Pop-Up L.A. Chef Sees Green in Weed Cuisine
The most common questions customers ask: ‘How high will this meal make me?’
Many entrepreneurs in the legal cannabis space have meandering, almost mythic origin stories of how they ultimately landed in the marijuana industry.
Chris Yang is one of those dreamers.
As a biochemistry major at the University of Southern California, Yang surprised himself when he instead started leaning toward organic chemistry classes and labs. After a stint in Shanghai working for Pfizer, where he worked with Viagra, Robitussin, and other brands, he moved to Taiwan to secure a masters degree in hospital management.
But Yang later clashed with what he saw as that industry’s profit-over-health-care values and returned to Los Angeles, where he taught himself to cook while watching YouTube videos. His career in the kitchen truly started while entertaining Instagram influencers at his home with creatively extravagant five-course meals, thus boosting his own social media presence. Later, he used his thriving Instagram profile as his only resume to cook at Marina del Rey’s now-shuttered Paiche, a seafood-centric Peruvian hotspot from chef Ricardo Zarate.
These days, Yang is still carefully juggling his disparate passions, including a tech startup play for property management firms. His primary focus, however, remains in the kitchen—only now he’s cooking with a new herb, throwing one of southern California’s most celebrated cannabis-infused pop-up dinners once a month.
“These dinners are a lot trickier when there’s weed in evolved,” Yang said recently from his Los Angeles home. “Like with any of these normal, non-cannabis pop-ups, the challenge is being able to do everything with a level of consistency and on a regular basis. It’s logistical coordination—how to house these events and have the kitchen needed to cook for and serve 30-60 people, and those are all challenges we need to work with.
“Then you need to find the 30-60 people to come out and pre-buy tickets and show up on time—and finding that clientele is hard,” Yang continued. “With a restaurant you find a good location and put a sign up, but this is still underground, so you have to actively be marketing and talking to people all of the time.
“The fact that we’re infusing our drinks and food with cannabis makes these a lot more complicated.”
Yang’s monthly parties operate under the Pop Cultivate banner and include walk-in apps, weed-infused cocktails, and five sit-down courses. Two of the courses are infused with psychoactive cannabinoid THC, and Yang’s desserts are generally infused with a healthy serving of THC’s non-psychoactive sibling CBD, “which has the medicinal benefits and gives you some mental clarity and alertness,” says Yang.
Each dinner is paired with a different artist, who displays their work all over the makeshift dining room and also creates a new piece as the evening progresses. Most of Yang’s customers are “doctors and accountants and other white collar workers,” he says, and his next few dinners include the barbecue-centric Taste of Summer on Memorial Day Weekend as well as dinners on June 24 and July 29.
The most common questions customers ask are about dosing: “How high will this meal make me?” Each course of drinks and food can be ordered individually sans marijuana, and around 20 percent of Yang’s customers generally opt for uninfused meals—though about half of them change their minds at some point in the evening. Those with higher tolerances can supplement the infused courses with weed-packed nonalcoholic cocktails available at the bar throughout the night, and the Pop Cultivate space also includes a bring-your-own smoking section.
“With our dinners what we’re trying to provide is a safe experience for anyone who is curious about cannabis,” Yang said. “There are a lot of people who are curious about cannabis but they don’t know how to approach it, and that’s a big gap between being curious about pot and going to a medical dispensary—and a Pop Cultivate dinner is somewhere in between those two experiences. We dose it for you and serve it to you in a way that is more relatable and understandable and easier to control.”
Yang’s dinners straddle two very different worlds—Los Angeles’ trendy $100-a-plate fine dining scene as well as the city’s explosive D.I.Y. renaissance, which is currently benefitting from a migration of artists and creatives fleeing the “billionaire playground” of San Francisco.
Pop Cultivate’s events also straddle the semi-legal reality of pop-up dining and the fully illegal world of unlicensed drug distribution. California voters overwhelmingly said yes to recreational pot in November’s election, but those rules and regulations are still being written—and the specific laws regarding the non-retail distribution and social consumption of cannabis aren’t the legislative priorities figuring out retail sales and commercial and personal cultivation are.
But Pop Cultivate has never had to fight the law, and Yang is careful to do what he can to stay in line with the most common operating procedures for these kinds of not-quite-legal events.
“In Colorado, they’re still trying to figure out how to get permits for any experience-based cannabis business, which allows cannabis consumption on site,” Yang said, referencing Denver County’s historic Initiative 300 social consumption measure. “California is a couple years behind Colorado in any kind of policymaking, and we don’t expect they’ll have permits for our businesses in these early days. But we run everything as private events, and that doesn’t fully make us legal but it gives us some sort of protection. It gives us something of a shelter.”
Yang and his once-a-month team of cooks, hosts, servers, and helpers are also struggling with the current business model’s inability to scale. At Yang’s most recent Pop Cultivate dinner, a dreamy late-April gathering, his team hustled to serve a record 70 customers—“but a decent-sized restaurant can serve 70 customers on any Friday or Saturday night,” Yang told me. “Our number one concern right now is to get frequency and volume up, to move from doing these monthly to doing them weekly.
“Ideally we’ll be doing these three nights a week, and two seatings per night, in the coming months once we settle down in the new space. At 50 people per seating, that’s 300 people per week—and that economy of scale makes a lot more sense than what we’re doing now.”
Yang will soon move his Pop Cultivate dinners from a container yard in the downtown Los Angeles arts district to a new undisclosed space near his alma mater USC. In an attempt to fill out his business offerings, Yang is also expanding Pop Cultivate’s cannabis empire beyond these culinary events.
“We’re definitely not limited to just food,” Yang said. “We’ve been working with other groups who do cannabis yoga and smoke-and-paint nights, and we’re currently playing around with launching different cannabis-themed nights. We have a cannabis yoga event scheduled in three weeks’ time, and we’ll definitely add the painting classes once we get in the new space.”
Yang’s is a quintessential L.A. story, one that is as cinematic as it is unexpected: A scientist moves abroad and goes corporate, only to return to California and his artistic roots to create an empire in a booming—if not-yet-legal—industry.