A lollipop and a trip to the grocery store changed chef Unika Noiel’s life forever.
“When I was growing up,” explains the head chef and manager at Pioneer Square’s Italian restaurant Che Sara Sara, “my mother steered me away from doing drugs. Like all moms, she wanted me to get my life on track, get my career going. But when I turned 30, I said to myself, ‘I think this is the time.’ ” So Noiel, born and raised in Tacoma, called a friend who called a dealer who arrived with a few weed-infused lollipops he’d gotten from a Washington medical dispensary. “I ate one and went for this walk,” she recalls. “And it was amazing. I had the best time at the grocery store—I was talking to people and thinking, ‘Man, this is great!’ ”
That night, she began researching how to make cannabis-infused edibles. Now, nine years later, Noiel has created her own business, Luvn Kitchn, which produces “Fellowship” dinners, monthly invitation-only events featuring her very special soul food—dishes like cannabis-infused fried chicken, mashed potatoes, crawfish, and pâté. She uses a secret recipe for infused flour, an ingredient that allows her to create savory THC-laden meals that offer a different experience than more common sweet edibles like cookies and candy. Despite the great walk with the lollipop, Noiel admits, “I’m not a big sweets person.”
Noiel’s journey to the kitchen began at a young age. “My grandparents are from Louisiana,” she explains, “and I grew up eating a lot of soul food and Southern food. I had uncles who owned barbecue restaurants and a grandmother who went to culinary school.” Cooking stuck with her, and she opened a small catering company in 2006, Soul-Full Foods. In 2013, following a stint working for a city personnel department, she enrolled in culinary school, meanwhile working at the now-defunct Lucid Jazz Lounge in the U District before transitioning to high-end catering. She worked in a Texas school cafeteria, on a private yacht, and in a nursing home before finally landing at the beloved Eastlake Italian restaurant, Serafina, where she stayed for two years and learned the art of fine Italian cooking.
Her heart, though, had become tied to cannabis and edibles—not just for their fun, recreational purposes, but for their medicinal and healing capabilities. Over the years, as she developed her infused flour, Noiel’s edibles customers would offer the same critique: They tasted good, but needed to be stronger. She was using both weed butter and infused flour for her products, but knew something had to level up. Then she began using “Rick Simpson Oil,” created for cancer patients. “I started getting weird phone calls,” she laughs. “I got good feedback from people. I’d talk to them about what’s wrong and suggest a certain cookie to have for, like, their colitis.”
Now head chef at Che Sara Sara, Noiel continues to grow two businesses at once. In one, she cooks lunches and dinners five days a week, trying to reinvigorate the storied restaurant’s menu. Che Sara Sara’s longtime owner recently passed and Noiel, recommended by a friend in the industry, was brought on to help rebuild it. She is retaining its Apulian cuisine (from the “heel” of the Italian boot) while mixing in what she learned at Serafina, plus her family’s knowledge of Creole cooking.
At the same time, Noiel is making inroads as Seattle’s premier cannabis-infused soul-food chef. In October she hosted her 10th Fellowship meal—she does both dinners and brunches. Diners can find out how to score an invitation by visiting the Luvn Kitchn’s Facebook or Instagram pages. “Everything’s going well,” she says. “And I’m enjoying the challenge.” For her last Fellowship dinner, Noiel served infused andouille sausage with a country crawfish-and-prawn boil. “We dumped the crawfish and gulf prawns out on the table,” she says, “and of course we used infused butter.”
Producing her Fellowship events, Noiel has learned to refine her THC dosages. “I’m always afraid people won’t feel like they got their money’s worth,” she says. “But I’ve dialed things in and dialed things back—though there are still plenty of ways to enhance your meal,” she laughs. And a year from now, Noiel hopes the dinners will be well known and even more immersive for her invited guests, with local art and live music. “I miss the sense of community that I had back when I was hanging out in medical dispensaries,” Noiel offers. “I miss talking to people about their journeys. I’d like to bring some of that back.”