Ask Ezra Malmuth if he ever thought he’d be running a cannabis company and his answer is: “F*ck no.”
“I’m a classically trained chef, and have been cooking professionally with local caterers since I was 14,” he said, by way of introduction.
Meet the 30-year-old founder of Atlas Edibles, a Berkeley-based company devoted to a healthier alternative to many of the edible cannabis products out there. He’s also a Berkeley native and was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, which means that obtaining kosher certification for his edibles is a goal, even though he no longer keeps kosher himself.
Malmuth’s resume includes interning at Chez Panisse — David Tanis was his mentor — while still in high school, serving as chef at Flavor, a Mediterranean spot that was in Berkeley’s Epicurious Garden for a short stint in 2013, running a food truck in Denver and serving as executive chef at Berkeley favorite Lalime’s.
So the fact that he’s now in the cannabis business is surprising, even to him.
“When I listen to myself say that I now operate and own a healthy cannabis company it feels like it’s really different, but when I think about it, I’m still on the same mission: providing nourishment and giving people an experience,” he said. “This still has everything I love about food. You feel good when you eat a great meal, you feel even better when you eat it with good friends in some kind of new experience or environment. In many ways, edibles are merging all of that, but then taking it to a whole other stratosphere.”
Though Atlas was founded in August 2016, it has already received several awards in the exploding cannabis industry. It won second place in the High Times Cannabis Cup for Stratus, the newest of its four flavors. It also received the award for the best healthful edible from GreenState, a competition sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle.
So what, exactly, are Atlas Edibles? Malmuth calls them “clusters,” and says they originated from an experiment with granola while he was still working at Lalime’s. As with many chefs who dabble in the cannabis industry, he began experimenting when a loved one was diagnosed with cancer and was having pain, nausea and trouble keeping food down. In Malmuth’s case, it was his best friend’s father.
A fellow chef friend at Lalime’s had come up with a delicious granola they were using to give pannacotta a crunchy topping, and in their off- hours, they began experimenting with infusing coconut oil with marijuana and then using that infused oil to make granola.
“My friend’s dad loved it, everyone did, and that was our ‘aha moment’ and the whole thing started spiraling from there,” he said.
With granola being in the form of loose crumbles, it was impossible to gauge the dosage, which is how the product developed into clusters, which are distinct units.
Malmuth joined forces with a business-minded former high school classmate, and they founded the predecessor of Atlas, which had a different name, but after a year and a half in business together, they parted ways.
Though the company had made significant headway, Malmuth took a step back to contemplate whether he wanted to continue in the industry, as it was still illegal at the time.
Acknowledging that he has been a pot user for half of his life (“Coming out of the cannabis closet,” he calls it), Malmuth firmly believes in the medicinal value of the plant.
“I’ve been smoking weed since I was in high school, and I’ve been demonized for it,” said Malmuth. “No one then understood it was helping me in many ways.”
Malmuth used marijuana, he said, because it helped him “deal with a lot of my ADD, it helped my focus and my ability to relax and to deal with my anxiety.” He admits that in his youth, he may not have had the best control with self-medicating, but he kept his grades up in school.
Meanwhile, he had friends who had similar issues, and they were on drugs prescribed by doctors, like Ritalin or Adderall, and were “tweaky or super tired and lethargic or depressed,” he said, “while I was stoned but just chill and mellow.”
In college in Providence, Rhode Island, at Johnson & Wales (a culinary school that also offers a bachelor’s degree; where he also studied nutrition) his marijuana use lessened dramatically as he began to take his career and cooking more seriously, and because alcohol is a larger part of the culture. But he quickly realized he’s not much of a drinker.
Now, as an adult, he says, “I’ve learned about how to find more of a balance for myself, to consume and be functional, but also to not abuse it.”
With the legalization of recreational marijuana, perceptions about cannabis use have drastically changed, to the point where he can now count his grandma among his greatest fans.
“Dear Ezra,” a letter from his grandma begins. “For years I’ve been tormented by terrible pain by peripheral neuropathy in my feet. I have seen numerous doctors, none of whom could provide anything but powerful pain pills which gave little relief and many uncomfortable side effects. All of my doctors, off the record, endorsed the idea of trying cannabis but I couldn’t find any product I liked the taste of, or the way it made me feel. Your product has provided me more relief than anything I’ve tried; I would recommend it to anyone.”
Atlas Edibles are identifiable by their artistic labels, each designed by different local artists, including Nigel Sussman of Berkeley and Joshua Mayes of Oakland. There are four flavors: Stratus, which has tasting notes of zesty lemon caramel with a hint of ginger, toasted almonds, sweet wild blueberries and poppy seeds; Ember, made with caramel, cashews and apricots; Nimbus, which has dark chocolate, pecans and hazelnuts; and Origin, which features Mexican chocolate and pumpkin seeds.
Malmuth emphasized that Atlas Edibles are still considered a sweet treat (there is brown sugar in there) but they are also gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan, except for honey.
They are mostly organic as well. Malmuth uses organic coconut oil, as well as organic oats from South San Francisco-based flour company, Giusto’s. For Origin, the Mexican chocolate flavor, he collaborated with Oaktown Spice Shop.
Atlas makes sativa, indica and hybrid products (sativa makes you more active, indica is used more for pain relief) and its flavors are made to complement the taste of the cannabis, not mask it.
“We don’t want to hide the cannabis taste,” said Malmuth, “we want to use it as a flavor enhancer.”
Malmuth has found help in some unlikely places; even a former instructor of his from Johnson & Wales has been serving as an advisor.
“My food science professor has been advising me for two years now,” he said. “At first we were baking the bars, and now they’re done as a cold production and they’re easier to scale and are more consistent, and the shelf life is longer. He made my college tuition well worthwhile; he’s helped me with this for last two years, asking for nothing in return.”
The only problem with Atlas Edibles is that they are delicious, so much so that it’s hard to refrain yourself from wanting to eat more. Although the package warns that these are “Not a food,” it takes some serious restraint not to treat them as such. This reporter was far from the only person to tell Malmuth he should consider entering the already-huge bar market with a non-medicated product.
Each cluster has 20 milligrams of THC in it, and new users are advised to start by eating only a quarter of one and waiting a bit before trying more, as to avoid having a Maureen Dowd experience. I’m an occasional social user and find that half of an Ember is just right for me.
“Some healthy products are really good for you, but in culinary school, taste is the number one factor,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it can cure cancer or make you a better person. If it doesn’t taste good, you won’t eat or buy it again.”