Luke Reyes is a veteran chef who worked several top kitchens in Los Angeles, and his own 9th Street Ramen opens downtown in April or May. In the meantime, the chef has kept busy with numerous pop-up dinners, many of which involve cannabis. Last fall, the longtime advocate officially launched La Hoja, a cannabis-infused gastronomy company that does both private events and pop-ups, and he'll soon launch an olive oil line called VIREO that includes THC- and CBD-infused options. PRØHBTD spoke with chef Reyes to learn more.
You are currently set to open 9th Street Ramen in a few months. Any dish you can describe as a contender for signature status at the restaurant?
We just did the final draft of [the menu], and we're going to start doing the final round of tastings on that. Something special that we can tell everyone about is a Tokyo-style black ramen, which is a mixture of pork and chicken broth that's a bit lighter than tonkotsu ramen. We use whole chickens that we raise locally and chashu pork with our house-made noodles, and we installed a wok into our restaurant just for it. Essentially what makes it black is we take the broth and we put it into a super-hot wok, and we add a burnt allium oil, so it's like burnt shallot, garlic, onion. We caramelize it really slow and low, so it looks black like it would taste burnt, but it's actually just very, very caramelized. We then add a little smoked miso paste that emulsifies in the hot heat of the wok and becomes a creamy broth. That's going to be one of our signature dishes that really no one else around here does.
That sounds amazing.
Yeah, it's really phenomenal. I'm excited.
You have a cannabis company called La Hoja. When did it launch?
I launched its earliest iteration last year in April. I did a couple pop-up events that led to what eventually became La Hoja, but myself and my two partners launched the full-on company last November. We've done some really good events, and we've got some interesting parties coming up for 4/20, at Coachella and during the whole month of April. We're doing a dinner in Humboldt County in May with two cannabis growers, and we just did a brunch with Ladies of Paradise, which is like a women's cannabis group. Right now we're creating awareness of exactly what we do because many people still think of edibles as brownies or whatever.
So the company is an event catering company that also does pop-ups for the general public?
Exactly. We do private events, and then about once a month, we host different events for the public. Last month we did a 42-person, sit-down, multi-course wine dinner. And then in November coinciding with our launch, we did an event with about 200 people, but it wasn't a sit-down dinner. We set up an oyster bar, and we did some THC-infused mignonette and spritzers, and we partnered with Stillhouse whiskey for CBD cocktails.
You recently partnered with the chef from The Wallace for an infused dinner. Will you continue to collaborate with local chefs, or was that more of an outlier?
I'd like to see that happen. That was kind of a test. Joel [Miller] is the chef at The Wallace, and we worked together at Scratch Bar about five years ago, so we're still good friends. You mentioned you interviewed Jon Yao [from Kato], and we're good friends. Jon, Joel, myself and Kato's pastry chef Max [Boon] all did a yakitori pop-up together in September. I like to bring in more friends and chefs that I can do events with, but at this infancy of our business, I'd like to establish ourselves as La Hoja and let people know what we do first.
Will the opening of 9th Street Ramen limit how many of these events you can do?
Not at all. They're two different concepts, and the fact that I'm a chef and co-owner for both of them means there can be some sort of symbiosis. We can do a one-off as we talk to my partners in the ramen shop about doing THC-infused broth or a Japanese dinner with La Hoja where we bring some cannabis elements to it. But 9th Street Ramen is specifically Japanese inspired, very traditional, in the style of ramen we're doing. We're going to have a robata grill, we're doing some sashimi-style dishes, but there will definitely be some opportunities to cross over.
What was your first personal experience with infused food?
First experience, that'd be a long time… it's definitely a stretch, but I got a cool story. I was probably 15 or 16 when I started [smoking] cannabis, and shortly after, I tried to figure out every way that I could smoke it and eat it. I grew up in western Massachusetts, and a lot of people in the Northeast follow bands all the time—very into Phish, very into The Dead. I started going to all of those music festivals at age 16, and I'd be camping with some friends, and we'd be like, "Let's make a bunch of brownies or some Rice Krispy treats." That was definitely me testing the waters of that early version of cooking with cannabis, which was light years different from what I'm doing now.
Do you remember the first thing that you personally made with cannabis?
I definitely remember [spending] a high-school year making a recipe for ganja goo balls. Essentially you make cannabutter and then add marshmallows, chocolate and every version of fucking cereal. I can remember it looked like a snowball-sized mix of 50 different colors—it was almost brown [with] little flecks of Lucky Charms cereal in there. I'm sure people now would be like, "That's disgusting," but when you're a kid walking around a music festival, it's the greatest thing ever. On the entrepreneurial side, we made a bunch of them, and I remember walking around with them in our backpack and selling them for $10 apiece. We sold out the whole backpack's worth of goo balls, which is just pretty hilarious and telling, if anything.
That sounds like something the Momofuku Milk Bar would sell.
Yeah! Honestly, it wasn't disgusting, it just didn't look the best. Y'know, it looked like a softball-sized ball of marshmallow and chocolate chips and cereal and weed.
What is your view of cannabis in the larger political and social narrative?
I have a foot in both sides of those things. My entire family is Puerto Rican, and we come from a lower class where I've seen my own brothers serve extended time in prison for cannabis crimes. [Prohibition] unfairly targeted lower-economic social status blacks and Latinos in the inner city, and they get a criminal record for a bag of weed. I happened to grow up in a rural area with friends who had more money or who were white or whatever, and we'd get a slap on the wrist, or their parents caught them, and they had to stay home on vacation. [The current wave of legalization] is hopefully an opportunity for places like San Francisco go back and wipe out some of the criminal records so people can vote again and [more easily] get jobs and apartments. That in itself is amazing.
From your time at Butchers & Barbers, you have a reputation as a whole beast master...
Ha! Whole beast master... I don't think I've heard that one before. I've definitely heard a lot of versions of that, but whole beast master is a new one. I'll take it.
If you were to create an infused snout-to-tail dish, what animal would you use?
We actually did do this in October. We invited three or four of our friends who don't really smoke weed or do edibles, and we were like, "Listen, we're going to mellow it out and make it a milder dose," so it was a nice experience. Because they're friends, we just let them be our guinea pigs, and for our entrée course, we got a whole succulent pig. We actually did three-way pig's ears. We roasted the ribs crusted with a spice rub I made with fennel seed, fennel pollen, some decarbed cannabis, chili flakes, coriander and cumin. I brushed the baby-back ribs with some infused extra virgin olive oil, and then we slow roasted them and made a glaze out of the drippings with a little more of the THC oil. We then crusted the pork loin, and we made a pork jus. That was really cool.
When you won Chopped, you had to create a dish with durian, which does not smell good.
It's fucking disgusting, yeah.
If you had to create an infused dish with durian, what would you make?
Since I used it that first time, I played with it a few more times. To eat it raw is disgusting, but roasted it and infused it and sauced it, and I think you should use it like a really stinky truffle, almost like cheese. If it can add depth and bulk to a dish, okay, but you don't open a durian and spread it on toast. I never use durian unless I'm forced to, but I'm making curry tonight, and I would use it as part of a sauce to layer a little bit of depth in.
In doing all these infused dinners, have you been able to create new techniques for infusion that might benefit other chefs?
Yeah, we actually have a product that's coming out. So we wanted extra virgin olive oil that's actually really mellow. We haven't talked about this much, but we partnered with CO2 Clear, who own Zeki Farms, and we went to a bunch of different olive farms in California to find the best fresh-pressed olive oil, and we ended up partnering with Nuvo Farms. We came up with a new product, VIREO Olive Oil. We're doing CBD and THC versions made with California olives all pressed within the last year, and we're also doing flavor infusions. We're doing a citrus [infusion] that's going to be orange, lemon, garlic and fresh chilies with the olives and infused with THC. Plus, it's all micro-dosed, so every portion of the olive oil contains 5mg of THC. That's actually how we're doing a lot of the infusions lately because we have all this olive oil that we've been playing with. It's the most beautiful finishing olive oil.