that has a natural flavor of egg yolks. I also like the Hawaiian Alaea red salt, the Cypress black lava salt and Maldon sea salt.
One food you detest: Snails. Ugh. I'm usually not affected by texture in foods -- in fact, I quite enjoy many different food textures -- but snails are just one of those things that I can't get over. They taste like dirt to me. Blech.
One food you can't live without: I drink lots of milk. When I don't have it for a while, I actually crave it. I drank a lot of milk as a child, and it just stuck with me. It's good for breakfast, it's good for lunch with my PB&J, and it's good after dinner with my dessert. Sometimes there's nothing as fulfilling as an ice-cold glass of milk. Just call me an old-fashioned Midwestern boy.
Favorite music to cook by: I always love to cook to jazz. It's inspirational and improvisational, just like cooking or writing your menu. Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley, Duke Ellington, Vince Guaraldi, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Stan Getz and Billy Taylor are some of my favorites. If I can't decide, I just put on the Jazz Essentials station on Pandora. I also listen to a lot of '90s hip-hop, and Pretty Lights gets me amped for a weekend service.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I try my best to create an environment that's focused on critical thinking and mutual respect. I tell my cooks to bring their brain every day because they're gonna need it. Critical thinking should be involved in every aspect of cooking -- even something as simple as putting a piece of arctic char in a sauté pan should involve a multitude of thought processes. Is the skin scored on the fish? Why do we score the skin on the fish? Is the score on the fish too big? Is the fish seasoned? Is it seasoned evenly? Is it seasoned correctly in proportion to the size of the fish? Is your pan hot? Is it too hot? Is there too much oil in the pan? The questions go on and on. I was taught in kitchens at an early age that you should think of what the consequences are of every single action you take throughout the day and throughout service. What am I doing, why am I doing it, and what will be the outcome? As far as respect, I expect my employees to treat the restaurant, equipment and their fellow employees as they would their own. Pretend you bought that pan, and think about how you would feel if someone else treated it like shit. There you go. Also, we have "guests" at Trillium -- not customers -- who should always be treated like they're guests in our own home. Nothing pisses me off more than when someone says we have a "customer." A customer is someone who shops at one of those giant, nasty retail stores with no service, not someone who comes into our restaurant for a dining experience.
Biggest kitchen disaster: About nine years ago, when I still lived in Michigan, I was in charge of cooking an off-premise outdoor wedding for 100-plus people. The main course was grilled lobster and grilled corn on the cob. We had to rent two long grills for the event, both of which sucked. Everything went wrong that day. My coals wouldn't stay hot because it was windy and it rained, and then I ran out of propane to cook the other dishes. Somehow, I pulled it together and got it done, but not before sweating bullets and being scared to the core of losing my job.
What's never in your kitchen? Laziness -- physical or mental. I have no tolerance for it. Treat the kitchen like it's your own, don't take shortcuts, keep it clean, keep your head about you, be professional, and work your butt off.
What's always in your kitchen? Good cheer and camaraderie. It's important to be yourself in a kitchen and not some mindless robot that comes in, doesn't say a word, and hovers over your station all night long without contributing to the family atmosphere. I like my team to become a part of each other's lives, which is one of the reasons why Trillium is closed on Monday. I wanted my staff to have a day off together. Many of them are into different aspects of the food or wine industries, and it gives them a chance to broaden their horizons beyond what we do here. If they're learning outside of work, inevitably, some of that knowledge will seep back into the workplace and make us better as a whole.
Favorite dish on your menu: We're serving our winter menu, so it has to be the pan-roasted steelhead trout with mussels, fennel, carrots and potatoes in a dill broth. It's a beautiful fish from the Great Lakes that's served on top of the broth and vegetables, which almost makes it chowder-like. I guess I like it because it reminds me of home, something we'd order on a cold, raw winter day in Michigan to warm the soul.
What do you cook at home that you never cook at the restaurant? I'm almost -- almost -- ashamed to admit it, but I love a warm dip made of ground beef, spicy salsa, Velveeta and chile powder, especially on snowy football days. I like the artisan black-bean tortilla chips with it. It's something my mom used to make when I was a child for Super Bowl Sunday, and now it's comfort food for me. I'll probably be crucified for this, but I don't care -- I still love it.
Weirdest customer request: The guest who said: "I'm a raw vegan. What can you make for me? I don't want any raw vegetables, either." I was dumbfounded.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A fried pig's nipple. When I was at the Kitchen, Hugo Matheson, the owner, used to fry up the nipples from the Long Farm Pork bellies we got and salt them. I can still hear him saying, "Just eat it! You'll like it!" It wasn't bad.
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