Chef Charleen Caabay Wants a More Equitable Weed Scene in Oakland

The former ‘Chopped’ winner recommends spots for a weed-fueled adventure.

Charleen Caabay
Charleen Caabay | Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Charleen Caabay | Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

When Charleen Caabay won the New Year’s Eve edition of The Food Network cooking competition show Chopped in 2017, it had nothing to do with weed. The Filipino-American chef impressed the judges with her style of Filipino cuisine, self-taught in the kitchens of her mother and grandmother. Caabay is broadly credited for introducing Filipino cuisine to the mainstream culinary scene of the East Bay through her first restaurant, Kainbigan, which she closed following the win to allow her to spend time in the Philippines.

In the public eye, Caabay was an emerging culinary star reintroducing the world to the wonders of Filipino comfort food. Behind the scenes, she was garnering acclaim as a creative cannabis chef and advocate for medical marijuana.

“I’ve always been intrigued with cannabis-infused foods,” says Caabay. “In 2006, a friend provided me with trimmings from a farm he was working on. At the time, the trim wasn’t being utilized like this, and, as obtaining that amount of good trim was a rare find, I didn’t take this opportunity for granted.”

At that moment, Caabay was unemployed and unsure of how she’d pay the next month’s rent. She started asking around for unwanted trim, accumulating enough to experiment with cooking and dosage to perfect the process of infusing butter and cooking oils. It didn’t take long for her to become known as the hook for classic pot brownies and cookies.

This continued as she got a Filipino comfort food pop-up going, and even as her first restaurant opened in 2013, she experimented with infusing Filipino-inspired desserts after hours. Once she returned home following her Chopped win and trip abroad, she got into the cannabis business more officially with a private dispensary (under Oakland’s Measure Z), selling a handful of strains and full spectrum chocolates.

As a natural community builder, Caabay saw flaws in this emerging legal industry. In 2017, she co-founded The People’s Ecosystem with IT expert Christine De La Rosa to be a “community catalyst” that focuses on investments in BIPOC and women-owned and operated cannabis businesses. The duo recently won seed backing for a $50 million venture capital fund (The People’s Group Fund) that will invest in “cannabis businesses owned by women, African-Americans, Indigenous people, and people of color.”

“I’ve always been grateful for this growing city, despite the changes of scenery due to gentrification. Positive changes have come out of it, like Oakland leading the way to create an equitable pathway for BIPOC communities to enter the cannabis space. However, it’s not enough,” explains Caabay. “Black and brown people are still incarcerated and are dealing with the repercussions that don't allow them to enter the cannabis space with fair equity. The industry doesn't set us up to succeed, and I’ve been committed to creating a path for generational wealth through cannabis for our people.”

We’ve written about Bay Area cannabis figures like pot pop-up professional Big Bad Wolf and renowned regional innovations like Potli’s Shrimp Chips, but for a proper guide to enjoying cannabis in the East Bay, we turned to Caabay for her favorite shops, products and places to enjoy them.

Here’s her guide to a weed-centric field trip in Oakland that supports a stronger, more equitable industry with every dollar.

Where to shop

Blunts And Moore
“Since its opening, Blunts and Moore has always been about community. Through the challenges and past riots, it's dope seeing them get back up and keep pushing. They host a plethora of social equity brands.”

Have A Heart
“This Seattle-born cannabis brand made a name for itself through one of the industry’s first agreements with organized labor, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW). At the Oakland location, they've prioritized access to locals and social equity-owned brands. They’re also close to Chinatown and Old Oakland, which are thriving local nightlife destinations.”

What to smoke

DIOS, Doing it Ourselves in Oakland, is a Black and woman-owned social equity brand. The owner, Mahlate, is a dedicated small business owner with very high quality indoor flower that can now be found in several dispensaries throughout California."

“You can find the United Playaz Blunt—a blunt created to support formerly incarcerated folks who need mutual aid funds—in Barbary Coast and elsewhere. United Playaz is a vital local organization supporting the community through gun buyback events, free COVID testing and vaccine clinics, and fundraisers for youth programs.”

Where to enjoy it

“The Bay Area has stunning scenery. Nature is my go-to and has been healing alongside cannabis. We’re surrounded by waterways and local hilltops in the Joaquin Miller parts—head to that 500-acre park for miles of trails through redwood groves and across winding creeks. And bring your dog! There are on and off leash areas.”

Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Lauren Yoshiko is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. She writes The Broccoli Report, a bi-weekly newsletter for creative cannabis entrepreneurs.