Editor’s note: This story was first published in ‘Dilated Pupil,’ an annual magazine about student culture in Santa Cruz.
David Brissenden used to hate edibles. But the chef and owner of local cannabis food company Cosmo D’s Outrageous Edibles has come a long way from the stale weed brownies that first soured him on the experience. Today, he sells high-end weed-infused chocolate bars and rice krispies in dozens of stores throughout California.
Before he was making cannabis confections topped with goji berries, shredded coconut and other gourmet ingredients, the Sacramento native learned to cook at his family’s Byington Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A knack for French and Italian cuisine paved the way to a career in catering.
It was in 2016, just as Prop 64 was reshaping the legal cannabis landscape, that Brissenden decided to switch gears and embrace a radical streak that has always included intense skepticism about the politics of weed. In an interview edited for length and clarity, he talked activism, adapting to a newly above-ground market, and how to set up an assembly line capable of cranking out 10,000 edibles a month.
GT: I heard you used to live in a tree.
BRISSENDEN: Yeah. I went off to college, up to Humboldt, and got kicked out of the dorms for being a little rebel. So I moved out into the trees. I went out and there was a fallen tree, old growth. I burned it, cut it out. Kind of old school.
There was this book I read, My Side of the Mountain. It was one of my favorite books, about a little kid who went out and survived in the wilderness on his own, ran away from home. I just lived out in the forest. It was a little double decker, so I could sleep up in one spot and have my little kitchen area down on the bottom where the dirt was.
What were you studying in Humboldt?
Sociology was my major, and poli sci was my minor. I was heavy into politics. I started a zine called Instant Mind Orgasm, and it took off. It was cool. Political, against “The Man.” And against CAMP—the Campaign Against Marijuana Production. They always had helicopters flying around back then.
How did that time shape your perspective on cannabis?
I got out and was just angry. I wrote about CAMP and the policies of prohibition. It had nothing to do with people getting stoned. It had everything to do with paper products and cotton products and fiberglass and plastics. Ford had just discovered that you could make a car out of hemp, and he made one. My Hazy Hazelnut box has a quote about that.
So I came down here, worked with Ben Rice on Proposition 215. I campaigned for Ralph Nader. I was doing Save the Salmon, Save Our Shores, whatever I could get my hands on. Then I just got burned. Left or right, they won’t talk about the real issues going on out there, because it’s all bought and paid for. So I became a chef.
When did you actually learn how to cook?
When I came home from college on summer breaks I would cater. I started working with the chefs at the winery. When I was 23, I thought I knew everything, so I started my own company. It was called Creative Cuisine in Saratoga. And then I realized, “Wait, I don’t know everything,” so I sold it and became a dishwasher. Started all over.
So how did you go from there to edibles?
I’d been a chef, working my way up. I was at one spot, Catered Too, for 12 years. I was executive chef, cooking for 3,000 people a day. I was making good money, bought a house for my wife and two kids. Two weeks later, I lost my job. It was 2015—the best thing that ever happened to me. I couldn’t get ahold of my alcoholism. I was still pissed off that there were all these political issues that had never been resolved, plus the stress of trying to provide. I never went to culinary school, which was one of my biggest mental blockers. But you know, I did it. I went to meetings and quit drinking.
I was trying to get a job, dealing with unemployment, and one day, someone came over and was like, “Why don’t you try this butter?” He said, “It’s an edible,” and I was like, “No, don’t make me try it. It gives me anxiety.” He was like, “Try a little bit,” and I did. I was like, “Oh.” It calmed me down. I didn’t get stoned. So I started experimenting with it. I didn’t have money, so I was making my own and came up with these chocolate bars. It was 2016, Trump and Hillary were battling it out, and I was like, “Smokescreen! I’m gonna go start an edible company.”
How did you start experimenting with recipes?
I had this recipe, pan de chocolate. It’s a Spanish recipe, chocolate and butter. You melt the chocolate down and you add the butter, then you chill it, usually in a mold. You serve it with grilled bread, sea salt, fruits and nuts. I was like, “Why don’t I just use canna butter?” It was Thanksgiving 2016, so I used hazelnuts, pistachios, cranberries. Hazy Hazelnut. People were like, “Dude, this is so good.”
So you were starting up in legal limbo, basically?
Yeah. Prop 64 had passed, but the rules weren’t out yet. I had the chocolate in a bag. It was like a Reese’s peanut butter cup, so it was really hard to dose. People got sooo high. I really made a name for myself, like, “These Cosmo D’s are fucking fire.”
Where was your kitchen?
I had met a woman who owned a gluten-free kitchen called In The Breadbox, and she was talking about going to a cannabis kitchen. But for like six months, I cooked in my kitchen. My wife hated it. I had chocolate everywhere. I was in the garage cooking butter. The neighbors were like, “Dude, it reeks!” But most of that was for the feedback—“this is too strong,” “that looks ugly,” whatever.
Why were you interested in edibles? Had you had good ones before, or was the idea to do something different?
Like a lot of people, I’d had a horrible experience on edibles and promised to never eat them again.
What did you eat?
Some brownies that were left out. I had tasted some of the edibles out there that were just dry. The vegan ones? Oh, god. One bar was good, but I thought I could take this to the next level. You’ve got all these foodie bloggers. It’s California—people want good food. If cannabis is going to be a regulated market, why not? The key that I had was that I know how to scale, because all of these gourmet edibles are coming out that are $50. Ours is $20.
How many bars do you make a month?
Right now we’re at about 10,000. I used to feed 3,000 people a day. It’s all about scalability—assembly line. I can make 2,000 units a day. I want to move up to 4,000 a day. But you’re doing them one at a time. I do a sheet tray with four molds, which is 16 bars. You pour the chocolate in, shake it, let it sit. Another person levels it, so it’s an exact amount every time. Then another person tops it and that goes in the walk-in. It gets popped, wrapped, put in a box, taped and boom! Organized.
Every amount of medicine that goes in there is verified by two people. Before, it would just be like, “Oh, that looks right.” If you want to do a food item for the mass market, that’s how you have to do it. Nestle and Hershey’s aren’t, like, sitting in a garage.
What are the most popular flavors?
The Hazy Hazelnut, man, I have to get you one. I had four chocolates, then everyone was like, “You have to come out with rice krispies.” I wanted to do gourmet. But I did it, and it was like a bestseller. I called it snickerdoodle and added that flavor to it, but now it’s the hardest one to get past the test. Chocolates are in a mold, so every time, I know it’s the exact same amount.
How has your taste-testing evolved since the early days? Any big mistakes?
My extra-toasted coconut used to just be called toasted coconut. I make my own canna-caramel for it. The first time I made it, I got so high. My wife was like, “I told you not to get so high around the kids!” I was like, ‘“Babe, I’m so sorry.” I was trying to not spin, so I was doing this weird thing all over the floor. I was like, “I swear it’s an accident.” She said, “You always say it’s an accident.” So I changed the recipe. She said fine, but we’re changing the name to extra-toasted coconut.
What have been the biggest lessons from legalization?
The biggest lesson to me is to be patient, and to get help. So many people are used to the black market that they didn’t understand you need to go to the courthouse, you need to go to these policy meetings—normal business stuff. Being self-funded was another difficult thing. What saved me was knowing I had to market myself. People told me to get an Instagram account, so I did. Now, it’s not my only market. Do I want the stiletto stoners, or the 55-and-uppers? Or people who are on Instagram?
Will there be new flavors in the future?
I did a pumpkin gingersnap, which we’re about to bring back.
So more seasonal flavors?
Yeah, but we still have to go through the whole process, so it’s a huge ordeal. I have a CBD line coming out. I have hard candies. I have dog food. What I’m also hearing a lot is tourists are coming through town, and they want to buy multiple things. If I could make one of these that’s 30mg and sell it for way less, that’s another thing. It’s all based on feedback. Sugar-free? Okay. Small dose? Okay. If you listen to what the market wants, then you’ll thrive.