The Devil’s In The Details: Chef Luke Reyes

Chef Luke Reyes’ combines unique ingredients for your new favorite dish. Photography by Trisha Angeles. 

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For a media dinner at the Houston Brothers’ Butchers and Barbers, we were treated to champagne, charcuterie boards of delight, and popcorn like we’ve never tasted—rosemary, roasted garlic, and thyme oil—among other delectables, like their to-die-for market crudité with spiced yogurt tahini. The light forecast? Dim with twinkling candles, just as it should be. While the evening-perfect fare was not a surprise, we were surprised by an old friend. At the end of the spread stood Luke Reyes, executive chef of Butchers and Barbers. With one towel over his left shoulder, his eyes shifted focus from his kitchen flow to the mingling of Hollywood creatives, us mag folk included, and therein, a reunion. In between general catch up and offerings of perfectly roasted cauliflower with sheep’s milk feta and brown butter, an interview request.

Lucky for us, we were back for another tasting by Reyes, this time with more depth: pork chops with creamy white beans; chicorie; plum and pine nut gremolata; grilled asparagus, accompanied by burrata, mushrooms, house cured bottarga, and anchovy butter (who knew?); more of that roasted cauliflower; and king salmon with a parsnip puree, hazelnuts, celery, and pea tendrils for a kick that we didn’t expect. Our drink, a Honeycomb Hideout—the nectarines and rosemary-infused honey got us right there—went down smoothly with each exploratory bite.

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Reyes, a Massachusetts native with six years strong in LA, has always wanted to be a chef. “I can remember being a kid and telling my mother that I wanted to be a chef when I grew up,” he says. His first gig as a cook was working under James Beard award-winning Chef Ming Tsai, where his work ethic in the kitchen was instilled. Then came Aujourd’hui at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston, where he honed in on more skills in fine dining and expanded his knowledge base. Moving to LA in 2009, he worked alongside Chef Ilan Hall at The Gorbals (as chef de cuisine) building relationships with local farmers and purveyors—this is probably when creativity in menus and ingredients started—before moving on to the Tasting Kitchen (as junior sous chef), where he mastered his butchery and charcuterie skills with the restaurant’s “whole hog” program. After that, he opened The Corner Door in Culver City (as executive chef) with a well-curated menu that focused on local and seasonal ingredients.

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Landing the gig with the Houston Brothers seems to have had the potent ingredient of timing. While still the chef at The Corner Door, he started doing pop-ups at Houston Brothers’ Harvard and Stone. “We started talking about working together back then,” Reyes says, “but it didn’t materialize right away. When they approached me about doing Butchers and Barbers, we sat and talked about the space and concept… and I loved it. Since going into the project, they’ve really helped foster what I wanted to do with the food.” On what’s next as the food collaborator with the bros, he surprisingly details, “We’ve got some fun stuff planned for fall. A lot more focus on our in-house charcuterie program, lots of curing and pickling. All the good stuff. We have several food concepts being created in Hollywood: we’re opening Madame Siam below Butchers and Barbers, which is going to really amaze people, and where I’ll be serving some really cool Thai-inspired food. We also have a hotel and restaurant opening in Palm Springs. So, there’s a lot in store.”

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After our exquisite meal, we realize Reyes may have also mastered how to combine disparate elements one might never think would mix—or pair—perfectly in a dish. He gives a certain amount of credit to Los Angeles for this knowledge. “I’ve had the opportunity to be surrounded by incredibly talented friends in the industry that inspire and drive me to want to be a better chef,” he says. “I know the saying ‘ingredient driven’ is kinda fucking beat over the head nowadays, but I really can’t think of another way that explains how I try to cook. If we use an ingredient, we’re going to use several different preparations of the ingredient, to really highlight how amazing the, let’s say tomato, might be. That’s why it’s important to use the best produce, fish and meats—because we can’t really hide behind anything. If it’s a shitty tomato, the guest will know it.”

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In Reyes’ case, plenty do know it. He was victorious on The Food Network’s show “Chopped” and kept his cool behind the line to win. “They threw some pretty fucked-up ingredients at us,” he says, “but to me it was more about just keeping calm. And, time management. I could see some of the people I was competing with starting to lose their shit, which just pushed me more.” Winning his episode took turning canned chicken, lime gelatin and imitation crab meat into $10,000 dishes. To us, that may seem impossible, but Reyes carries a competitive bug. “I wrestled in high school and college, and I’m in the boxing ring a few days a week. I’ve used that drive and competitive nature in the kitchen since I started cooking. You have to want to be the best in whatever you do. If you don’t want to be the best at it, there’s no reason to do it at all.”

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Reyes’ competitive spirit earned Butchers and Barbers three stars from Los Angeles Magazine’s Patric Kuh. “We didn’t see that coming at all,” Reyes says. “It’s just a testament to how hard the team at Butchers and Barbers works day in and day out; it was a really proud moment. We’ve had some other critics come in and give us pretty good reviews also. I try and take those types of things with a grain of salt. Its nice to be recognized, but in the end, it means absolute shit if you’re not consistent with your food.”

He communicates plenty with the use of “we” and clearly puts teamwork on top, interacting with his staff throughout the busy night. As dinner wraps, we ask him what he enjoys most within his cooking process. He grins widely. “My most inspirational time in the kitchen is when we get back from the farmers market and organize the produce we brought in. This is when I get the ideas to put together our dishes, and start thinking about what were going to cook,” Reyes says. “There’s really nothing better than that.”

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