This article was originally published by The Cannabist
Written by Emily Ornberg
Everybody knows college is the best place to experiment.
While smoking weed in his campus residence at the University of Santa Cruz, pre-med molecular biology student Chris Sayegh got to thinking deep about, well, weed. He was curious as to how cannabis actually worked in his body, on a molecular level. So he began researching.
And what he learned motivated him to change careers.
“I found out we were being completely lied to,” Sayegh tells The Cannabist. “I didn’t realize that we had a whole endocannabinoid system, I didn’t realize our bodies are meant to receive cannabinoids. So I started to do all my research papers on it, and I quickly realized this is something I wanted to work with. I didn’t really know how I was going to do it, but as soon as I figured out my path, I immediately left school and started doing what I wanted to professionally.”
As much as Sayegh experimented with molecular concoctions in the lab, he also experimented with his own concoctions in his kitchen. At the time, cooking was only a hobby — but he always dreamt of becoming a chef. And the more he looked into marijuana’s effects and health benefits, the more he wanted to work with the plant. So he dropped out of medical school (to the dismay of his parents) and embarked on cooking his way up the ranks to Michelin-star kitchens in New York and California.
“I saw such synergy between cannabis and food, that I was like, ‘I hate seeing this in brownies and Rice Krispie treats all the time, there’s gotta be something better,’ ” Sayegh says. “So when I started to pick up on the Michelin techniques and everything, it just worked out perfectly.”
Today, the Los Angeles-based Sayegh touts himself as The Herbal Chef, and the 24-year-old brings his five-star cannabis-infused cuisine to private homes and banquets for as much as $500 a head. Clients fly him all over the world to prepare meals for dinner parties and beyond (although diners must show their medical marijuana cards if they’re in a place that hasn’t legalized the drug for adult use.) Interest in his cooking has landed him two shows, he has launched an Herbal Chef education program and developed a line of products that include infused frozen meals and items such as basil pesto, condiments and chocolate-drizzled popcorn — all thanks to his background in the lab.
“To me, food is just a bunch of little (chemical) reactions that combine to make something beautiful, so my science background is just spot-on. It is science. Life is science, depending on how you look at it.”
We caught up with Sayegh to hear about his passions and what he’s cooking up next.
Cannabist: What were some of the first cannabis-infused foods you experimented with?
Sayegh: I remember years ago making a chocolate pudding cake. It was like a layer of chocolate cake, a layer of chocolate pudding, a layer of cream, a layer of cake, layer of chocolate pudding, layer cream, layer cake, and that was just divine. I love chocolate, so that was good. (Laughs.) Another one of the first infused dishes was the dolma, or the stuffed grape leaves. But I’ve made so many, I can’t really remember the first. I did the brownie stuff too — I had to learn somehow. But that was back in the beginning, that was back when I knew nothing. Then I started to research and I went to college, and I realized what role temperature plays in THC and CBD and the terpene profile and how that is cooked off when you’re cooking savory, so now it’s become much more of a science in understanding temperature levels.
Cannabist: How do you see cannabis and food connecting?
Sayegh: This is not just another herb, this is really a new dining experience, if done correctly. … For me, it’s about bringing this cerebral experience to the next level, because as you’re eating the THC, your brain chemistry is literally changing. It’s releasing dopamine and you’re viewing the food differently than you did five minutes ago, and that’s something that’s relatively unexplored.
Cannabist: What are the necessary elements for a successful cannabis dinner?
Sayegh: Everybody is different. It really depends on what type of dinner you’re going for. For me, I love art and I love music. So I have live music, I have art, and I have these aromatic effects with the terpene extraction, those things kind of bring and tie in the whole night together in this cerebral experience. We usually have a cocktail hour where people can walk around and mingle and talk to people and view the art, then during dinner that’s when the music’s playing and that’s when the multicourse meal comes into play, and then afterwards it’s basically a lounge depending on how much wine was paired with the dinner. It’s all about moderation. If we had a small wine pairing, then we’ll have a whiskey-and-blunt lounge afterwards and people can vaporize and enjoy whatever they want to enjoy.
I would suggest knowing your clientele or your guests. It’s about bringing this cerebral experience to the next level, but my personal opinion is subtlety is key. Anybody can get people super stoned. It’s not the point of my dinners. It’s about the finesse, it’s about getting people just high enough so that they see the intricacies in what you put before them.
One of chef Chris Sayegh’s assistants garnishes plates during the night of infused dining at LA Mother. (Oriana Koren Photography)
Cannabist: How have you cadenced the THC dosages to get it just right throughout the meal?
Sayegh: This took years of experimenting. To get it right, you have to understand what temperatures THC and CBD break down at and what temperature you start to lose your terpene profile at. All of these make a difference. And the taste, and everything. You don’t want the taste (of weed) in there, unless you pair it perfectly, which there are a select few dishes I make where I want you to taste the cannabis. But it’s a very unpleasant taste if it’s not balanced correctly.
It’s a symphony, right? So you have to understand that there’s so many moving components, that if I inflate (the THC) too much at a certain time, then it’s going to overwhelm people. … I’m literally doing calculus before the dinner so that I know I’m going to dose people properly. This is not just throwing weed butter in a pan and getting everyone high, this is an in-depth look at what cannabis culinary really is, and what’s going on at the face level. So, when I throw that butter into the pan, what’s happening? Am I losing any of the product? Am I changing anything about the dish?
Cannabist: How do you balance out that ‘unpleasant’ weed taste?
Sayegh: It really depends on what I’m cooking. I don’t really do the same menu twice, but I can tell you a red wine reduction masks the flavor really well; tomato products, acidity, mask it really well.
To me, it’s always about the ingredients. … I would never put my steak with weed butter. I see people all the time put cannabutter on top of their steak, like make it a compound butter with parsley or something — why would you ruin an amazing steak that is so pure and good and delicious on its own? I would never do that to the ingredients. This is not just about cannabis, this is not just about getting people high, this is a brand-new experience.
Cannabist: How do you infuse your dishes with THC? I’ve heard you use a vaporizer, as well?
Sayegh: I use an oil that’s not hash oil, it’s a “winterized extraction.” They take the whole plant and then they press it down and extract those oils from it and activate it, and I use that in the food. So technically, to go from THC-A to THC, which is the psychoactive part that we all know and love, you need to heat it up. But with this activation process, I don’t necessarily need to heat up the oil, although it helps homogenize whatever I’m making. So there’s two very important steps to cooking with cannabis, and it’s knowing the temperature points and it’s also knowing how to homogenize — and calculate dosage, obviously. So I use that oil and I homogenize it to whatever I’m going to use. Sometimes I use oil, sometimes I use my own water-soluble method that is top secret right now, so anything water-based, like my sorbets, can be infused. The vaporizer does not infuse THC into the food, it’s basically an aromatic effect, so it doesn’t actually get you high from that.
Cannabist: What would be your advice to someone who may have overindulged in THC at one of your dinners?
Sayegh: Take pure CBD, right away. That will counteract the psychoactivity from the THC. At all of my dinners, I have a little card that says, ‘Too high?’ and then it explains a little bit about CBD so they can take some on their way out, so if they’re feeling a little overwhelmed they can mitigate that. … I’m not here to tell anybody what they can and can’t do, but I don’t want to give them the tools to have a bad night.
Cannabist: Have you found people imitating your work?
Sayegh: Oh, yeah! I see it everywhere now. But there’s no doubt in my mind that I started this because I was the only one doing it. Now I see these dinners pop up everywhere and I just think it’s the coolest thing. I’m really happy that this is catching on, I’m really happy that people liked what I did.
Cannabist: Where do you see this manifesting itself? Do you see cannabis fine dining becoming mainstream?
Sayegh: I don’t think the fine dining is going to make it to the mainstream, but I think getting these experiences will. I think having dinner-and-a-show type thing is going to become more of a thing.
Cannabist: Why not fine dining? Do you get pushback from the restaurant industry for doing what you do?
Sayegh: No, I’ve gotten overwhelming support, actually. But as I get bigger, I’m sure there’s going to be some haters. I haven’t gotten any huge pushback, people are very interested, and I think it’s just because the way I explain it, the way I carry myself, they way I do what I do. And I care a lot about the product and I can cook and it’s apparent. So I think I’m in an interesting place right now between mainstream and the cannabis world.
Cannabist: What services do you offer as The Herbal Chef?
Sayegh: I started it two years ago with the intention of doing something positive for the world. Whatever it was, I knew I wanted to leave a positive impact, and from that stemmed, ‘OK, how do I help people through food? And it was these frozen meals (available for California medical marijuana patients). We look at the macro and micronutrient needs of a patient and then work with my nutritionist to build a meal plan for themselves that is then delivered to their door every week with the perfect amount of macro and micronutrients so that they’re getting their body well taken care of, but then they’re also getting that THC and CBD that they would normally use in there as well. That way it’s eliminating all this stress out of their lives like, how are they going to feed themselves? Are they going to get the right amount of nutrients? Are they going to get organic? Do they know what macro and micronutrients are? Are they going to cook? Do they know how to cook?
We’re still working on a lot of the things and we’re still trying to make this big and we want to do this correctly, so we have to follow all these guidelines by the FDA. It’s a long process, but it’s really amazing. I’m glad that this is finally happening. I also am doing two cannabis shows and I’m a massive grower, so I have a lot of stuff going on.
Cannabist: Cannabis shows? Tell me more!
Sayegh: One of them is going to be sold to a network, but the deal is still being worked out. It’s called “Braised and Confused” — I hunt and I fish and forage and scuba dive for the ingredients I use in the dinner. We’re going to be doing that all around the world.
The other show is “Pot Pie.” That one you can watch right now, episode one and two are already on Apple TV and the Prohibited channel, and it’s on Amazon, we’re getting it on Hulu soon. It’s a really fun cooking show where I have guests each week come bring ingredients to their favorite dish and I have no idea what they want me to make — I have an hour to make it. We also get high. So it becomes a challenge rather than just cooking. It’s more of like me getting to know them and who they are and what they do.
Cannabist: What are your other plans for the near future?
Sayegh: I definitely feel like I have the best chance of opening the first cannabis-infused restaurant. We’re going to have an indica menu, hybrid menu and a sativa menu, and all of those menus you can order without any cannabis. We don’t want to have a stigma around it anymore. We want to say this is an offering for you, if you choose to enjoy it. You don’t have to participate in the cannabis if you don’t want to, just like you don’t have to participate in the wine pairing if you don’t want to. It’s really about allowing people to enjoy this new dining experience at your leisure.
Cannabist: Any plans to expand outside of California?
Sayegh: Yeah, that’s already happening. Soon you’ll be able to hire an Herbal Chef anywhere in the country, and how we’re doing that is they have to get certified and trained with me so that they understand the science behind it, they understand how heat plays a role, how it’s different in baking than it is cooking savory, how to responsibly dose, how to do the math so that they can properly dose everybody individually, and learn the whole system. All of that curriculum is going to be able to be purchased and talked through on my website and in-person at my facility. It’s going to be a creative space, it’s going to be an event space, it’s going to be a dining area for 50 people, it’s going to be a production kitchen for all my manufacturing and filming, it’s going to have everything.
Cannabist: When does all this start playing out?
Sayegh: In the next couple of months here. I’m very excited. … You don’t even understand, I’m already like, losing my mind.
Cannabist: : What’s your favorite part about all this?
Sayegh: Honestly, all of it combined is what makes me truly happy. I really enjoy the time where I get to be creative and come up with these crazy menus and put myself on a plate for people at these dinners and organize the whole thing, do the music and the art and just have these cerebral experiences. But I also love that I get to help people and that I get to travel and cook and do exactly as I loved and always envisioned.