Chef brings cannabis to the dinner table

Chris Sayegh is a 24-year-old chef who has found a niche in the world of cannabis. He established a business that combines food and the controversial drug.

His company, the Herbal Chef, offers a variety of food services catering to both the medical and recreational needs of marijuana users, but his most popular service involves private dinners.

People pay upward of $500 each to indulge in a 12- to 15-course dinner infused with cannabis.

He describes these luxury dinners as "cerebral experiences" meant to introduce more than just a high, although scientists advise dining with caution.

"There is music setting a tone. There is terpene (plant) extracts in my centerpieces that are creating an aroma. There is art everywhere that is creating and stimulating conversation. So now it becomes an immersive experience where you are present in the dining experience," Sayegh said.

Sayegh prides himself on selecting organic ingredients native to the region where he is cooking.

The locations for these dinners vary, but most are held in private homes in states where either recreational or medical marijuana is legal. He says he complies with state laws and has all dinner participants fill out a questionnaire on their marijuana tolerance. In states like California, where only medical marijuana is legal, he requires clients to have a medical marijuana card.

He says the only common denominator among the diners is a search for a new experience.

"I get people fresh out of college; I get people for their anniversary; I get people who are huge into the dab (concentrated cannabis) culture; I get people who are corporate, who just want to have a new experience. ... There is no similarities other than they love good food and they want to try a new experience."

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. It's no surprise businesses like the Herbal Chef have learned to monetize and create new ways to use it. Sayegh, who says he has a medical marijuana card, is among the first to combine culinary training and experience at Michelin-starred restaurants in New York and California with a personal appreciation for cannabis.

"I was a student at UC Santa Cruz studying molecular cell biology, and I chose to go into the cannabis field because all of my studies were basically looking at the cognitive function of the brain on cannabis. What happens? I was telling myself, 'if I am going to smoke every day, then I might as well know what I am putting in my body,' " said Sayegh.

Is it safe?

Marijuana Business Daily's Factbook 2016 (PDF) estimates that retail sales of medical and recreational marijuana for 2016 will hit between $3.5 billion and $4.3 billion. This includes marijuana-infused food products. Edibles -- typically brownies, candy and cookies -- have been popular for years.

Cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the two main ingredients in the marijuana plant, belong to a class of compounds known as cannabinoids.

Dr. Igor Grant, a neuropsychiatrist and director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, explains that unlike THC, the psychoactive ingredient responsible for causing a high, CBD has been found to have medical benefits.

He says marijuana can soothe neuropathic or chronic pain.

"It turns out cannabis can be helpful in this, and we finished six different short-term clinical trials with people with neuropathic pain, and they all found benefits," Grant said.

Sayegh believes that when it's consumed responsibly, marijuana can have even more medical benefits.

"This is a part of our life, and ... CBD should be used daily to supplement and give nutrition to your body, to your endocannabinoid system, which then allows your body to achieve homeostasis, and that's what we want for our bodies. We want our bodies to run smoothly," Sayegh said.

The endocannabinoid system, discovered by Israeli organic chemist and researcher Dr. Ralph Mechoulam in the 1990s, is a group of cannabinoid receptors in human and animal brains that help translate the active ingredients in marijuana. The brain can receive and communicate to the body the different messages received through the cannabis that affect many functions, like how an individual reacts, moves and feels.

Many marijuana users and advocates, like Sayegh, support the idea that activating the endocannabinoid system helps promote equilibrium amongst the brain, body and the senses.

"I think people need to be educated, and they also need to understand we have an endocannabinoid system in our body that is meant to receive THC and CBD," Sayegh said.

Grant agrees that our bodies can receive a physiologic or beneficial effect of some kind from THC and are set up to process these molecules, but he says there's not a need to activate the endocannabinoid system.

"I don't think there is any evidence that we as a group of people are cannabinoid-deprived," Grant said. "The side of the argument doesn't make any sense to me."

Grant also argues that more long-term research is needed to truly understand marijuana's effects on the body, and he cautions those consuming food laced with the drug.

"I would always be concerned with people taking medicine or chemicals of various kinds, where a person may not know exactly what the content is, in other words, how much THC or other cannabinoids are there. Also, we don't know from the individual person, how will they absorb and what effect it may have on them," he said.

Cooking with cannabis

Sayegh's conduit for equilibrium is his food, and his goal -- aside from getting you to that homeostasis stage -- is for individuals to experience the different tastes, smells and textures of the dishes.

In order to achieve that, the chef picks a specific type of cannabis oil that is spread throughout every course. In its natural form, the oil is thick and dark brown, like tar, with a bitter taste, but it offers none of the psychoactive effects.

To activate the THC, the oil must be heated at a certain temperature. Too much heat, and the ingredients are burned off; too little, and the bitter taste remains or the ingredients are not activated.

Terpenes, the flavor and aromatic profiles of plants, are another important factor when picking the type of cannabis to cook with.

"We typically don't go off the strain," Sayegh said. "We typically go off the terpenes' profile. When the bud itself is in flower form, it has a distinctive smell, has a very distinctive flavor if you were to bite it. That is where you can use the flavor of the specific strain."

His recommended dosage for the entire meal is 10 milligrams, spread over the various courses without changing the food's integrity. The menu at one recent dinner included oysters, tuna, mushroom ravioli, vegan pho, wagyu and petit fours.

Elise McDonough, edibles editor for High Times, said cannabis-infused dining has become trendy, with infused-dining events with a variety of chefs most weekends in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver.

"You can't really taste the cannabis in most dishes because the THC dose is kept very low -- just 1 milligram for each appetizer bite," McDonough said in an email. "With higher doses of THC, the taste of cannabis will become more pronounced, which can be either paired with complimentary flavors or covered up."

The meals often draw artists, entrepreneurs and hipsters and others, she said.

"Usually by the end of the evening, people will feel warm and relaxed and you'll have made a few new friends and had some very fascinating conversations," she said. "Offering cannabis as an alternative to alcohol gives people a different means of social lubrication and opportunities to bond over a shared interest."

Marijuana legislation

The opportunities to experience one of Sayegh's dinners may be limited not only by your discretionary income but by where you live as well. It is still illegal to consume, purchase or cultivate marijuana in more than half the United States. In some states like California, it is legal to consume and cultivate it only if you have a physician's approval to be medically treated with marijuana.

Almost 20 years ago, the California Compassionate Use Act made it legal for patients and their primary caregivers to possess and cultivate marijuana for their personal medical use as long as is it was approved by a state-licensed physician.

Today, 25 states have legalized marijuana in some form. Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia have legalized both medical and recreational marijuana usage.

That list may grow after November 8 as residents of several other states, including California, decide whether to support measures legalizing recreational marijuana.

For the Herbal Chef, the passing of such measures has little impact on his business.

"If it passes, that means less paperwork for me, which is great, and you don't have to sign up and have your medical card, or you can just be 21 years or older, so it opens my market up," Sayegh said.