Inside Dirt: How Toronto’s Sarah Best throws a cannabis dinner party

The founder of the invite-only supper club wants diners to think about what it means to be mindful of food, cannabis and alcohol

Dirt teamed up with underground pasta destination Famiglia Baldassare to host a cannabis-infused dinner party. (Courtesy of Dirt)

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Sarah Best founded Dirt in early 2018 and her dinner party series rapidly became the most talked-about infused-dining experiences in Toronto. What started in a private residence grew to 12 dinners of up to 30 people throughout 2019, mirroring the overall trajectory of culinary cannabis in the wake of legalization. Large companies now throw similar events and schools and classes aimed at would-be weed chefs are popping up.

What sets Dirt’s dinners apart is an independent, personal approach that encompasses partnerships with some of the city’s most innovative chefs and restaurants (Famiglia Baldassare, Anthony Rose, Tonya Papanikolov, Campechano and SoSo Food Club among them), distinctive visual direction (and in the near future, product design) and a palpable sense of community.

For now, Best defines Dirt as “a way of being,” and in addition to the invite-only dinners she has hosted wellness activations and floral-arrangement classes, all designed to “tap you into the now.”

It’s an expansive and ambitious project for the cannabis-adjacent entrepreneur, but one that makes sense given Best’s background in marketing, hospitality and production. We sat down with her to find out what the world looks like through Dirt’s eyes.

Cannabis ventures ask for a lot of creativity and a willingness to take risks. What’s your background and how does it inform what you’re doing with Dirt?

I started Dirt in 2018. I was at Shopify while they were working on the bid to develop the product that was going to power all of the provincial cannabis stores to sell online. We were encouraged to have a side hustle, and I had always worked in the restaurant and hospitality space, and travel and cuisine are my biggest passions. So I thought I should do something around cannabis.

The idea was to bring it around a table with curated dinners, and instead of people trying new wine or spirits we’d do a microdose of cannabis. When I launched the first one, it was amazing. I worked with a plant-based chef and hosted it in a private residence. We focused on the meal and the space, and introducing the idea that soon, people who had been smoking alone or in small groups were going to have wider access to cannabis and so many more options. I wanted to empower them to feel confident and comfortable in making those decisions, and also seeing cannabis as an outlet for socializing and experimenting rather than just something you do on your own.

Sarah Best serves drinks at a private Dirt dinner at Famiglia Baldassarre. (Courtesy of Dirt)

There’s a common concern about getting too high at infused dinners. How do you address that?

Everything depends on the person. It’s not only about tolerance, but the type of high you’re looking for. With any product we put out, we feel it’s better to have less than more. I want people to start feeling comfortable with edibles – find out what 10mg feels like and you can build from there.

I always talk to people before we start service. I welcome everyone and tell them exactly what they’re eating, what cannabis they’re consuming and let everyone know they’re getting the exact same dose. When you level the playing field, everyone acknowledges that they’re going on the same journey, and also that it’s a dinner and it’s a couple hours. Ten milligrams is a microdose – it’s a high that you come in and out of, and that really is what a Dirt dose is meant to embody and so far has been the case.

How are menus developed and how are “dosages” decided?

We collaborate with chefs and restaurants that are already established. I’ve been really fortunate that the culinary community in Toronto has been so open to experimentation. The most recent dinner was at Tacos Rico. We shut down the restaurant and hosted a private event for 16 people in that space. They have a regular menu, and we develop one that we serve at the event.

We talk about the food and once we establish the menu, we look at the ingredients and I come in as a doser and say let’s do 5mg of THC in a welcome drink and 5mg in the first course – in this case a taco sampler, so 5mg of THC through an extra virgin olive oil in a salsa that can be added to tacos, and that’s it for the THC.

Then we have the entree and there’s no cannabis in that. At the end of each meal we finish everything with 10mg of CBD. At this dinner, [the CBD] was in a coconut oil that was baked into the tres leche, which was meant to counterbalance the effects of the THC. You can’t taste the cannabis the way we do it; because we’re microdosing it’s such a small amount of product. And this wouldn’t have been possible for me in an illegal market – legal cannabis tells you what percentage of THC is in the flower, which you need to know to figure out a mg dose.

Do you see a lot of variation in people’s experience and reactions?

We send out pre-event surveys to help us identify the types of consumers we have and that varies drastically at each event. We get a really good preview of the people who are coming, and it helps us to make everyone feel comfortable. People always leave feeling really, really great. We create a very family-oriented environment, and it’s very intimate. The smaller the better – anything too large and you miss that.

Dirt’s chefs microdose each dish so diners can’t taste the cannabis. (Courtesy of Dirt)

Where do you see the infused- dinner format going? The first cannabis restaurant opened in the U.S. last year – is there an opportunity for that in Canada?

For me, it’s not a restaurant. I want to get into the hospitality space. We put a lot of emphasis on the creative elements of the business and the experiences themselves. Cannabis is my outlet for creativity and that spans graphics to interiors to food. I want to find a way to touch on all of those things with Dirt. The future for us is in physical spaces that aren’t just about dining, but that embody our views on sustainability, the environment, architecture and design and what it should feel like for somebody to have a great experience outside of their daily life.

I use the dinners to build community, to have people think about what it means to be mindful consumers of food and cannabis and alcohol. I want to provide the opportunity for people to make great choices, and to be really intentional about what you can create for yourself and what cannabis can inspire for you. For example, with Famiglia Baldassare, [owner] Leo [Baldassare] talks about the herbs that he pulled from his garden and the pasta that he made by hand. That has then been infused with the cannabis that I converted into an oil that garnishes the dish. There’s so much intention going into every single thing and that’s what makes it a great experience.

Cannabis dinners are very niche at the moment, but will this eventually be the new normal?

It’s limitless and has so much potential. Right now [the regulations are] very grey and I’m comfortable operating that way, but overall I think it’s going to end up being detrimental to really owning this industry. Instead of putting up barriers, why not work with the industry to figure out how we can optimize?

Will cannabis become as specific as wine in terms of exploring flavour and origin?

Hell yes! I’ve been reading a book on natural wines – from soil to barrel there are very specific things that happen in order to produce something from the earth, and the same thing goes for cannabis. It’s wild that plants have those properties and people should be engaged with that information. That’s why the company is called Dirt – everything comes from the earth.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

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