Looking at the photos on his Instagram feed, you wouldn’t immediately see what makes Christopher Sayegh, founder and CEO of catering company the Herbal Chef, stand out amid the flashy innovation of the culinary world.
Much like that of any other fine-dining chef, his social media is littered with overhead shots of immaculately plated delicacies like smoked salmon topped with poached strawberries, and spiced meringue drizzled with bourbon caramel. Although his culinary creations are mouthwatering, it takes a glance into their descriptions to learn that most of them are infused with THC and CBD—the two most common compounds found in cannabis.
The 25-year-old Los Angeles–based chef says that’s the whole point.
“The way I look at it is that people shouldn’t be so fixated on the THC and the cannabinoids,” he says, adding that he hopes his guests pay attention to things like textures, flavours, and the integrity of the dish over the exhilaration of getting high.
“They should be fixated on the food. The food comes first.”
With an occasional interruption from a rooster in the background, Sayegh chats with the Georgia Straight over the phone from Texas, where he’s hosting one of his infamous private dinners: multifaceted affairs that have heads turning in both the cannabis and culinary worlds.
While weed would seem to be the natural centrepiece of these fine-dining festivities, it’s really just a tool used to immerse the consumer in a carefully designed experience. Sayegh says his dinners, which can take up to two months of planning, are highly customized to be nostalgic and reflective of each client.
“Eating Waraq Dawali, the stuffed grape leaves, when I was a kid,” Sayegh says when asked about his earliest food memory, one of the many questions he poses to guests before brainstorming their menu.
“I got yelled at because I touched it before everyone else…but I loved it!”
Sayegh and his team go well beyond the standard allergy and flavour-preference surveys that precede most catered dinners. Customers are asked to disclose their life goals, career pursuits, and childhood memories, all to get to the root of their culinary desires. Once a profile is constructed, Sayegh and his team get to work designing a microdosed feast composed of eight to 12 precisely timed and exquisitely plated courses accompanied by wine, art, and music. These events can range from $200 to $500 per person, depending on the ingredients, the amount of cannabis extract, and other special requests.
The caterers also plan actual fishing and foraging excursions in the days leading up to the event to ensure ingredients are as local and seasonal as possible.
Sayegh—who keeps the THC to a relatively low dosage and trains his staff to recognize signs of intoxication or distress—hopes to draw the cannabis-curious into the fold by creating a safe and welcoming atmosphere.
This desire to make cannabis approachable began while Sayegh was studying biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The more he took to smoking recreationally, the more he wanted to better understand what was happening inside his own body. As he explored what little research existed at the time on the endocannabinoid system, he realized everything he had been taught about the plant was wrong.
“I had been lied to,” he says.
“Once I started to do more research into it, it was really about becoming an activist and telling people this plant really helps people in a multitude of ways, not only medicinally but the human race industrially, as well.”
Though his passion for cannabis was developing quickly, it was living without his family’s rich blend of traditional Jordanian and Italian home cooking that took him down the route of using fine dining as a form of advocacy.
“The thing we gathered around was food. That was our sense of love,” he says, adding that often his family would sit for hours around a meal.
“I didn’t want to miss that anymore.”
Once Sayegh started pursuing cooking, he knew he had tapped into something transformative. His family, displeased with his decision to drop out for a life in the kitchen, kicked him out.
“It was rough for a while,” he says. Living out of his car and working for free, Sayegh spent 15-hour days working his way up from the bottom rungs of the hospitality industry. From dishwashing and serving, he managed to cut his teeth in some of the country’s most renowned restaurants while studying under top culinary experts, including Michelin-starred chefs Josiah Citrin and Daniel Humm.
In 2015, he launched his catering company, and it quickly gained momentum. In the three years since the Herbal Chef’s inception, Sayegh has garnered international recognition for being one of the top cannabis chefs in the world.
“I was blown away by the whole experience,” wrote Tiffany Soper, a local public-relations specialist who attended one of the Herbal Chef dinners last November.
“By the end of the night, I was having the best time; I felt great and was a little giggly,” she added in an email to the Straight.
Inspired by the experience, Soper approached Sayegh and his team with the idea of hosting an event in Vancouver. “I thought it would be so well received and a huge success by Vancouverites, given the culture around cannabis in this city.”
The Herbal Chef—partnering with Canadian cannabis producers and retailers like the Quarry and Aura—will be hosting its first Canadian private dinner April 6 and 7. Shrouded in mystery, the two-day event will host 120 cannabis-curious diners and be held in a private location to be announced only hours before the meal begins. The one detail Sayegh did reveal, however, is fundamental to one of his core values. From Dungeness crab and prawns to locally foraged herbs, the 10-course meal will feature an abundance of fresh Vancouver-sourced ingredients.
“We’re going into the land and getting what’s in your back yard,” he says. “We believe in using local ingredients wherever we go to bring a real sense of connection between the diner and the food.”
The Herbal Chef website indicates that meals can be infused with anywhere from one to 15 milligrams of THC, though the standard hovers around 10 milligrams. The foods at the sold-out Vancouver event will be infused with 10 milligrams of hemp-derived CBD oil (the compound in cannabis that won’t stimulate a psychoactive response) and only trace amounts of THC.
“This is what I love to do, so, honestly, it’s more selfish than anything,” he says about the upcoming dinners.
“Under it all, we just genuinely care about bringing people the best-of-the-best ingredients and having it infused with the best-of-the-best cannabis.”
Sayegh says that although his dinners are stimulating plenty of interest, the bigger picture often gets lost in the mix. His primary goal rings true of his experience with pot back in college: destigmatizing the plant to get it in the hands of those who need it most.
“[The government is] gouging an industry that is trying to help people,” he says, calling the current systematic incarceration of nonviolent cannabis users and the denial of medical access to cannabis “a blatant misuse of power”.
Sayegh and the Herbal Chef team are lobbying to loosen laws surrounding edibles in hopes of opening their first restaurant, Herb, in West Hollywood. For the past two years, they’ve pushed to make on-site-consumption licences available, and they recently won. Now they are able to apply for one and are hoping to open by the end of this year.
Sayegh says he hopes the new restaurant will be his “culinary showcase”. Starting with a history lesson, the experience will walk guests through an immersive cannabis journey as expressed through the culinary arts. Guests will be able to retire to a “decompression lounge” after sampling a 10- to 15-course infused tasting menu.
He is dedicated to the core concept of education, saying that knowledge is what his industry and the world need right now. His passion for enlightening naysayers is what eventually brought his family back.
“I persistently educated them. Years later, now they are my number one fans,” he says.
He has employed this patient, tactful approach with anyone critical of his work, even going so far as to offer free tickets to his events to outspoken haters on Twitter.
“If I could change my grandparents’ minds or my parents’ minds, who were so closed off, then anybody else is going to be pretty easy.”
Christopher Sayegh will be a featured panelist at the Georgia Straight's upcoming event, Grassroots: An Expo for the Cannabis Curious, which takes place next Saturday and Sunday (April 7 and 8). Find tickets at the Craft Cannabis website.