Our 4/20 Q&A with Nguyen Tran, LA’s Weed-Cuisine Pioneer

Nguyen Tran, an ambassador of the underground dining scene in LA, held two cannabis pop-up dinners back in 2012 along with renegade chef Laurent Quenioux. The restaurant Starry Kitchen, which he runs with his wife, Thi Tran, started illegally in an apartment.

CHOW: You had a couple pop-up cannabis dinners back in 2012. These were unusual because you positioned cannabis as an ingredient to taste as opposed to a psychoactive substance.

Nguyen Tran: The first dinner was in Encino, and the second dinner in the DTLA Arts District. The idea was partially a gimmick, but not in a bad way. It was like, if you pair something with marijuana in California, people will already be excited. The challenge was to see if we could actually bring out the flavor of marijuana in a good way, and it was eye-opening to do it in a fine-dining context. My motto was: If you want to get high, you don’t have to pay us $150 for dinner. Just go to your dispensary.

The real name was The Chinese Herbs and Marijuana Dinner. The concept was making shitty things taste good. Marijuana used to be a medicinal herb that was used in Chinese culture. And that’s where my wife came in, with her knowledge of medicinal herbs. For instance, we made a panna cotta and infused osmanthus into the cream. We took cannabis oil and we married it with maltodextrin compound, and turned the pot into a powder. So we had this light, floral panna cotta with potent powder.

My partner was the French chef Laurent Quenioux. He’s a beast in the kitchen, just an incredible cook. We already knew that THC is a fat-soluble herb. So we thought, Let’s treat it as if it were any ingredient, like fresh marijuana. Let’s make real food with it. So instead of picking it up at a dispensary, we reached out to growers, and tended to use leaves more than the buds. We had a couple rules: Lower the potency as much as possible. And make sure flavor was still there.

How did you test the potency?

I have a lower tolerance for marijuana, so we would cook a dish and I’d eat it as a way to test and time how long it took me to get high. We had a monkfish cheek poached in coconut cannabis oil. I ate that dish and 30 minutes later, I was feeling really good. And I texted the guys, and I told them, "I feel amazing but there are five more dishes to go."

In the first dinner, did people get high?

We had a rule, knowing that we can't control everyone’s high. The minute the last portion was served, you were to get the hell out, because we’re liable for these people. I had everyone sign waivers, but if they hung around we wouldn’t be able to get them out.

Who was there?

Jonathan Gold. He filled out the personality test, and I figured it was him anyway, but they were clever responses. He went along for the ride. One of the producers from KCRW’s Good Food came. And a physics professor from Cal Tech who’d never been high. Just to name a few.

Do you smoke weed?

I’m a seldom smoker. I would consider myself farthest from being a pothead. I like it and appreciate it, but I don’t crave it.

Any more cannabis dinners on the horizon?

Foodie smoke signals prophesize potential resurrection of the weed dins.

Photos from the Cannabis Pop-Up Dinner courtesy of Nguyen Tran