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Bay Area chef creates cannabis paradise — it might be illegal

SF Gate 3/22/2023 Lester Black

Putting a heady twist on the age-old wisdom that you should always “eat your greens,” Bay Area chef Solomon Johnson is bringing marijuana to high-end cuisine. All of the courses at his new Cannescape event series are infused with cannabis.  

The Bay Area's first winner of "Chopped 420," a "Chopped" spinoff from Discovery+, Johnson cooks up food that is both delicious and pleasantly stoning — I attended the first Cannescape event at the Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco last month. The multiday events include a five-course dinner infused with cannabis, as well as an overnight stay at a premier Northern California hotel. Dr. Wilkinson’s Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs in Napa Valley is scheduled to host the next event April 20, otherwise known as 4/20 — fitting for the "Chopped 420" champion.

However, these blissed-out banquets may have already landed Johnson in some hot water. The San Francisco Department of Public Health has warned the Phoenix that the pot-infused dinner I went to was likely illegal.

Pot-infused dinners are already commonplace in California, but most of them avoid legal trouble by going private, as in “members-only” events like a $295-per-person infused dinner in Santa Monica profiled by the Los Angeles Times last year. The health department told SFGATE that California law does not allow restaurants to legally infuse food with cannabis. 

Cannescape’s public events may be drawing extra scrutiny, but Johnson is still pushing ahead. He told SFGATE that he’s on a mission to open people’s minds about the benefits of pot-infused food. 

“We're the guinea pigs right now. I know people who have been sitting back and watching us and said, ‘Wow I didn’t even realize you could get through the first dinner,’” Solomon told SFGATE. “I think the education about the overall benefits of cannabis food is what makes it worth it. The more people that we can get educated about cannabis-infused food, the more we can break down those stigmas.”

A ‘Chopped 420’ champion

Johnson’s cannabis food career started with the humblest of beginnings — infusing cheap “bush weed” into a box of Betty Crocker cake mix for friends — but after going to culinary school, rising in the back-of-house ranks, and starting a Pan-African soul restaurant in Oakland called The Bussdown and a monthly supper club called OKO, he was soon getting national attention as a cannabis-friendly chef.

Johnson has never been coy about his cannabis use. He previously said that the entire menu for The Bussdown was written in 45 minutes after smoking a joint. He told SFGATE that he uses cannabis every day for mental health and to manage the “wear and tear that comes with being a part of this industry.” 

This openness to pot, along with his rising career in food, earned him a spot in 2021 on the "Chopped" special. The Food Network show pits three chefs against each other as they turn an unusual selection of food items into a three-course meal. The chefs have only 20 or 30 minutes to create each course. And in Johnson’s case, they also had to add cannabis.

Johnson turned garlic ice cream, frozen corn and a tea-smoked duck into a CBD-infused salad for the first course, and then he made a coffee-and-chili crusted eel entree out of a whole eel, jumbo marshmallows and beets. He stumbled in the final round — he lost precious time after he cut his finger — but then won the whole competition by finishing with a pot-infused bread pudding featuring cottage cheese and clementines. 

Johnson told SFGATE that he felt a deep sense of validation after his win.

“You can try to discredit chefs for incorporating cannabis into food, but that clock doesn’t lie, and I know a lot of chefs who have gone on ‘Chopped' and folded because of that clock. That’s something that I’ll never let anyone take from me,” Solomon said. “You can try to discredit a ‘Chopped’ chef all you want, but that s—t is not easy.”

This pasta got me high

The menu at Johnson’s first Cannescape event wouldn’t look out of place at a high-end San Francisco restaurant, from a tangy and creamy kale salad with ume vinegar and ricotta to a Kampachi crudo that brought together pickled gooseberries and spicy Fresno peppers. But this meal had a twist, of course: Everything was infused with pot.

Each dish is equivalent to a 7-milligram dose of THC, pot’s most common psychoactive intoxicant, and 25 milligrams of CBD, a nonintoxicating compound found in pot, Johnson told SFGATE. He adds CBD to the meal to help balance the psychoactive effects of THC and “keep everyone mellow,” he said.

My favorite course was a deviled egg topped with salmon roe and furikake. It was a briny sea splash combined with the creaminess of perfectly cooked eggs. The meal’s entree, a “Rasta Pasta” with fettucini, yuzu citrus and seared salmon seasoned with Johnson’s signature Caribbean spice blend, was a tasty tribute to his African Caribbean roots. 

By the third course, I was on a nice mellow high, and that feeling only grew as the night went on, like a background sense of joy. This euphoric feeling I experienced was part of what makes pot-infused food so enjoyable, according to Jamie Evans, a cannabis cookbook author who was sitting across from me during the meal. Evans said Johnson’s dinner was a “fantastic showcase of how you can combine cannabis into a meal in a very heightened way.”

“[Cannabis] opens the door to so many more flavors and aromas but also adds a sense of euphoria to the meal, which I think makes cannabis dining so exciting and a different experience than any other type of dining,” Evans said.

But is it legal?

Not everyone is happy about Cannescape’s infused meals. The health department confirmed to SFGATE that it sent an inspector to the Phoenix after the Cannescape event and told the hotel that it wasn’t allowed to use cannabis in food. 

Chelsea Davis, the founder of Cannescape, told SFGATE that it’s almost impossible to find a legal way to serve cannabis-infused meals while following California law. There’s a proposed bill before the legislature this year that would allow companies to obtain special cannabis catering licenses, but Davis and Johnson don’t want to wait for this change.

For the Napa Valley event, Johnson told SFGATE he will infuse the food with CBD, which he said is fully legal, but will not add THC to anything. Instead, diners will be given instructions for infusing their food at the table. Guests will have access to products like THC-infused olive oil, and Johnson will show them how to supplement each course to create a psychoactive effect. Davis said it brings an “interactive twist” to the meal.

“I love doing things where I get my hands dirty and learn about it so I can do it in my home kitchen for myself,” she added. “Nothing we’re serving is altered with THC, so that keeps us in the clear. We have to walk a fine line without breaking any rules.”

Tickets for Cannescape’s next event, scheduled for April 20, are $1,200 for a couple or $650 for an individual and include an overnight stay at Dr. Wilkinson's Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs, a resort hotel with volcanic mud baths in Calistoga, along with a happy hour, the five-course dinner and a two-course breakfast.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10:30 a.m., March 22, to clarify Chelsea Davis' position in the company.

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