Neal Fraser is a chef and the owner of multiple restaurant concepts in his native Los Angeles, including the critically acclaimed Redbird and Vibiana. You've probably seen him on Bravo TV's Top Chef Masters and Food Network's Iron Chef America.
Always looking for a new approach to food, Fraser shared his thoughts on legal recreational cannabis with L.A. Weekly.
L.A. WEEKLY: How is the end of prohibition going to affect the food and restaurant industries in Los Angeles?
NEAL FRASER: It's an opportunity for restaurateurs to cater to a community they haven't been able to before. Not everybody drinks alcohol and not everybody smokes pot. It's an opportunity for us to learn about our consumers and what our society will bear to what's acceptable.
For me as a chef and a restaurateur, I'm always looking for ways to expand my audience and what I can do. I don't smoke pot very often, but when I do it changes my appetite and the way I experience food. Just like a bottle of first-growth Bordeaux, marijuana can liven your senses to eat things you normally wouldn't or appreciate them in a different way.
How does it translate to the menu at the restaurant?
I'm really not interested in cooking with pot. I'm more interested in pairing cannabis with food. Depending on the laws, we can do private dinners at Redbird, where we cater to a clientele where the cannabis would be included in the meal. A guest grower would come in, just like when we have a wine dinner. We did one dinner like that with MedMen. They're not trying to sell it inexpensively, and they have quality behind their name. They're like the Tiffany's of cannabis.
For us as a restaurant and event space, we want to provide an experience that somebody couldn't have at home. Most people aren't going to buy foie gras and cook it up at home. They're going to eat it in a restaurant. We want to be associated with high-end growers that have different strains you couldn't have at home. It's a curated thing.
What sort of a menu would you put together for an evening like that?
I've done one so far at a private home when I partnered with MedMen, who I have a relationship with. It was a regular tasting menu. The cannabis went from weakest to strongest as far as flavor, and the same with the food. You don't start off with a T-bone steak and make your way to a scallop crudo. You start with something light and work your way up to a more robust flavor. The same with cannabis.
The first course had floral undertones to it. We started with a hamachi crudo. All the cannabis we did was via a joint. Everybody got his or her own joint and smoked a little of it or a lot, it was up to the guest. The entrée was rib-eye steak with romesco and roasted sunchokes.
I know, you think of a marijuana dinner full of people taking off their clothes and running around and jumping on the tables naked, but it was very subdued. These were people of stature in society, and nobody freaked out. They had experience smoking marijuana, and it was just like any other night for them. There are a lot of misnomers. Some people drink alcohol and go crazy, and others don't.
You don't like cooking with pot?
Pot is not an ingredient I like to cook with. I cook with hemp. I've been cooking with hemp for 20 years. Taking your marijuana buds and basting your steak with it just doesn't taste good. The main reason I started using hemp seeds and hemp oil is because it has the same omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids as salmon. It's brain fat, a fat that's good for you. It was about a new ingredient. These were sterilized plants so there was no THC.
But throwing crystallized bud in a pan with a piece of meat is just kind of stupid. I think that's a shock-value way of using it and what we do is not about shock, it's about integrity in what we're using.
Truffles, good steak, fish — we want to treat each ingredient with the utmost integrity and the same would go for cannabis. I'm not just putting it on the menu for shock value. I want it to have meaning.
If I'm making a sturgeon in marijuana, I have to figure how much that marijuana costs to smoke that fish. Would it be better quality if I used alderwood or oak? It has to have intrinsic value. If I'm using $100 worth of marijuana to smoke a piece of fish, can I charge $1,000 for the dish? We're a business, it has to make sense.
How soon can we start booking space at Redbird and Vibiana?
The prohibition ends Jan. 1; people have to apply for their licenses. It's not going to happen overnight, but I think it's a great opportunity for people to be able to go someplace and imbibe and enjoy in a safe place. We have private rooms, people won't be lighting up joints in the dining room. When you have a private space, the regulations are different.
Once everything is signed and sealed and the laws are clear, we hope to be a restaurant that can offer that. The fact that we have the private space makes it perfect for that kind of experience. It's not going to happen right way.
The possibilities are endless! I hear it's going into pet food…
As a matter of fact I have a friend who does that. He makes dog treats with cannabis in them. They help with joint pain and all sorts of other things. Cannabidiol (CBD) is a pretty amazing chemical in marijuana. There are lots of medicinal qualities. My friend makes all types of ointments and cancer drugs out of cannabis.
There are so many uses for this other than just getting stoned. It has positive effects on your body. It has numbing effects on your body and increases your appetite. CBD may not impair you to the point that THC does, but you don't take it and feel nothing.
Hopefully something real good will come out of the legalization of this drug. We don't know what it is yet, but it just might be discovered in a lab at Stanford University and because of its legalization it will allow us to use it more and help the human race by discovering something we haven't even thought about yet.