Food Highlights From Summit LA18

From irresistible street carts to cannabis-infused and plant-based dishes, culinary wonders matched the high-level dialogues

One of the more impressive aspects of Summit LA 2018 was the culinary vertical—not only for its sheer volume, but also the variety of experiences and unparalleled quality. In the same way the event organizers apply a
“Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” ethos to its robust event schedule, so too do they apply the philosophy to its polychromatic culinary experience.

Joey Rubin, Creative Director of the Culinary Vertical, has been working with Summit Series since 2009. Last week’s LA event, however, was his first time coordinating the entire effort—and he was determined to offer a food experience that was as varied as it was thoughtful. “It was very important to illuminate the extraordinary level of talent this city represents,” he tells us. “Summit brings together the highest level of thought leaders and innovators across industries, and I had to do the same for the culinary program.”

During an event that features so much, it’s not easy to stand out. Between Al Gore and Jaden Smith discussing the climate crisis, RZA live-soundtracking The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, performances by legends like Pete Rock and DJ Premier, it might not seem there’s much room for the culinary program to make noise. But Summit succeeded with a cornucopia of dining options, restaurants, culinary pop-ups, innovative cocktail bars and gastronomic experiences of nearly every stripe. Of all the meals enjoyed during the event, we have selected three of the best—the trio that truly elevated the format—along with three additional notable mentions.

Mercedes-Benz EQ plant-based Kaiseki dinner / courtesy of Summit

Mercedes-Benz EQ Plant-Based Kaiseki Dinner

Health-focused Chef Jasmine Shimoda’s superb dinner for Mercedes-Benz EQ was an eight-course Kaiseki meal made entirely of plant-based ingredients. With components including plump caviar eggs (reconstituted sudachi and olive oil), a beef consommé (tomato dashi, Japanese cucumber and sea bean), and thin-sliced salmon (ginger marinated beets), the dishes were incredibly thoughtful and clever. The plates were also dazzling to the eye, centered around a bright sashimi course. A three-part sake and wine pairing kept palates from being parched.

Braced in the plant-forward/farmer-driven ethos of her restaurant Jewel, many of the ingredients for the Japanese-style meal were sourced locally from Malibu’s One Gun Ranch. The farm is dedicated to biodynamic principles—meaning they sow, plant and harvest according to a schedule predicated by the movements of the moon, sun and planets.

Fittingly, much of the produce for the meal was handpicked by the conglomerate of fellows COOL HUNTING invited to Summit Series LA. On Friday, entrepreneurs (there to launch connectivity apps and improve battery technology) could be found handpicking borage, nasturtium flowers and spicy lettuce mix that would be used in Saturday night’s meal.

Food politics, energy politics—it’s all connected

Promoting the sustainable eating techniques of activist Suzy Amis Cameron (such as One Meal A Day), the idea behind the dinner was to bring the Summit community together with Mercedes’ electric mobility brand EQ, and to facilitate the exchange of ideas. One Meal A Day promotes the concept that one doesn’t have to change into a vegan overnight, but if you adjust just one meal per day the effects are huge. For example, each person would save almost 200,000 gallons of water and more than 3,000 car miles of pollution annually with every meal switched to plant-based.

“There is a clear organic connection between electric cars and a plant-based lifestyle, because both are designed to serve your needs while reducing your carbon footprint,” Shimoda tells us. As her menu conflated the ceremonial multi-course Kaiseki tradition with modern ingredients and cooking techniques, the meal embodied the interconnectedness between her cooking philosophy and the EQ brand. “Food politics, energy politics—it’s all connected. For a small business owner like myself to collaborate with a global brand like Mercedes-Benz is a wonderful example of how we’re all in this together.”

La Hoja cannabis dinner / courtesy of Summit

La Hoja Cannabis Dinner

Off-menu dinners are the gems of Summit Series—one-off dinners that cannot be found on the schedule, and whose guests are handpicked by the hosts. One of the weekend’s most unique was Chef Luke Reyes’ cannabis-infused dinner. Reyes invited 30 guests to his private loft to enjoy dishes like THC-infused Beyond Meat ragu, konbu-cured hamachi and persimmon and ricotta salad.

At a progressive conference that hosted a talk with Adam Bierman (co-founder and CEO of MedMen, America’s largest cannabis company), and organized several industry meet-ups, the dinner makes perfect sense, and Reyes—who has been throwing highly coveted dinner parties from his loft under the La Hoja label—was the obvious choice to run the kitchen.

A lot of friends became guinea pigs

Boston-bred Reyes started cooking at 16 years old, and soon worked under James Beard-winning chef Ming Tsai. After an impromptu decision to move to LA, Reyes immediately got a gig working for Ludo Lefebvre at LudoBites before taking on sous chef duties at Tasting Kitchen on Abbot Kinney. But his shift into the world of cannabis cooking started by experimenting with vegan gelato. “It was not anywhere this precise,” he says, as he carefully browns squash in his Vireo olive oil. “I made it way too strong. I got so high I thought I was tripping on mushrooms,” he laughs. “Everyone we’ve talked to about edibles has had at least one horrible experience, so we were like, ‘How do we make something that offers an edible experience, but a low-dose version?’” It took several months experimenting with a half-dozen meals every week to figure out ideal dosages. He grins, “A lot of friends became guinea pigs.”

The experience taught Reyes just how critical it is to get dosages right, and they’ve now settled on a formula that dispenses about 15-20 mg of THC—a measure both chef and guest can easily modulate via how much sauce they apply. The final effect of the dinner was subtle, glowing, even joyous. “I feel amazing,” a guest from Berlin gushed as we were walking out—her initial anxiety about her first venture into edibles clearly vanquished. “I feel like I just ate happiness.”

Street eats in St Vincent Court / courtesy of Nicolas Stecher

Munchies: Street Food Night Market

Once the talks wrap up and plates from various dining experiences are cleared, the evening fun really starts at Summit. Thoughts pivot from the more intellectual to the decidedly more artistic—perhaps even libertine in nature. Night market—the center of the event’s nightlife activities—is a transformed version of the historic St Vincent Court. Its cobblestone alley is blocked off and filled with lounges, bars, and a photo booth complete with costumes.

Way in the back, near the rear entrance to the LA Theater (which also hosted several bars, as well as most of the evening performances), Rubin’s 2018 selection of LA’s best street food vendors was gathered. Rubin chose each one carefully—from word of mouth to Instagram and beyond. (Ozi Kitchen, a Jamaican jerk chicken cart, was found parked outside seminal reggae night Dub Club.)

“I was amazed by how many people would come to this, from all different cultures,” Delfino Rodriguez, who ran the Barba Kush barbacoa stand, tells us. “And we fit in, because we’re bringing our culture to this, and our type of food experience.” Rodriguez learned his goat barbacoa recipe from his grandpa and started Barba Kush as a backyard experience. When Rodriguez’s East LA house grew too crowded, he upgraded to a food truck. But—he explains amicably, as his mom flips tortillas on the plancha behind him—the tender barbacoa is still slow-cooked in that same backyard fire pit.

We’re trying to spread the culture of where we’re from

For the Gumbo Boys it’s also a family business. First Chef Buck moved to LA from Baton Rouge, then his brothers and sister followed. “Being all here, we wanted to do something together as a family,” Buck explains with a thick Louisiana drawl, “And food was the glue for our family growing up, so ultimately that’s how we decided to do the gumbo.” From a huge crock-pot they set up on the popular intersection of 6th St and Spring every Thursday through Saturday night, the Gumbo Boys ladle out steaming bowls of their great grandmother’s recipe until 3AM. “We love the LA hot dog, we love the street tacos, but we also wanna bring our own influence and give a taste of something different for everybody,” he says. “We’re trying to spread the culture of where we’re from, and give another option of late night food.”

Making fresh pasta with a Tuscan nonna / courtesy of Summit

Pasta-Making with Nonna

A Facebook thread on pasta led Rubin to Tuscan Women Cook, an agriturismo group made up of real-life nonnas from Montefollonico, Tuscany. The stars aligned, and after an introduction the Summit team flew Siriana Fumi to LA to teach several pasta-making workshops on the second floor of Preux & Proper. Fumi, who’d never been to the States, was charming and virtuosic as she taught the packed house—in Italian, as her son Giuseppe translated—the secrets to winding perfect tagliatelle and more.

Super Tiki Wasteland Paradise pop-up at Belasco Theater / courtesy of Trash Tiki

Super Tiki Wasteland Paradise Cocktail Pop-Up

Many progressive festivals talk about sustainability and, similarly, Summit wanted to ensure they followed through on their mission to limit waste. After every meal, thousands of pounds of food from the main marketplace were rescued and donated to the Midnight Mission, which offers meals to those in need. With this as the inspiration, the idea for Superchief Gallery and Fords Gin’s Trash Tiki Wasteland Paradise cocktail pop-up was born. For the closing night party on Sunday, unused ingredients from all the weekend’s events were used by the tiki bar, hosted at the Belasco Theater. Superchief Gallery even commissioned artists to collect recyclables to build tiki-themed installations throughout.

The Glenlivet House at Preux & Proper / courtesy of Summit

The Glenlivet House of Hospitality

Famed Speyside whisky, The Glenlivet took over DTLA’s Preux & Proper restaurant in the heart of the Summit campus to host three days of workshops, tastings, dining events and, of course, scotch. Naturally, The Glenlivet cocktails (a bright yellow piña colada, arguably the most interesting; the scotch and soda highball, the best) were welcome, but it was the small plates from the Preux & Proper kitchen that had us coming back every happy hour. Rabbit chili and Tillamook cheddar fries, Dungeness crab hushpuppies and cornbread served in a cast-iron skillet drenched in butter fueled long days of walking and exploring.