Chef Ryan Leinonen has certainly surveyed the Boulder and Denver restaurant scene. The guy's been around, holding top positions at Q’s in Boulder, The Kitchen in Boulder, Rootdown in Denver and most recently, Colt & Gray in Denver. Now, Leinonen is approaching the opening of his own restaurant called Trillium located in Denver’s Ballpark District. After whittling down a stack of 250+ resumes to about six key players, his kitchen is staffed, the front of the house is trained up and Trillium is shaping up to open next Tuesday, if, of course, he likes what he sees over the weekend, when the restaurant will host a soft opening.
How long has this been a scheme in your head?
My first restaurant? Nineteen years. I started cooking when I was 15 back in Michigan. I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant. Even as a child I was really into food. I had a Fischer Price stove and I used to watch Julia Child a lot. Oh, and Yan Can Cook, the Korean guy on PBS. I preferred that over Sesame Street as a child. I was always into cooking. My best friend’s dad owned the nicest restaurant in our hometown, so I started cooking there when I was 15, and I started as a dishwasher. By the time I was 19 years old I was managing kitchens already, and then I went to culinary school. Then I went to college again for hotel and restaurant management.
So why Denver?
I had spent four and half years in Boulder and I just wanted to expand. It was just time for me to leave The Kitchen anyway. I loved working there, but it was time for me to go do other things. I opened Rootdown and I was the executive chef there for a year. It was fun. It was interesting? It just really wasn’t my kind of environment or the food I like to do. It was more global and Asian-inspired. It was an overly frenetic place. I left and went to Colt & Gray, which was more my kind of classical French, high-end food. The only reason I left was because I had the opportunity to do this.
Can you talk more about your style? Isn’t there supposed to be a heavy Scandinavian influence at Trillium?
Not so much heavy. It’s a subtle influence. I was classically trained in French food and I worked for a lot of French chefs growing up, so the basis of my culinary knowledge is definitely French. I’ve always worked at places that do new American cuisine, but my Scandinavian influence comes from my family. My grandma came over in her teens from Finland and when I was growing up she cooked Scandinavian specialties, so that was always really interesting to me. It was only a couple times a year that I got to eat those things, so they were always really special childhood memories. The Scandinavian influence here is actually pretty subtle and light, to start, because Denver is pretty much a meat and potatoes market. I don’t want to scare anyone away. I don’t want people to say, "I don’t think I can eat there. That’s a little too weird for me." I want to start really light and subtle because it’s [Scandinavian food] new. It’s definitely new to the Denver area. Just the word "Scandinavian" makes people think, "Oh, what’s that? Seems kind of weird."
How would you describe it?
It’s actually very simple. It’s very fish heavy, very dairy heavy and very vegetable heavy. It’s sort of like meat and potatoes? It’s just fish and potatoes. They use a lot of berries in the summer and a lot of root vegetables in the winter. Obviously lots of fish. They use a lot of caviar, so we’re going to have a high-end caviar service. We’re just going to keep it fresh, seasonal and evolving. It will tie back into all the places I’ve worked - The Kitchen and The Common Grill in Michigan, which is an amazing restaurant. Casual, but you get the fine dining service and experience. You can come in wearing a suit and feel fine or a shorts and a T-shirt and feel fine.
Are there places in Denver that encapsulate that concept?
A few. I’ve always liked to eat a Jax. The food is awesome there. You know, it’s casual, but the service and food are exceptional and you never feel out of place there. I like Row 14. There’s other fine dining place I like. I love Fruition and Table 6. Table 6 is a little more casual. I just wouldn’t go to Fruition in shorts and a T-shirt.
But you want people to feel comfortable doing that here?
Yes. With the proximity to the ballpark and the fact that it’s a young and vibrant neighborhood. If people don’t feel like dressing up to go out, I want them to be able to get something good to eat here and feel comfortable. Or, if it’s prom or whatever, they can dress up and feel just as comfortable too. It’s an "anything goes, everyone is welcome" kind of place. You can come in and have a beer before the game or sit down and have five courses and spends tons of money.
Where else were you looking for a space?
I actually found another space on the other side of the ballpark that I was pretty interested in, but it fell through. It just didn’t work financially for me. I’ve always looked in this area and I found this space. It looked totally different than this when I found it. It was a pawn shop for 70 years.
Did that discourage you?
Um, a little bit because we completely gutted this space. On August 1st, this was all dirt. There was nothing in here. The whole front of the building was a pawnshop frontage, so we tore the front off the building, put up a new façade, gutted it and redid the whole thing. What we were able to save was the post and beams. They’re original – 108 year old pine. The brick wall is original, also 108 years old.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was working with the city. Some things took longer than I expected. I wanted to be open in September, which just didn’t happen. My contractor was amazing, so really, we haven’t had too many problems.
Where is Denver dining headed?
I really think it’s in the direction of San Francisco. I think Denver has a pretty good growing season and restaurants have just exploded. Atleast the quality of restaurants and access to good ingredients. The Boulder Farmer’s market is incredible. It’s really headed in a great direction. Even five years ago, no one really came to Denver to eat. They went to Boulder. After the real estate market crashed, things became more affordable for people like me. Five years ago, this block was really blighted and expensive for what you were able get. It’s just getting nicer and it’s growing. I’m excited for it.
Ryan Leinonen cooking at The James Beard House [Photo: Westword]