In the 1920s, alcohol prohibition led to secret bars throughout New York City, and bartenders told their lawbreaking patrons to “speak easy” when ordering alcoholic drinks to minimize unwanted attention. Nearly a century later, modern legal speakeasies have become commonplace in urban centers, but very few embody the outlaw spirit of the Roaring 20s bootleggers. NYC’s Dinner Is Dope is the exception.
Dinner Is Dope co-founders “Hawaii” Mike Salman and his wife Stephanie Salman were pioneers of cannabis-infused dining in NYC doing private parties as Chef for Higher. The popularity of the private dinners led to Dinner Is Dope, ticketed events held in secret locations and available only to individuals who pass a detailed vetting process. Their goal is to have the best events, not necessarily the biggest, which helps them attract more high-profile clientele who value their privacy. Likewise, the husband-wife team treats the dinners as events with overarching themes and a hope that people will want to duplicate what they are doing. That’s right: They want to inspire you to be their competition because they honestly believe in the overall cannabis cause.
Hawaii Mike is a branding expert who launched agencies and magazines and worked in editorial and marketing at The Source, and he is applying his expertise to expand the Chef for Higher brand with retail edibles and Dinner Is Dope with cookbooks and events around the country. PRØHBTD spoke with the duo to learn more about the dinner, their philosophy and how to get on the guest list.
What prompted you to teach yourself to cook?
HM: I started cooking when I was nine years old living in Hawaii. My mother raised me vegan, and I didn’t like that shit. She was like, “Well, if you want to eat meat, you have to cook it yourself, and you have to eat everything.” I learned how to bake a whole chicken, but I had to eat the liver, the gizzards, the heart, all of that. Wasn’t fun, but that’s what started me cooking. Part of it, the passion, is that I wasn’t allowed to have it, I always wanted good food, and it was always special.
What led you to start making edibles?
HM: We were trying to find a mood stabilizer for my wife, who has a mild hypo-mania disorder. We figured out it’s only your imagination that limits what you could do and what you could infuse. This is strictly the inner section of two passions that really brought us onto this culinary adventure.
So the infusions started out of medical necessity?
HM: I’ve always smoked. That’s how I got into the music business—I was sneaking into the Gavin Convention in San Francisco and selling weed. The first person I got a business card from was Bobbito Garcia when he was at Def Jam, and someone offered me an internship after the second or third year. Then, when I was at The Source, you had to come to my office if you wanted to smoke. My office was the only safe zone. Once we had a kid, it was like, “Nah.” She wakes up at three in the morning, and all of a sudden I smell like air freshener.
I always looked at [cannabis] as wellness because anything that makes you happy is wellness if you balance things properly. When she had the kid, we both spiraled down a little, not knowing. I attribute it to cannabis not being prevalent in, not only our individual lives, but in our relationship, and that put stress on us. We both were better as people and as a couple [with cannabis].
What was the spark that inspired the first official Dinner Is Dope?
Stephanie: We didn’t have a name at first. It was just Chef for Higher. We did a dinner for a newspaper editor in the Hamptons, and the guests kept saying how “dope” dinner was and that’s when we named it “Dinner Is Dope.”
HM: Cooking has always been communal, but if we go out to eat, you eat on your own plate. If I say let’s go have a drink, we might have a bottle, but we’re going to drink out of our own glasses. Smoke a cigarette, here’s my cigarette, here’s your cigarette. Smoke a joint, what do we do? We roll it up and pass it around. We share the joint whether I’ve known you forever or I just met you. It’s the most communal thing.
How can we best share our perspective through something super relatable? Food became our vehicle for this. Now we can teach all the things that we learn, not just about food, but about our relationship with cannabis as human beings. If we get more people to understand what the relationship is, maybe more people would be less complacent and actually talk about it.
How did the dinners evolve from there?
HM: At the end of alcohol prohibition in New York, there were more than 2,200 speakeasies, and that’s where we got the idea [for the secret dinners]. We thought, “It’s New York, you know how much stuff happens in this city behind closed doors?” We wanted to recreate that because it’s the same place we’re at right now with cannabis prohibition. If we do these monthly underground invite-only dinners, we’re going to start 1) creating this community, hopefully, 2) get some awareness around your brand and 3) just have some fun with the people in our network. It started off as our marketing platform, but now it’s actually a viable business. We have Chef for Higher, the products, our catering company, Dinner Is Dope, and now we’re working on a Dinner Is Dope cookbook, recipes and whatever else.
With the dinners, do you change the location every time?
HM: We change locations very often, not just because we’re underground, but because we like different themes and vibes. The last one we did was a barbecue, a High Noon theme, and the event space lent itself to that. It was outdoorsy with cactuses. Now we’re moving to different cities, so it will be popping up in a lot of places like LA, SF, Denver and Portland. I’d love to go to Las Vegas. We really like Oregon and California because we’re from California, and Oregon lends itself to the farm-to-table aspects.
How would you describe your culinary technique?
HM: Definitely comfort food. Going back to the whole communal aspect, comfort food is something we look at as a family dinner. Food for your soul. We also wanted to make foods that were more approachable. Neither one of us is a fine dining expert, but if we wanted to do that, we could. She’s studied under a very talented chef, but again, we want people to want to replicate this. We want people to have that “what the fuck” moment and say, “Why can’t I do this at home?”
How far do we go? We sous vide a lot, from honeys to certain oils. We sous vide the ribs [you can see] on Instagram for four hours then smoked them for another four. People like the themes [my wife] puts together. When we do these dinners, it’s not like you sit down, eat and leave. It’s an experience, an event.
Stephanie: It turns into a get together where you hang out after you eat and get to know people.
HM: If I was a chef, I think we’d approach this differently. A lot of chefs see the trend and think, “Now that I added cannabis to this I’m cool.” We’re a little more, “I just figured this shit out, and this shit is fucking incredible, and I’m going to share this with you.” Plus, a lot of these chefs microdose, so maybe the whole dinner will have 15 to 25 milligrams.
I read that your dinners have up to 175 milligrams per person.
HM: The writer was probably high when she wrote that, or I might have been high when I said it. Usually it’s about 100 to 150. We’ve definitely put 200 in people, but it’s all about the timing, the process, the environment. It’s how and when we serve the food. As we say in our speech before the dinner, most people have had a bad experience with edibles after eating a lot at once. It feels like you got pushed off a cliff. In the same way, if a doctor has to give you 1,000 milligrams of medicine, they put it in an IV to ensure you’re consistently getting that into your system. With our process, instead of feeling like you’re falling off a cliff, now you’re taking a stairway to heaven.
Do you see trends in terms of the types of people who come to your events?
HM: We’ve dealt with athletes through a few different parties and events. People from the UN, teachers, DJs, entertainers, lots of agency people, record label execs, foodies in general.
Stephanie: Lots of lawyers.
Have you ever had a police officer come?
HM: I’m sure a few would. We always say, if you could turn on a light switch and [illuminate] a green dispensary cross over every building where somebody either supports or smokes, what building wouldn’t have that light? Every precinct, every courthouse, every school, every university, every hospital. I’ve smoked with judges before, I’ve smoked with cops before.
What’s the soundtrack like at the dinners?
HM: It depends on the theme.
Was there country music at High Noon?
Stephanie: We played country music for the first half, but then we shifted to trap.
HM: By request of the audience.
Stephanie: The country music was making people too mellow so they needed something to wake up.
HM: At our one-year anniversary, all of the dish titles were song names. So, “I Got a Story to Tell,” Biggie. Avocado toast, so A$AP Rocky, “Toast of the Gods.” “Poke, poke, poke,” that’s from Kanye West’s part from the ScHoolboy Q record “THat Part.” “This Is It,” Camp Lo’s “Luchini,” “Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang,” then “Oh My God,” Tribe Called Quest. We played the song when we served each dish. That’s the thing, we’re always going to do something interesting.
Do you have a signature dish?
Stephanie: The fried Smac ’n’ cheese balls.
HM: That’s definitely our crowd favorite. I think there’s a dish on every menu that stands out. Fried Chick in Waffle. Jumbo sea scallop with miso butter. A lot of these recipes were inspired by our favorite restaurants, like the jumbo sea scallop is from Blue Ribbon Sushi, or we’ll go to the Union Square farmers’ market and just walk around until we see something that looks incredible. We made a creamy roasted tomato soup with some beautiful San Marzano and heirloom tomatoes and country garlic. That’s why going to Cali or Oregon is exciting. In those spots, everything is fresh.
Do you usually source from the farmers’ markets?
HM: We source everything from local purveyors, butcher shops… we’re not going to Key Food to buy it. We go for restaurant quality, everything grass fed, no hormones for the meats. Fish, we try to go for wild caught as much as possible.
Are these dinners open to everybody, and is there a vetting process?
HM: There’s a huge vetting process. People sign up, and we’ll definitely vet a few people, but the majority is through word of mouth in our network. In terms of vetting, there’s names, there’s who, there’s why, and if you get an email back, there’s even more process. Usually you got to get somebody that knows us to introduce us, but you can sign up at dinnerisdope.com, 100 percent. You’ll get an email blast, information, and we’re going to start doing recipes and a few other things.
Tell me about the edibles line.
HM: We’re working on getting them into a couple of the states now, but the line of products will most likely reflect our world of cooking. We do make an incredible caramel, some incredible gummies, that I think will happen seasonally in different markets. We want to say, “If you really want to participate in the Chef for Higher world, here are all the different touch points where you can access us.”
What differentiates you from the other chefs out there?
HM: We’re a husband and wife team. Stephanie is always there. I talk way more, but you know what they say, behind every successful man is a strong woman, and she keeps me in line. Our overall experience, the approach of responsible consumption through proper dosing, is a little different. Our network, the way we created this experience, we really stay in our lane and build off our past experiences, which happen to be music, fashion and publishing rooted in hip-hop. Thinking about the hip-hop industry [years ago], we’re at that same tipping point with cannabis right now. You see these plateaus happening, and I think it’s going to tip and explode the same way hip-hop did. So who better to be around this than people who have experienced taking over popular culture already with hip-hop.