A Free-Floating Power

Chef Solomon Johnson pivots through the pandemic.
Soloman Johnson
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With a calm, collected demeanor, Solomon Johnson has a presence that lets you know he’s ready for the next challenge. When we meet at a cafe in Berkeley, California, Johnson is readying to open a restaurant within his home state of Maryland. He’s just returned from a charity event in Savannah, Georgia, that raised funds for No Kid Hungry—an organization that aims to end childhood hunger in the U.S.—and is on the heels of hosting a six-course CBD-infused meal in Napa Valley the prior week. As a chef working his way through a global health pandemic that decimated the livelihood of those working in the restaurant industry, Johnson has learned how to pivot. After the pandemic pushed him out of his first salary-based position in a kitchen, Johnson jumped on an opportunity to be featured on Chopped 420, a cannabis cooking competition on Discovery+. His restaurant endeavors in Oakland, California, and his success on the show, led him to become the chef for a cannabis-infused dinner series. Still, he assures me he’s not a “cannabis chef,” but rather a “chef who really loves weed.”

“Like any other ingredient in my pantry that I nerd out about, I do research,” Johnson says. “If I want to learn how to use certain food products to create something that people enjoy, I have to do my due diligence. It’s just about studying and experimenting. You know, getting your hands dirty.”

Johnson says his mom planted and watered the seed for him to become a chef. His parents also had a hand in his beginnings with cannabis as he grew up around weed and stole his first joint from his dad.

“The smell of [cannabis] reminds me of home,” he says. 

Photo by Cynthia Glassell Photography

Johnson was born and raised in Montgomery County, Maryland, and studied broadcast journalism at Bowie State, an HBCU, before moving to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to study culinary management. Now 35, his first job in a kitchen as an 18-year-old working at IHOP gave him the cooking bug.

“It’s like a pirate ship back there,” Johnson says with a laugh. “I was so young, and everyone’s like, you know, drinking and partying after work. You get all this camaraderie, and it’s like a second family because you work so much that you see them more than your family. It was a sense of community, and we’re just like a band of misfits, you know what I mean? It’s just like being a rock star.”

His friends at home started calling themselves the swoop team, an acronym that stands for a “special way of obtaining power,” that he’s transformed under his nickname Chef Swoop to mean a “special way of opening palates.”

“I’m a private chef. I’m a kitchen consultant. I have no home base really in particular other than where I decide to land. So that’s my special way of obtaining my power to do what I need to do is just being free-floating,” he says.

Photo by Cameron Dantley

Johnson moved to Oakland in 2013 and opened a cold-pressed juice bar the following year. After moving on from that concept, he started hosting pop-up dinners under his private catering company. When the pandemic shut down in-person dining, he started the Bussdown with his business partner chef Michael Woods in a CloudKitchen, a delivery-only restaurant facility. The Bussdown, Johnson explains, adopts a Pan-African food ideology, “which means we try to encompass all Black and brown food diasporas.” Within the Bussdown, the meals are influenced by places like Jamaica, Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic, and the American South. Today Woods operates their fine dining restaurant Oko within Oakland’s iconic Tribune Tower while Johnson embarks on a fast-casual concept for the Bussdown in its first brick-and-mortar expression within a food hall in Washington, D.C.

In the midst of that opening, he’s also been the chef for Cannescape, a new tourism concept that incorporates cannabis-infused fine dining with overnight hotel stays. During a 4/20 dinner hosted in Napa Valley, Johnson presented a meal infused with CBD. The dinner included a smoked yogurt watermelon salad, and cannabis leaves dipped in a tempura batter.

“CBD, after eating it, you’re going to feel medicated, but because it’s non-psychoactive we want to make sure that people feel something,” he says. “So, an indefinite sleep, like not remembering when you fell asleep? That’s priceless. You get home and you’re like, ‘Damn, man, I don’t even remember passing out,’ and then on top of that, the food was delicious and everybody had a good time. That’s an undeniable experience.”

Johnson started experimenting with cannabis infusions when he was a freshman in college, but only jumped into it professionally after filming Chopped 420. He used cannabis flower-infused olive oil to win his victory on Chopped 420, but says he likes using kief for its flavor profile.

Solomon Johnson joins Cannescape founder Chelsea Davis at a 4/20 dinner event. Photo by Cynthia Glassell Photography

“It’s fun to incorporate [cannabis] into vegetable-forward dishes,” he says. “The herbaceousness of cannabis itself is just very complementary to the things that have chlorophyll. It just makes sense that green things taste good with green things.”

In terms of cooking with cannabis, he says he “cooks it like true food” and incorporates cannabis in things like sauces and oils. In the same way that he bucks the idea of being tethered to one place, he finds his creativity in incorporating cannabis beyond desserts.

“I want the food to stand alone because I want it to be delicious. I want it to be undeniable,” Johnson says. “I don’t necessarily want the infusion to be the focal point. You want the food to carry the weight. The infusion is just like the cherry.”

This article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.

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