Chef Chris Sayegh wants to show people that edible cannabis can be used for much more than making pot brownies.
The California-based, Michelin restaurant-trained chef says Canadians are on the verge of a foodie revolution fuelled by legal cannabis, which can be used to infuse everything from sweets to steaks.
Sayegh wants to help guide that revolution in a responsible direction, by sharing some of the lessons he’s learned after four years of making gourmet cannabis-infused dishes as a chef in Los Angeles. He was in Toronto for legalization this week to showcase some of his fine-dining cuisine and to give Canadians a taste of what’s possible with edible cannabis.
Sayegh usually infuses his dishes with a few milligrams of cannabis extracts, although he left that off the menu for his dinner in Toronto on Oct. 16, because it’s still illegal to sell edibles in Canada. However, he says it’s easy to infuse his cuisine with THC and cannabidiol (CBD) in order to take the dining experience to a higher level.
THC is the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. CBD is one of the primary medicinal ingredients in the plant and has been used to relieve pain and anxiety without impairing the user’s mind.
READ MORE: Why CBD is becoming an 'it' word in cannabis
Sayegh has cooked up over 180 unique-tasting menus through his catering business, The Herbal Chef, over the last year, for customers in the U.S. and many cities around the world. He creates 10-, 12- and 15-course gourmet tasting menus for his high-rolling customers, at a cost of US$200-$500 a plate.
He visited Vancouver in September for one of these meals and hopes to host more of them in Canada in the future.
“What we’re trying to do is de-stigmatize cannabis,” he said. “Our showpiece … is through our fine dining events.”
Sayegh wants to educate Canadian chefs so they can cook responsibly with cannabis after edible sales are legalized at some point next year.
“Cannabis is an accent to the overall amazing meal that you’re going to get,” Sayegh said.
Canadians are allowed to make food and drinks with cannabis under the new marijuana laws, although it won’t be legal to sell those products until sometime in 2019. Marijuana can be sold legally in dried, fresh, oil, plant or seed form.
That means it’s completely legal to throw a few leaves into your next salad, whip up some cannabis butter or crumble a bit of bud over the next steak you grill up.
Sayegh says cooking with cannabis is a balancing act between giving the diner a good experience and preventing him or her from getting too high.
“It is extremely important to know your dosage and know where your cannabis extract or buds are coming from, and the potency within them,” he said.
He says it’s important to limit to dosage in each dish because too much THC can ruin an otherwise pleasurable meal.
“If you’re not dosing correctly then we’re never going to get this part of the industry regulated, and so it’s important that we teach people responsible consumption right now,” he said.
Sayegh’s meals contain between one and 15 milligrams of THC. He tries to space out the THC across each course of the meal so that diners don’t get too high.
He also tries to time the dishes so that people are “crazy hungry” by the time they get to the beef course.
What it’s like in a dish
Sayegh uses a wide range of cannabis products in his meals, including dried cannabis and fresh leaves. However, his main cannabis-related ingredient is a lab-tested extract that he uses to infuse the food with THC. He says this extract can be made with a LEVO oil infuser.
THC extract is not yet legal for recreational use in Canada, although the government is considering legalizing it when edible sales are permitted.
In the meantime, Sayegh says there are plenty of dishes Canadians can make at home using fresh or dried cannabis.
“It’s approached like an herb, but typically herbs don’t come with psychedelic effects, so you really have to pay attention to how much you’re putting in there,” he said.
Cannabis can taste spicy, herbaceous or sweet depending on the strain, Sayegh said. He often masks the flavour in the food, but sometimes he’ll allow it to come out.
“The leaves themselves, when dehydrated, actually have a unique flavour to them between the strains,” he added.
Sayegh says cannabis is extremely sensitive to heat, so he usually doesn’t work with it on the stove or in a pot.
Sayegh carefully calculates the THC dosage in all of his dishes and never infuses shared plates with cannabis because that makes it harder to control how much a diner is consuming.
He usually infuses his entrees with up to 10 milligrams of THC, while smaller items like devilled eggs or desserts are infused with one to two milligrams.
Deep culinary roots
Sayegh has loved cooking for as long as he can remember.
“Both my parents are Jordanian and they re-married Italians, so no matter which way you dice it, there’s just this really rich food culture in our family,” he said.
But while his heart was with the culinary arts, he initially pursued a career as a doctor.
Sayegh started regularly consuming marijuana in college at UC Santa Cruz, where he studied molecular cell biology. He eventually put marijuana under the microscope, in an effort to fully understand what he was doing to his body. He says the more he studied marijuana, the more he became convinced that the healthiest way to access its medicinal properties was to consume it as food.
“I basically figured out what I needed to do with my life,” he said. “I left to go study at some of the best restaurants in California, and eventually New York, and back to California.”
Sayegh learned from some of the world’s top chefs, including those at Melisse, a two-star Michelin restaurant in Santa Monica. Soon he started to experiment with combining his two passions, by cooking up gourmet meals infused with marijuana for his friends.
He started cooking up plans for a cannabis-related restaurant in 2010 and launched The Herbal Chef in 2012.
“I knew fine dining had never been done before with cannabis, and I was just really sick of … all the B.S. that was out there,” he said.
Now he travels around the world to showcase his cannabis-infused dishes made with locally sourced ingredients.
Sayegh arrived in Toronto several days ahead of his scheduled showcase dinner on Oct. 16, so he could peruse local farmers’ markets and forage for ingredients in Niagara Falls.
His five-course meal consisted of a vegetarian terrine, beet macarons with goat cheese, curried pumpkin, chicken roulade and a compressed apple sugar cookie topped with almond financier, honey cremeux and mascarpone mousseline.
Cook like Chris
The key to cooking with cannabis is simply knowing how to cook well, Sayegh says. He prepares many of his dishes as straightforward gourmet meals, then uses a dropper to add the THC or CBD extract on top.
Some of his recipes use basic cannabis-infused ingredients such as cannabis butter (“cannabutter”) or cannabis-infused marinara sauce, which are legal for Canadians to make at home. Canadians will have to wait at least a year to try out Sayegh’s other recipes involving THC or CBD extract, unless they have a medical marijuana prescription.
The following recipe for stuffed grape leaves can be made with cannabis butter. You can find a recipe for cannabis butter on the website Leafly.
Sayegh also offered up a recipe for salmon, avocado and onion toast.
Here’s how to make it. Those with a marijuana prescription can add a drop of CBD oil at the end. Otherwise, it still makes for a delicious appetizer.
Ingredients (per toast):
- 1 slice of rye bread
- 2 tablespoons bousin cheese
- Pickled onions
- 50 grams of cured salmon
- 1 avocado, sliced
- Grill rye bread on a pan until toasted.
- Spread cheese across bread.
- Stack avocado slices, salmon and a spoonful of pickled onions.
Sayegh recommends approaching edible cannabis with caution to avoid overdoing it.
“You are strongly advised to take it slowly,” he writes on The Herbal Chef website. “Start with one dose (10 milligrams) and wait at least an hour and a half to notice any effects.”
Sayegh says THC can take anywhere from 30-90 minutes to metabolize.
“Find your perfect dosage one step at a time,” he writes.
“I promise, there is nothing worse in the marijuana world than taking too much THC via digestion. Please use responsibly.”