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Gimmick-free Fine Dining and Cannabis Pop-ups Give Us High Hopes

There is a new air of class in the world of cannabis in recent years that’s 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.

While the countdown continues for the first of West Hollywood’s bougie pot lounges to open, the current dining event scene in L.A. is about as top shelf as you’ll get. The vast majority of events continue to be varying levels of sketchy to reputable farmers style markets that slid under the tough regs in 2018 thanks to the lack of enforcement on the budding industry.

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 impacted by edible laws going with a really low THC limit for THC in food.

On December 31st, 2017 you could walk into a shop and buy an edible with 1,000 milligrams of weed in it, the next morning you could only get one with 100. The new microdose mentality moved into some of the kitchens among the wave of upscale pot event pop-ups. To this day you’ll find some out there doing stupid-expensive-a-head seatings with only a few milligrams of THC consumed by diners, less than $1 worth of pot in cases where you eat 10mgs 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. To that extent, you’ll find Michelin starred chefs pairing the season’s freshest ingredients with various great cannabis strains, or you can even learn to roll joints and sushi at the same time. We’ll dive into both.

The Original Supper Club
Chef Joe Sasto, left, and Marc Leibel – Photo courtesy of Brad Metzger Restaurant Solutions

Marc Leibel was one of the first folks to start pondering combining California, and the world’s, fastest growing industry with his fine dining experience. Leibel was a chef himself for a decade with 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 told Irvine Weekly in a phone interview.

Back then, Leibel’s first 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 said.

Leibel had already been out and about on the culinary pop-up event circuit in L.A. When Ludo Lefebvre did his Ludo Bites events Leibel and his wife made it to everyone multiple times. “We just kind of got into the excitement of the event, the lifestyle of it.”

Leibel says following that he got 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 things. As a resident of Southern Orange County, he knew crafting the message just right would be key.

Baby boomers are the fastest growing demographic of 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 said.

The supper club idea would be refined over ten months starting in late 2016 in the build-up to the Prop 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 of 2017. The evening in Laguna Beach featured a seven course dinner with chef Chris Binotto. Leibel previously worked with Binotto 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 calibers 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 different tolerance level and it affects them different ways,” Leibel said.

He went on to speak about those dinners that give you two and a half milligrams 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 accordingly. 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 said. He appreciates their dedication to growing for a dynamic terpene profile and the flavor that comes with that.

“We’ve done some nice OGs that went well with dishes, we did a vegan dinner in Orange County. Five of the seven courses were paired with OG crosses, it went well with the earthiness of the vegetables and the mushrooms,” Leibel said.  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 called 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 said

The Chef
Photo courtesy of Joe Sasto

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 NorCal 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 said.

He told Sasto he was a big fan. He’d watched Top Chef for years with his wife and would love to do something with Sasto if he was up for it. He was, March hosted the second Cannabis Supper Club featuring Sasto. The first was last October.

Sasto was still at Cal Mare at the Beverly Center. While he waited for his time there to come to an end they 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 for and Sasto’s farmers market enthusiasm.

“It’s an exciting time, prohibition is ending,” Sasto started our chat with.

Sasto’s first view of the cannabis industry came as a chef in Ukiah. Ukiah is the heart of Mendocino County and the gateway to cannabis country as you drive through the redwoods up CA101.

“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, 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 industry was 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 that were harvesting the product and trimming it.”

We asked if Sasto was able to take any experiences from cooking for farmers in the Emerald Triangle into this newer version of the industry, he says it’s really become night and day. “Back then it was kind of the stereotypical person that was open [about their use]  and out going to an even or cooking with cannabis,” Sasto said, “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 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,” Sasto said.

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 asked Sasto if he is still able to bring the farm-to-table he’s known for when dealing with cannabis.

“It’s almost exactly the same,” he affirmed. “A lot of people think the weed the drug, but it’s actually the plant, the flower, the ingredient. It’s something that compliments 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 they put in so he can take that energy into doing something to highlight their work in the best way possible. Some events Sasto has more time to prep. 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,” said Sasto. “On those occasions, the menu is completely based on the flower. It has kind of gone both ways.”

We asked Sasto how much of the time it was 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 you taste wine and go “oh my god I need to cook this.” It’s usually you make the dish and then you find the wine that goes with the dish.

As for cooking at cannabis events compared to 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 and 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 at that point,” Sasto said.

Sasto thinks the current cannabis dining landscape is interesting, part of that for him is the growing scale of it all. “Some are doing it well,” he says that because from his view there are a lot of well-trained chefs that like to smoke weed. But once you start mixing chefs that have never cooked with weed trying to dose people or people that 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 ten 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 said.

Sasto’s biggest concern is anyone joining him in the scene is 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 info to consumers, that will be the direction the industry heads in.

A Dual Rolling Experience

Photo by Michele Stueven

These events are far from all sitdown affairs. Barbie Sommars is the Chief Experience Creator at High Dining. Their February Sushi + Doobie rolling workshop proved a hit with guest perfecting the process of spinning up both under the direction of chefs and aficionado pot educators. February featured the popups L.A. debut with the previous four events taking place 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 said before noting it’s a standing affair generally for authenticity, but they would, of course, accommodate folks who may not be able to.

Martin chooses the apps and then the roll 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,” Sommar said. To this point, they’ve always highlighted sungrown flower for the joint rolling portion of things.

Sommars says she may not work with anyone that calls themselves a cannabis chef, but she works with great chefs with an affinity for cannabis. She sees herself as the liaison between the culinary world and the cannabis world.

Events like 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.