San Francisco-based chef Michael Magallanes wants to turn folks into cannabis connoisseurs. Having trained and worked his way up the line under French Laundry chefs at Michelin-starred Aziza and then opened Michelin-starred sister restaurant Mourad, Michael seems like just the person to do it. And his Hightened Series is the vehicle by which he’s working to get it done.
A little about the Hightened Series: It’s a string of fine-dining events, run out of Michael’s company Opulent Chef, where folks can enjoy gourmet food paired with various cannabis concentrates. Michael’s goal is “to give people an experience that’s on the same level as an experience that I could give someone at a restaurant with wine.”
He adds, “When you think of opulence in dining, people talk about truffles, caviar—expensive, exotic ingredients. Also, the service, wine pairings, these sorts of things. And so, I feel the definition of opulence in dining, and fine dining, is changing now, and we have to start bringing cannabis into that definition.”
Here, here, chef Michael. We second that opinion.
Read on to learn about Michael’s forays into cannabis—both in San Francisco and more recently New York. And follow his journey from his humble beginnings baking cakes and cookies as a 12-year-old to his rise to the top of the culinary world.
I’d love to start by hearing more about your background. Where did you grow up? And how did you get into cooking?
Well, I was born and raised in Sacramento, California. I don’t really know why exactly I got into cooking. It was something that I was drawn to from a very young age, probably starting at age 12.
Was there someone in your family who influenced you, and got you interested in food and cooking?
I don’t think so. I was just interested in it, and so I would experiment with cooking at home. Eventually, I was making food for my family and friends.
I didn’t want to go to culinary school or become a chef. It was a hobby, something that I really enjoyed doing. And so, I went to college for something completely different than cooking.
So, instead of going to cooking school, what did you go to college for? What did you major in?
Philosophy and political science. I went to San Diego State University. Through college, I would cook for my housemates, my friends. I always enjoyed cooking even through college. And then I started working a little bit.
I was working with a temp agency where I would pick up some shifts in kitchens. Every once in a while, I’d work in hotels and big places like that, but I never really took it seriously, like I was going to make it into a career.
Then I ended up traveling in South America for about a year and a half, and I worked a little bit down there in some kitchens, and that was a lot of fun. I was just kind of learning how to make food down there.
When you were in high school and college, what types of food were you making? What was your go-to dish that your friends and family would always ask you to make?
It was probably Mexican food or Italian food. Through high school, I think I was making Italian-type stuff. While I was in college in San Diego, I would make my own tortillas and things like that. We were so close to Mexico, and we’ve got such great ingredients down in Mexico. With tortillas, you could actually get freshly ground masa the day that it was ground.
Here in San Francisco, there are a couple of places that make really good tortillas. But not at that level. So, I made a lot of Mexican food, and there was a plethora of Latino markets all over the place. I was living in the area that was pretty heavily Latino.
So, were you making pastas by hand, that type of thing when you were in your teens?
I was. I started experimenting with that probably in high school, making egg noodles and stuff. Got a little hand crank and made sheet pasta. Though in high school, I feel like I was making more desserts. My grandma is amazing at baking.
She taught me how to make a pie crust and angel food cake, cookies and all sorts of stuff. She has 10 sisters, and they’re all amazing bakers. My great grandma lived on a big farm; she was the baker for the whole neighborhood and the farm and everything.
So, she made bread all day long. I think it’s in their blood to make desserts and things. And jam. They’re really into making jams and jellies. Pickling things, too, because it was North Dakota. So, they’d have to really preserve everything to get through the winters.
Maybe this is where you got your inspiration. It sounds like your love of food and cooking runs in your family.
Yeah. So, I think I was probably doing more dessert stuff in high school. I’ve got a pretty big sweet tooth. I like making cookies. I’ll make cookies for myself every once in a while, and just eat a pile of them.
My go-to is a chewy chocolate pecan. I also really like oatmeal raisin cookies. There’s just something about oatmeal raisin cookies.
It sounds like you have this lineage of baking and being creative with food. What did your friends think when you were 12 or 13 years old and just doing all of this baking all of the time?
I was pretty closeted about it. I wasn't openly cooking for my friends. It was just something I did. When I got further into high school, I want to say probably at 16, I started cooking for my friends. And it wasn't a big deal. And then I was like, “Oh, cool.”
But when I was really young, I didn’t really tell my friends I was baking cheesecake and stuff. I used to ask my mom’s friends for springform pans and things like that, because my mom didn’t really have all that stuff. They used to know that I liked baking.
Fast forward to when you were on your travels through South America. Which of the countries in particular were you living and traveling in that gave you that spark of enjoyment with cooking?
In Peru is really where I was cooking. I traveled pretty much all through South America. But Peru is really where I spent the most time, and where I cooked in a couple of different small kitchens.
And so, you were cooking in Peru just to make a quick buck while you were living abroad, to help fund your traveling?
Yeah, one of the kitchens was giving me a place to sleep in exchange for work. So, it was to extend my travels, and I was interested in that.
While you were cooking in Peru, did you actually start to think, “Oh, I could make a living out of this?” When did that thought actually form?
No, I never thought that, because I knew the reality of it. I knew the reality of a life of a chef. Just living in poverty, working all the time and having screwed up teeth, because you don’t have dental. You don’t have health care. And so, I didn’t really want to go down that rabbit hole. I wanted it to still be a fun hobby.
Because once you start really going down that hole, then the fun of it goes away, and then you’re just pissed off that you’re doing it all the time. And so, I didn’t want that to happen.
But when I came back to the States, there really wasn’t any job for me. I mean as a philosophy major, nobody’s going to give you a job really. And it was also the beginning of the whole recession.
There wasn’t really a lot of work around to begin with, and I didn’t have a specific career path from my degree. So, it was one of those things where I just needed to work. I was broke, and I moved back in with my parents, and I knew I needed to get out of my parents’ house.
So, I started cooking at a sports bar. And I started working for a big catering company that was for the convention center in Sacramento, just working odd shifts.
Then I moved to San Francisco and started cooking here. It just became one of those things where it started becoming hard for me not to work in a professional kitchen, because the next kitchen I went to would be better than the one before, and it would have different sorts of equipment with different sorts of techniques, different sorts of food.
And it just kept me going, because I thought, “Oh, I can learn this, and then I'm going to quit this job, and I'm going to go work over here, because I want to learn that.” It kept me interested and motivated to get to the next level, because I wanted to learn more.
But I couldn’t do that at home anymore. I couldn’t have specialized equipment in my home. I couldn't get certain ingredients at home. So, I had to keep working in kitchens to be able to keep learning and better myself as a cook.
That’s how it all really started. You get to a point where you think, “OK, I'm such and such age. And now I need to make a decision. I’m either going to do this, or I’m not going to do it.”
And I decided, I don’t really want to go back to school and take on debt and then get some job that I don’t know whether I’m going to like. I thought, “I like cooking, even though it doesn’t pay me. At least I’m fed.”
Was this in your mid 20s, when you were having this moment where you’re at a crossroads and realizing you have to make the choice to stick with cooking or get out?
Yeah, I would say mid to late 20s. I was creeping up on 30. I feel like when you start getting to 30, you think, “OK, I need to figure something out.”
And it’s still at that point where I could’ve gone back to school and got a master’s degree. I could’ve become really specialized in something. By this time, I would’ve been on a whole other career path.
So, I had to make that decision, and I decided to just stick with cooking. Then I was in restaurants for a long time.
Did this all happen before or after you were at Aziza Restaurant, out in the Richmond District of San Francisco?
This was before Aziza. I worked at multiple places before I went there.
There’s such a great sampling of different types of ethnic cuisines in the San Francisco Bay Area. Why did you choose to work at Aziza vs. other restaurants?
I was using Craigslist back then, and Aziza kept popping up. And I was staging (working in a kitchen without pay to check it out) at all these places, and they all sucked. They were bad environments. So, I thought, “I'm just going to try Aziza out, because I'm bored. I have nothing else going on.”
And I went there, and at that time, Mourad [Lahlou] (the owner-chef) had three different chefs who were all from the French Laundry. I wanted to work for these chefs, because they could teach me refined techniques that they’d learned from the French Laundry.
I was able to learn a lot from them as far as knife skills, various types of cooking techniques. I’d worked at a lot of places, but it was never at any restaurants that were at that level.
So, going in, I staged, and I just remember thinking, “Shit, these guys are doing crazy stuff.” I’d never been exposed to this before. And the menu was probably quite a bit different than what it was like when Mourad was running the restaurant himself.
So, Aziza’s food while you were there was more of a fusion interpretation than it was traditional Moroccan?
The tasting menu had no Moroccan dishes. There were some spices in some things, maybe there was some couscous or something, some preserved lemon. A lot of the staple dishes that Aziza had been known for—like the lamb shank, bisteeya and kefta meatballs—were no longer on the menu.
When I got hired on, Mourad was doing a cookbook tour. And I think Mourad had mentally detached himself from the place at that point. He wanted the food to be a lot more refined than the way it was when he was running the place. Because he wanted to take Aziza, himself and his future projects to the next level. He really wanted two Michelin stars.
I signed on to work with the French Laundry guys, and it was difficult. It was difficult for me to make that transition from working a certain way for all these years to now have to work this way.
But I learned a lot, and it allowed me to become who I am now. I worked my way up at Aziza. All the guys that I worked with, they all quit. So, then it was like, “Well, who else is going to do it?”
So I, along with another cook, went up the ranks as they left. And we were able to keep the quality standards high because we’d learned how to do that.
Then Mourad opened his namesake restaurant Mourad. And I was one of the openings chefs for that restaurant.
How was your experience being an opening chef at fine-dining restaurant Mourad, which opened in San Francisco in 2015?
The goal with that restaurant was that I wanted to be part of an opening in an upper management role. But my goal wasn’t to be there for a long time. I always wanted to just break off and do my own projects. I’ve never really been interested in being some big-name chef or at some big-name restaurant.
I’m more interested in having fun with [food].
How long were you at Aziza and then Mourad? After spending time at these restaurants, is that when you decided to strike out on your own and start Opulent Chef?
I think I was at Aziza for three years, and then at Mourad for a couple of years.
Yeah, I was at Mourad, where I was essentially chef de cuisine. I was doing menu development, training people. And at that time, I was creating my own style of food. I was working on dishes all day, just creating all day.
I was able to really hone in on my own ideas of what I would want my food to be like. So, I waited for everything to settle down at Mourad, and I put in my notice and then started Opulent Chef.
Your goal with Opulent Chef—what were your thoughts in terms of how you wanted it to be positioned and perceived?
Yeah, I wanted it to be a small-scale catering company. When I would fundraise with Mourad for his restaurant, we would go to people’s homes and do these big dinners for them. It’d be 10 people, 15 people. I was exposed to these extremely wealthy people in their homes and was cooking out of their homes for them.
And so, the idea with Opulent Chef was to do that—to go to these people's homes and cook for them. For wealthy individuals who could afford my services. I didn’t want to just be the guy on Thumbtack who charges $50 a head to do a dinner at your house. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, the way I wanted to do it, and have people pay me, because they appreciate and want that.
And so, was Opulent Chef an instant success? Did you already have an existing clientele, or did you have to build it over time?
I didn’t really have an existing clientele. But there were some people who I cooked for here and there. And then I was doing popups, trying to use things like Feastly or do popups at Naked Kitchen or other venue spaces, and just trying to figure out how to really do that, how to sell tickets.
So, that was going for about six months. And then I started with the cannabis.
And the cannabis—how did that come into play? What was it that got you into adding cannabis to or pairing cannabis with your dishes?
I had a cook at Mourad who quit the restaurant. He wasn't really that good to begin with. I think it was his first job. And we just yelled at him all day. So, he quit.
His family is in the cannabis industry. Through his connections, I think he was able to create an ice-water hash company in Humboldt.
Well, he saw that I’d quit and started private cheffing. And so, he reached out to me and said that he wanted to do these dinners with me, cooking food with his hash.
I was curious about it, because I'd never done it. But I knew people who did. So, after about a month of experimenting with decarboxylation and infusing cannabis into oils and integrating that into food, dosing and all that sort of stuff, we did a family and friends dinner to see how it would go down. Then we did an open-to-the-public popup type thing.
This was all pre-legalization. My partner was a collective, so everyone joined his collective, and they all had medical marijuana cards. After legalization, we slowed down quite a bit. Because we didn’t really know how to proceed.
That's when I started connecting with other cannabis companies and did dinners with them, or I’d have my own events that I’d produce.
When you’re talking about your own cannabis dining events, you’re referring to the Hightened Series?
Yeah. The Hightened Series is something that I’ve been more recently trying to build a little bit more by producing these events with different cannabis companies that I connect with.
I’ve also cooked for private clients who want cannabis-infused meals or cannabis pairing meals at their homes. So, I’m still doing dinners for people in their homes—more cannabis dinners, but I’ll still do non-cannabis dinners, too.
What do you get out of the cannabis dinners—your own series and also any other dinner such as the private events you do? What was it that drew you to that? And what do you hope people who attend will get out of it?
The reason why I was really drawn to cooking with cannabis and wanted to proceed with it was because it’s an unexplored aspect of the food industry. Not that it’s completely unexplored, because obviously people are doing this and have been doing it for a long time. But it’s unexplored in so far that it’s always been kind of underground and semi-illegal.
And so, it got me curious about how to use this product integrated into food somehow. To give people an experience that's on the same level as an experience that I could give someone at a restaurant with wine.
Because I’m changing someone's cerebral experience. They become intoxicated, whether it’s from alcohol or cannabis. And so, I’ve been trying to refine my events more and more to give people an opulent experience with cannabis.
When you think of opulence in dining, people talk about truffles, caviar—expensive, exotic ingredients. Also, the service, wine pairings, these sorts of things. And so, I feel the definition of opulence in dining, and fine dining, is changing now, and we have to start bringing cannabis into that definition.
I’m trying to figure out how to integrate cannabis into opulent dining. And so, I experiment with different sorts of dinners, whether it’s pairing concentrates with courses or infusing directly into the meal. And so for me, it’s really unexplored, and there aren’t that many people doing it. And so it’s really fun.
What has been the most successful in terms of the types of cannabis that you’ve infused with recently? What kinds of cannabis are you working with now that you’ve been really pleased with?
The direction that I’m going right now, and that makes the most sense for what I’m trying to do, is doing concentrate pairings with courses. We may be using a Puffco Peak or Topstone vaporizer or something along those lines, where we can preload coils on the Topstone, for example, and we can change the coils out on the vaporizers while we’re dropping the next course.
And then we can give a spiel about the food, and we can talk about whatever we just loaded up into the coil on the vaporizer that’s in front of them. And diners can try the food with the concentrate.
I don’t like to do my pairings with flower. A lot of people try to do these flower pairings. I think that when you eat food and you smoke flower, it doesn’t work well. It’s combusted flower. It’s harsh. It hurts your palate and your throat, and you can’t taste the food. And your mouth just tastes like smoke.
With concentrate, you can taste everything that you need to taste out of the plant. You’re stripping all of the excess plant material out of the product. And so, you get a true expression of the plant in its purest form.
And it doesn't leave a gross aftertaste in your mouth. It doesn’t blow out your palate, because it’s all smoky. A lot of people are doing these vape pens pairings. I’m just not a big fan of those in general. I have my preferences. I’m not trying to pick fights with people who do vape pen cannabis parties. I’ve done them, too.
But I think my ideal party is working with specific concentrate companies, especially concentrate companies that are doing a hash-pressed rosin from outdoor-grown plants up in Mendocino or Humboldt, because you can talk about who grew it. Like this person grew this strain; this person made it into hash and pressed it into rosin, and that’s what you're getting right now.
I’ve done events where I’ve brought in the farmer and the hash maker, and they can talk about how they grew it and how they made it. They talk about the strain and why it pairs well with a certain dish.
That mimics the most how we talk about wine pairings. Maybe that’s just because I’m coming from an understanding of wine with food.
With wine, you have people growing the grapes. You have people making the wine out of the grapes, and it’s the same thing with cannabis. Someone’s growing the cannabis. Someone’s making hash out of that cannabis.
And there’s some people I’ve worked with who cure hash, and so you can taste the difference between different years. For example, there’s a difference in taste between Loopy Fruit from 2016 vs. Loopy Fruit from 2018, because of the way they cure the hash over time. The terpenes mellow out, and they change.
How you describe pairing cannabis with food really does make it sound so similar to when folks talk about wine and wine pairings with food.
Yeah, maybe I’m biased because of my background, but that’s the direction I’m going with. Highlighting these artisan hash makers with usually smaller-scale farmers who are growing outdoors. You can really taste the terroir of where they’re growing, because they’re growing outdoors in the ground. Not just in a giant glass house.
What are your upcoming plans for the Hightened Series? What are your immediate goals with incorporating cannabis into your dining events?
I’ve done a couple of events with Focus Concentrates, and I think we’re going to start nailing down a format that we really want to move forward with. So that we can have a more regular event where we’re doing these dinner pairings with cannabis.
We’re going to try to treat it the way that I used to treat wine and food when I was in restaurants, which was sitting down and eating food and drinking wine together with the sommelier.
So, I’m going to make food, and Focus is going to bring cannabis concentrates. And we’re going to try it with concentrates to see how it pairs, what works, what doesn’t work. And then I’ll come up with a solid menu with pairings.
When people partake in a Hightened Series event, what is it you hope they’ll think or feel during and at the end of it?
I want people’s perception about cannabis and food to change. Or if their perception is the way that I wanted it to be already, then I want them to be solidified in their thinking—that you can have an amazing dining experience without any alcohol. You can have that intoxicated cerebral experience with cannabis. It’s really fun. It’s actually more fun; it’s very enjoyable.
And I want people to not be afraid of concentrates. Especially with Topstone vaporizers, you can really control how much you're taking in. And you don't even really need to inhale if you don’t want to. I’ve eaten so much food and drunk so much wine at these giant, 17-course meals where there’s wine for every single course.
At some point, you don't need to finish your glass of wine. You don't need to swallow it if you don't want to. Just because you’re going to Healdsburg doesn't mean you need to get shitfaced. You can spit it out.
I want people to understand that about cannabis as well. Nobody’s offended if you just need to put it in your mouth, swish it around and smell it, and then exhale it out without inhaling into your lungs. You don’t need to get all screwed up.
And with Topstone vaporizers, you can really control your dose. So, people can be very careful and cautious about how much they’re taking in.
So, I want people’s perception about concentrates to change. I want people to understand what concentrates are, how they’re made and that sort of thing. Because I think a lot of people don’t really fully understand them; they don’t fully understand the difference between something that’s a distillate or CO2 extract or ice-water hash from rosin. All these different ways of making something that we vaporize, that’s an oil.
I want people to start becoming connoisseurs. And I want them to understand that you can have these amazing dining experiences with something that’s highly prized by a lot of connoisseurs right now.
Do you have folks who are returning, who keep coming back to your cannabis dining events?
Yeah, there’s a handful of people who are really stoked about coming back. I’ll usually try to keep the menus changing through the season. There are some dishes that I’ll repeat just because people love it. And I’m very limited as well, because I’ll prepare everything in my commercial kitchen. But then getting everything to the venue and then having to work within the limitations of that venue make it really hard sometimes.
And so, there are certain dishes that I know I can execute really well given the limitations of the kitchen. I don’t have free reign the way that I would have free reign in a restaurant.
But I try to keep the menu as fresh as possible, while keeping the standards as high as I can keep them. So, I think when people come back, I think they're happy with what they receive. And they come back again.
It sounds like there's a very strong educational component to each of your dinners. I love that you’re furthering the destigmatization of the plant and bringing cannabis in as a natural component to enjoying your life. Do you have any other big plans for your Hightened Series or anything else?
I’m trying to break into New York. I have an event going on there with Topstone vaporizers. It’s going to have a dab bar, and we’re going to have a company called Mammoth that makes rosin and grows flower in Rhode Island. They’ve won some awards out there.
I’m excited to see what kind of products they have on the east coast. I’m sure it’s going to be a lot different from what we get out here in California. I think it’s all hydroponic there.
I think there are a lot of people who are really excited about cannabis and the plant becoming legal out there. So there’s a lot of potential. There's a little bit of a preexisting industry, but there isn’t an industry the way it is in California with the way we were doing medicinal.
I’m also in the process of getting my cannabis event organizer license, so I can have legal events and be really open about it. All of these Hightened Series dinners are invitation-only, donation-basis events. And they’re held in secret locations that we're not going to tell you about until you buy a ticket.
A lot of times, I won’t even post on Eventbrite; I won’t use any ticketing platform. It’ll all be through people emailing me first and then Venmo-ing me money. They’re all Venmo-ing me donations. And it’s in a private residence.
But I want to have fun, big parties. And so with that license, I could have an event that’s not even food related. So, I think there are just more possibilities to produce fun cannabis events.
You’d said you’d resisted for so long getting into the restaurant and cooking industry, because you knew this rabbit hole was going to be a really rough one. Do you have any regrets? Or are you super stoked now—are you enjoying your day to day. Is cooking and your present career what you’d hoped they would be?
I don’t have any regrets, but there’s always that voice in the back of your head saying, “Why did you do this to yourself?”
I could’ve just got a job and been a normal person. Why do I want to struggle? Why do I want to be borderline impoverished?
No, I don't regret it. It’s not an easy life, but it’s something that I’m passionate about. And if I wasn’t passionate about it, I would’ve stop a long ago. So, I can’t have any regrets about pursuing something that I ultimately wanted to pursue.
I’m always trying to grow. And that was what got me into cooking—that I could keep learning. I think that’s with cannabis, too. I’m still learning, trying to learn and do new things.
Photo credit: Junho Kim @mikohnuj