There is a new air of class in the world of cannabis in recent years, which has seen part of the event space go from dabs to delectable, with some of the hottest chefs in SoCal pairing seasonal lineups with a wide array of California craft cannabis.
Los Angeles soon will be the marijuana lounge capital of the world. As residents wait for the 16 lounges of West Hollywood to open, the event scene continues to fill the void for those who want a night on the town that involves good friends and weed. While many will range from sketchy to classy farmers markets, some of the newest options feature elite SoCal chefs paired with equally great cannabis and no gimmicks.
But through all that haze, fine dining paired with marijuana is coming into its own. The Secret Chefs, one might say, are now coming into the light. The cannabis culinary experience is an evolving creature that was heavily affected by edible laws going with a really low limit for THC in food.
On Dec. 31, 2017, you could walk into a shop and buy an edible containing 1,000 milligrams of weed. By the next morning you could only get one with 100. The new microdose mentality moved into some of the kitchens with the wave of upscale pot event pop-ups. To this day you'll find some out there doing stupid-expensive-per-head seatings with only a few milligrams of THC consumed by diners, less than $1 worth of pot in cases where you eat 10mg the entire event.
But don't despair! As with many other parts of the cannabis industry, there are plenty of people trying to do it right, and seemingly with general best intentions when it comes to pot and food. You'll find Michelin-starred chefs pairing the season's freshest ingredients with various great cannabis strains, or you can learn to roll your own joints and sushi at the same time. We'll dive into both.
The Original Supper Club
Marc Leibel was one of the first to start pondering combining California's, and the world's, fastest-growing industry with his fine-dining experience. Leibel was a chef with a decade's experience in stints at the Montage in Laguna Beach and the Pacific Club in Newport Beach, among others.
"The Cannabis Supper Club kind of came into fruition in my brain about five or six years ago," Leibel tells L.A. Weekly in a phone interview.
Leibel's introduction to the private cannabis event space came via the Secret Sesh. "It was a great time. It was a small community and you were able to check out the products and get to know people, brands and the growers personally."
Leibel, now 45, considers himself a bit of a foodie. He enjoys a high-end meal and dinner events. He thought the Secret Sesh was great for what it was, "but something that would fit more my personal demographic was where I was going with it," Leibel says.
He had already been out and about on the culinary pop-up event circuit in L.A. When Ludo Lefebvre did his LudoBites events, Leibel and his wife made it to every one multiple times. "We just kind of got into the excitement of the event, the lifestyle of it," he says.
Leibel says those pop-ups led to the first incarnation in his mind of pairing a chef's table with cannabis. At the time he believed it would be a good way to break down walls and destigmatize cannabis. As a resident of Southern Orange County, he knew crafting the message just right would be key.
Baby boomers are the fastest-growing demographic among cannabis users, but some locals were still a bit dated on their pot ideas. "So to do it as a foodie but bring in people that maybe are afraid of cannabis, show them kind of a neat way to interpret it, and the food is such a great way to bring people together," Leibel says.
The supper club idea would be refined over 10 months starting in late 2016, during the runup to the Proposition 64 vote. Leibel says putting together a dinner can take a bit less time but putting together the experience he was shooting for is far more encompassing. Building the right network to pull it off well was key. Also, the support of his family in the final stages of the election pushed things over the edge.
The Cannabis Supper Club officially kicked off in July 2017. The evening in Laguna Beach featured a seven-course dinner with chef Chris Binotto, with whom Leibel had worked at the Montage. Binotto had stints at Morimoto's Chicago restaurant and other great kitchens. Highlights of the first Supper Club included an oyster with Champagne foam and halibut. There was no THC in the food.
"With the caliber of the chefs we're using, they're not cannabis chefs. I'm not a cannabis chef myself. A lot of it is I don't want to be responsible for dosing people. Everyone has a different tolerance level and it affects them different ways," Leibel says.
He mentions those dinners that give you 2.5 milligrams of THC per course during the meal. "It feels a little gimmicky to me," Leibel said, "I know a lot of people that enjoy eating edibles and have built up tolerances to them. That's not going to do much for them."
The way the Cannabis Supper Club brings everything together is pairing each course with a strain. The chef, farmers and Leibel will sit down together to talk dishes and strains, looking to match flavor profiles. Leibel's current favorite strain for pairing is Wonderbrett's Pink Picasso, a blend of Dying Breed Seeds' famed OZK and Candyland. "I work with Wonderbrett probably half the time on dinners," Leibel says. He appreciates their dedication to growing for a dynamic terpene profile and the flavor that comes with that.
"We've done some nice O.G.s that went well with dishes. We did a vegan dinner in Orange County. Five of the seven courses were paired with O.G. crosses — it went well with the earthiness of the vegetables and the mushrooms," Leibel says. Each dinner tends to have one or two strains that really take people's breath away.
March saw the 15th edition of the Cannabis Supper Club take place. Leibel calls the response from members and guests over the last two years humbling. "I try and create community, I do it family-style." Through the ambiance, Leibel is focusing on the needs of each guest, checking on all throughout the evening.
"People tell me it's nice to have something in this industry that's not a sales, networking or marketing event, just a night to enjoy. But it is a social and networking event — it just doesn't feel that way," Leibel says.
One of the recent highlights for Cannabis Supper Club has been getting chef Joe Sasto involved. Known for his trademark mustache and top-three run on Top Chef, Sasto spent years bouncing around some of the classiest kitchens Northern California had to offer. This includes three years at the three-Michelin-starred Quince, where he managed the handmade pasta program under chef Michael Tusk.
"Chef Joe liked one of my posts on Instagram, so I sent him a message," Leibel says.
He told Sasto he was a big fan who'd watched Top Chef for years with his wife, and he'd love to do something with Sasto if he was up for it. He was.
March saw the second Cannabis Supper Club featuring Sasto. The first was last October.
Sasto was then at Cal Mare at the Beverly Center but his contract was nearing its expiration date. While he waited for his time there to come to an end, he and Leibel prepped for his arrival into high-end cannabis dining. The event ended up being a home run. Since then, Sasto and Leibel have hosted a couple of private events in the build-up to the second edition of the full supper club, which is well timed with the spring harvest and Sasto's farmers market enthusiasm.
Sasto starts our chat by saying, "It's an exciting time. Prohibition is ending."
His first view of the cannabis industry came as a chef in Ukiah, which is is the heart of Mendocino County and the gateway to cannabis country as you drive through the redwoods up the 101.
"It was a really interesting area being up there. I grew in Vegas, and I didn't realize how kind of closed it was culturally. It was a conservative city," Sasto said, "Then when I was up in Davis getting my degree, it was my first time being introduced to a liberal, progressive, forward-thinking hippie town."
Sasto says his time in Davis opened his eyes, and then he headed to Ukiah. "And it's a whole different kind of tight-knit community up there. I definitely saw another side of the [cannabis] industry behind the scenes. All the micro farmers and people up there seasonally. "
Sasto's introduction to cooking for the cannabis industry came during his year in Ukiah. "I had done a private dinner at a ranch up there for the harvest season. We had all the workers and I was feeding the people who were harvesting the product and trimming it."
We ask if Sasto was able to take any experiences from cooking for farmers in the Emerald Triangle into this newer version of the industry, but he says it's really become night and day. "Back then it was kind of the stereotypical person that was open and out [about their use] going to an event or cooking with cannabis," Sasto says. "Now we've moved forward and the consumer is a whole new demographic that ranges from 18 to 80."
As for the wider modern cannabis industry, Sasto has his concerns. Everything he saw back in the day was very grassroots and very much about the farmer. "Now that we're mainstreaming everything, it's become much more industrial. It's almost turning into a big pharma situation, where small farmers can't meet the standards to go legal," he says.
Sasto noted he understands certain realities when it comes to consumer protection, "but it really takes away a lot of that natural, organic feel that was the origin and root of the cannabis community." In light of that, we ask Sasto if he is still able to bring the farm-to-table ethos he's known for when dealing with cannabis.
"It's almost exactly the same," he affirms. "A lot of people think [of] weed the drug, but it's actually the plant, the flower, the ingredient. It's something that complements all the other ingredients you already use." He believes there is no difference in going to the farmers market to ask someone about their potatoes and asking someone about the process they use to grow their marijuana. "How long he cures it for? How long he dries it for? Why he bred that strain in a particular way."
Sasto says it's important to know the farmer's story and the time and effort the grower puts in, so he can take that energy into doing something to highlight their work in the best way possible. Sasto has more time to prep for some events than others. Sometimes on a few days' notice he'll get a spread of strains to pair with dishes he's planned. On other occasions, he has a couple of months' lead time to talk to farmers and get a sense for what will be available when it's time to start cooking.
"We'll smoke through it, we'll taste it, and we'll kind of decide based on what's going to be ready," Sasto says. "On those occasions, the menu is completely based on the flower. It has kind of gone both ways."
We ask Sasto how much of the time it's about making the most of the season's ingredients compared to just knowing the perfect meal to cook with a particular strain. "I would say it's probably 70/30, based on the ingredients themselves." He mainly sees the weed as a way to highlight the whole experience. He's focused on cooking first and working in the flower as he can, "almost like a wine pairing." Sasto says very few times do you taste wine and think, "Oh my God, I need to cook this." Usually you make the dish and then find the wine that goes with the dish.
As for cooking at cannabis events, compared with the pressure of trying to hold on to a few Michelin stars, Sasto says things don't change much. That time he spent in elite kitchens didn't come with a mentality that features an on/off switch.
"That's how I approach everything. Whether it be a really casual dinner at home cooking for a friend, working in a restaurant, or putting on one of these tasting events, you're always looking to provide the highest level of hospitality, to always go the extra mile in any little detail or extra touch you can do to make somebody's experience unforgettable, so that food then becomes even more powerful," he says.
Sasto thinks the current cannabis dining landscape is interesting, and part of that is the growing scale of it all. "Some are doing it well," he says, because from his view there are a lot of well-trained chefs who like to smoke weed. But once you start mixing chefs who have never cooked with weed trying to dose people with people who love weed but never cooked trying to prepare food for others, it gets weird. "That's where a lot of those dining experiences fall short. I can fill the niche in a sense because I have the background in restaurants, fine dining, cooking professionally for over 10 years. And as a user, I've also taken the time to learn the product and all the different ways cannabis can be used, infused and incorporated," Sasto says.
Sasto's biggest concern is that anyone joining him in the scene be on the same page when it comes to removing the stigma and connotations that have plagued the industry for years. He wants people to be able to talk about a weed pairing with the confidence they would a wine pairing. He says we're not there yet but, as long as we act responsibly, educate and pass on the right information to consumers, that will be the direction the industry heads in.
A Dual Rolling Experience
Cannabis-related food events are far from all sit-down affairs. Barbie Sommars is the chief experience creator at High Dining. Its February Sushi + Doobie rolling workshop proved a hit with guests perfecting the process of spinning up both under the direction of chefs and aficionado pot educators. February featured the pop-up's L.A. debut, after four previous events in 2017 in Orange County.
While the educators on the joint-rolling have changed, Sommars has worked with chef Victor Miller on the sushi side every time. "He's an excellent teacher and he loves to share his knowledge about food. So they're learning about traditional Japanese culture and traditional technique in making the roll," Sommars says before noting it's a standing affair generally for authenticity but they would, of course, accommodate folks who may not be able to stand that long.
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Martin chooses the appetizers and then the roll that the students will learn to whip up. Since the roll changes from class to class, no two events in the series are exactly alike. "It's half class, and then the latter part of the event is a more lounge-type relaxed environment," Sommars says. To this point, they've always highlighted sun-grown flower for the joint-rolling portion.
Sommars says she may not work with anyone who calls themselves a cannabis chef, but she works with great chefs who have an affinity for cannabis. She sees herself as the liaison between the culinary world and the cannabis world.
Events such as Cannabis Supper Club and Sushi + Doobies are definitely the first wave of something special. We look forward to seeing what can happen from here as the events evolve alongside California's massive cannabis industry.
High Dining Club's next event is its fifth annual Moonlit Movable Feast on Saturday, May 18, in Joshua Tree. Tickets and more info are available at highdining.club.