LA-born, Shanghai-raised Chris Yang earned a biochemistry degree at the University of Southern California and nearly completed his master’s in hospital management when he realized he hated his would-be profession. A short stint in business dev at Pfizer probably didn’t help. Stepping back to reevaluate his life, Yang soon fell in love, and the object of his affection was the culinary arts. The former organic chemist learned to cook through online videos and chronicled his journey through Instagram, and he soon landed a kitchen spot at the late, great Paiche restaurant in Los Angeles. After picking up some invaluable skills at Paiche, the budding chef moved on to pop-ups and private dinners, and he joined several other rising chefs in forming the Little Meats culinary lab. Fast forward to 2016, and the scientist-turned-chef truly found his stride launching PopCultivate, a cannabis-infused dinner series held each month in an art space in downtown Los Angeles. Their next event, Coq Au Rouge, takes place this weekend, and it celebrates the upcoming Chinese New Year (January 28) that will usher in the Year of the Rooster. PRØHBTD spoke with Chef Yang to learn more.
What is a PopCultivate dinner like for someone who’s never been before?
I want PopCultivate to be a safe haven where people who might not have a lot of cannabis experience will feel comfortable to explore. Our venue, the Container Yard, is an art warehouse that curates up and coming street art, and the walls at this very colorful spot are always changing. You walk through this dark hallway with paintings on the walls, and you're not really sure what's going on yet. Then you make it all the way down the hallway and find our dining area with music, lights and art happening. Then our host greets you and introduces you to the rest of the night. We have a website where you can become a member and get on our mailing list. We send out email invites to tell you when the events are happening and how to get in.
Tell me about the street art component to PopCultivate.
The Container Yard is essentially a big old factory space where they curate art. Along with the whole ambiance of the venue, we work with a lot of artists in all forms to enhance the experience. We work with musicians, street artists, a sculptor and performing artists to deliver a cultural fusion of food, art, cannabis and good times.
The number of cannabis chefs has grown dramatically in recent years. In what ways do you think the cuisine you're crafting is different than what other chefs are creating?
Everyone in the cannabis scene is trying to leave their mark in whatever food they're making, but at the end of the day, all the chefs are cooking food. It just so happens that they're putting some bud into it. For me, I'm a young chef, and I love creating menus and giving people cool experiences. I think the cannabis is a bonus. I'm not trying to swindle people by saying how great infusing is. All that is part of the experience of getting high with food, right? I understand that, but at the end of the day, I want people to enjoy my food for whatever it is.
What cultural influences do people see in your food? Is there a strong Asian or Latin influence?
Most definitely not. I guess this starts with my culinary background. I haven't gone to culinary school so I learned to cook by looking at recipes and through my imagination and creativity. Maybe one day I eat Italian food and think, "Wow, that was a phenomenal dish," and I try to replicate it. My portfolio is very diverse. I grew up in China so my palate is very attuned to Chinese food, but I very much enjoy French influence, Italian influence, Mediterranean, Californian.
I mentioned Asian and Latin American cuisine because you worked at Paiche, Ricardo Zarate’s former Japanese-Peruvian restaurant named after a giant Amazonian fish. Did you learn a lot working there?
I learned a lot, actually. That was my very first kitchen job. I went to Paiche and, luckily enough, they gave me a job. I crushed it there for about two months. I learned that a lot of Latin flavors and cooking techniques paired really well with Japanese, and I learned a lot about how to break down a fish and the delicacies of Japanese flavors. The biggest thing I got out of the experience was learning how a kitchen should be run to produce very high quality food.
What would be an example of a standout dish you made?
Our last dinner was called A Splash of Christmas, and the dessert was a huge crowd pleaser. It was an apple-rose pastry with a cranberry jam and eggnog foam and some pumpkin-spice powdered sugar on top.
What do you see as a benefit of infusing food with cannabis rather than having people smoke it between courses?
This comes down to personal preference, really, because some people like to ingestcannabis more than smoke it with combustion. It's a lot of stress on your lungs when you smoke anything. Ingestion, though, is quite tricky in terms of dosing. Most people know what one puff of marijuana will do to them and how many puffs they can have before it's too much. That type of dosing methodology is very rudimentary because you measure it by puffs. With edibles, it's much more complex, and you have to account for several variables in delivering a proper dose.
Both options are available at PopCultivate. We infuse our foods, and we also have a separate infused drink, and patrons can ask for however many they want. We also have complimentary pre-rolled joints on the table. Some people smoke and don't want anything in their food, while others just eat and don’t smoke. It is really up to the attendee.
Do you customize the dosage for each person based on tolerance levels?
We do, and we offer medicated and non-medicated options on our menu. Our medicated option usually provides about two doses throughout the whole five-course menu. The third dose in our dessert is CBD, which helps people come back down a little bit. People can ask for no or half doses, but the supplementing dosage is in the drinks. Each drink is designed to give you the high that's roughly equal to the buzz you get from one beer. We recommend you have one drink, wait about 30 minutes and see what that does to you. From there, hopefully you'll have a better understanding of how many drinks you can have throughout the whole night.
When you say a dose, are you talking 10 milligrams?
The standard concept is 10 milligrams for one dose. That's what Colorado uses, and I believe that's what California will adopt as well, but 10 milligrams is very vague terminology, and we're making a lot of assumptions that can't be made. As a scientist, I believe the idea of equating 10 milligrams to one dose is an antiquated system that will change very soon.
What would be a more accurate way in which to gauge dosage?
The existing system of 10 milligrams per dose doesn't make sense without regulating and controlling three other variables. Dropping 10 milligrams worth of THC into chocolate andmixing it doesn’t mean it’s going to be evenly distributed. There is a margin of error, which is one variable. A second variable is what percentage of the 10 milligrams of THC is activated and what percentage is THCa. It could be 10 milligrams of THCa with only 20-percent activation. On top of that, how much of the THC does your body absorb? Your body doesn't absorb 100 percent, so depending on how those molecules pair with other molecules you ingest, your absorption rate is very, very different. Looking at those three variables alone suggests 10 milligrams-per-dose really doesn't mean anything.
Cannabis has a strong flavor profile. How do you engage the flavor, or do you try to mute it in the dishes?
A lot of chefs right now experiment with putting different cannabis flavors into their foods like an herb. That and the infusion are actually two separate things you have to treat separately. I do my own extractions and purify the concentrates. I make it flavorless and odorless. After the food is infused, I'll start playing around with profiles to pair with the food, but those flavor profiles are added in separately.
Tell me about Little Meats.
Little Meats was a culinary incubator for people in the food craft industry that I joinedand built and that started to disband last year. Little Meats was a safe haven with full creative freedom to cook what we wanted to cook, not just an item on the menu where we worked. Each week we would do a Sunday Supper with a different menu created by one of the chefs on our team, and we would rotate through our list so everyone got to cook one of their menus each month. When it was someone else's turn, you would help with execution and make sure all the food came out properly. At the time, we had maybe 20 to 30 patrons per dinner. It was really fun because, when people came to Sunday Supper, they had no idea what they were going to eat. The menus weren't pre-released. People come in, take the walk-in appetizer, sit at the table and see the menu, and that's when they know. No substitutions, no changes, you eat what we serve, and if you choose not to, whatever, that's completely fine, but what you're presented is however we served it.
What has your biochemistry background taught you about the medical benefits of cannabis?
Having a biochem background allows me to understand very clearly what happens when you ingest THC. It goes into your stomach, it gets sorted into your bloodstream, and then it goes to your brain, your receptors. I understand how it finds the receptors, what happens when it finds them, what it activates. That understanding really allows me to tailor the high experience that I can deliver during my dinners.
You nearly finished your master's degree in hospital management so you know about healthcare. In what ways do you see the culinary world providing better cannabis delivery systems for people afflicted with cancer, HIV and other serious diseases?
A lot of people forget there's a legitimate health component to medical cannabis. I've designed my experiences for recreational users who enjoy the cannabis lifestyle, but patients who require this as medication can definitely reap the benefits as well. Instead of swallowing pills, you can take your medication in a fancy, fun kind of way. We definitely welcome all patients. I haven't made a real effort to revolutionize the medical side of all this yet, but it's probably on the plan for next year, possibly. I do have a science background, and I do know the research I would like to do on cannabis.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.