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."