WW presents "Distant Voices," a daily video interview for the era of social distancing. Our reporters are asking Portlanders what they're doing during quarantine.
At a glance, chef Leather Storrs' new Netflix show looks like a lot of other televised cooking competitions. Three contestants are given a certain amount of time to whip up a meal. The hosts and a panel of celebrity guests critique each dish. At the end, a winner is chosen and awarded a generous cash prize.
The difference on Storrs' show? Every dish must have weed in it.
That's not some shocking curveball thrown at the cooks last minute—the name of the series is Cooked With Cannabis. But that one tweak to the formula is enough to flip the whole format on its head. After all, the judges on Chopped may be sassy, but they aren't ingesting up to 24 milligrams of cannabis during the course of an episode.
But for Storrs, who made his name in Portland's restaurant scene in the early 2000s as a chef at Noble Rot and now co-hosts Cooked With Cannabis alongside the singer Kelis, the point isn't to watch famous guests like Michael Rapaport and Ricki Lake get stoned out of their gourds—not the whole point, anyway. It's more about showcasing the viability of cannabis-based cooking.
"The numbers were in a place where the cannabis is not taking over everything and driving the entire discussion," says Storrs from his home in Southeast Portland, where he's whiling away quarantine writing recipes and occasionally going mushroom hunting. "It still remained a component of their food—a seasoning as opposed to the reason for doing it. You're not just doing it to get high, you're doing it to think about what this does as an ingredient."
Storrs has had his sights set on television ever since he started hosting infused dinners around Portland at the dawn of the recreation era in Oregon. With his endearingly scruffy personality, it's not impossible to imagine him eventually becoming legal weed's first celebrity chef.
But as Storrs readily admits, he's still adjusting to being on camera—and feeling like someone who belongs in front of one.
"One of the things I never got over, and loved very much, whenever I would go through the studio, there'd be production assistants, and they'd say, 'Talent walking!' I'd look around and say, 'Who is it? Who's here?' And they'd say, 'It's you, dumbass.'"
WW talked to Storrs about the logistics of shooting a show where almost everyone on set is getting progressively more stoned, the time during filming that he needed to be "saved from himself," and the show he's hoping to do next.
Read an extended Q&A below:
WW: You've been talking about wanting to do a cannabis-themed cooking show for a while. How did it finally happen?
Leather Storrs: I was on a show called Bong Appétit on Vice, which was also a cooking contest show, but a little more of a parlor game—lots of milligrams, lots of weed, lots of on-camera smoking, lots of gags and handicaps. While I was on that show—which I did not win—I met the director, Michael Rucker, and I think he liked my approach, which had more to do with understanding dosage and really being kind of a shepherd for diners. Eating cannabis is so much different than smoking it. As Snoop Dogg says, it ain't got no off switch, and you, or someone you know, has had a bad experience. Being able to bring a disparate group of people together and guide them through a meal or experience is a real skill. I really talked up this idea of, "Look, this is an ingredient. If we're careful, and if we break it down and make it a little more scientific, a little more granular, much more interesting things will happen than people just being locked into their sofa or having palpitations." And for Rucker, that really resonated.
What was your initial reaction to having Kelis as a co-host?
Out of the gate, I was thinking to myself, "Great, a pop star who went to culinary school. This is going to be terrible." And I was completely wrong. She not only has a deep and encyclopedic food knowledge, she's an excellent cook, she's extremely empathetic, she's powerful and sharp. She's the draw, and they needed to put somebody next to her who spoke more to the cannabis side of it. That's where I came in. I got this title of "expert," but that might be an overstatement. I'm certainly an enthusiast.
In what ways did the contestants incorporate cannabis?
Somebody made a flour, with the combination of wheat flour and actual flower, that they used as a dredge on a schnitzel variation. Some people blanched and cooked the leaves themselves, which would then not be psychoactive. Some people puréed the greens and worked them into stuff. One of the added layers of complexity I really appreciated on this show is all the cooks, the day before the contest, made their own infusions. I'm a big believer that if you're going to be working in this arena, you really need to be working with flower. I don't cotton to the chefs who are putting a dropper of distillate on top and saying, "Presto, it's infused!" There needs to be a thoughtful integration.
I imagine that doing a show where everybody is gradually getting more and more high presents some logistical challenges.
There was one episode we did where one contestant was a really chuffy young cook. As I started to get more medicated, I started to sort of project onto him and dislike him more and more, because I recognized myself in him. It became this singular focus of mine. The director's like, "At a certain point, we have to protect you from yourself. You didn't look great insulting this guy."
But yes, there was an evolution in both people's comfort, in their ease, in their ability to form sentences. You could definitely see that in some of our guests. For example, Michael Rapaport, who you think of as a really tough, no-nonsense guy, was terrified and avoided a lot of the things that had THC.
You mentioned the guests, who aren't really judges. It seems they're just there for the purpose of watching them get gradually more stoned.
Some certainly got loopier than others, but some of them were really into it. We had one table of Jo Koy, another comic, a woman named Elle King and Ricki Lake. Toward the end, when they were all pretty high, they did this amazing percussive arrangement of "Milkshake," Kelis' song, which just brought the house down. Unfortunately, for copyright reasons, they couldn't show that. But there were some good interactions with a lot of the guests.
Ricki Lake came into the studio, and she had a funny little entourage. I'm sitting in the green room, I've got a T-shirt on that says, "I Love Capers," and I look sort of scrubby. I stand up and introduce myself and say, "Don't worry about it, I'm a scrub." She looks me up and down and tacitly agreed. Later, we're in the makeup area, and she looks over and she goes, "Hey, you're the host! I thought you said you were a scrub." I said, "They're not mutually exclusive, Ricki."
There's not a lot of the staged drama you see in other cooking shows, like revealing surprise ingredients or any of that stuff.
The idea of the handicaps has always been corny to me. I think the handicap in this show, if there is any, is the cannabis itself. But because the cooks were working with a theme over three courses, they really had an opportunity to stage how they wanted to present. The ones who did well really told a story throughout their meal. We were very lukewarm on one contestant until dessert, when she really put a bow on her story and alluded to courses before and made this beautiful connected piece that got her the victory. I felt that was a symptom of the ingredient, cannabis, but of also allowing chefs to do their work without the goofy parlor tricks that are part of other culinary shows.
In the past, you've talked about wanting to do a show that would essentially be like No Reservations, but with cannabis. Is that still a dream of yours?
Very much, and it's literally click-dependent. If people like the show—and, more importantly, if they like me—then the production company, 25/7, would be much more open to my pitch, which I have made formally several times. [Laughs] I love the idea of bringing a spotlight to a community, and reading the community through the lens of cannabis. That's always been my pet project in this vein. I'm really proud of Cooked With Cannabis, and I'll film it as long as they let me. But I do feel like there are opportunities to plumb this that are a little more unusual, and might tell a rounder story.
WATCH: The first season of Cooked With Cannabis is streaming on Netflix now.