Why This New York City Restaurateur Is Getting into the Weed Edibles Business

Ron Silver is many things: chef, painter, and owner of Bubby's, a family of casual diner-style restaurants. But he's decided to finally come out of the marijuana closet and get into the edibles business.

|
Jun 17 2016, 8:00pm

"It's a fucking disaster in here."

These are the first words Ron Silver shares with me in his office, situated above the Meatpacking District outpost of Bubby's, a comfort-food family of restaurants he founded 25 years ago.

I'm ostensibly here to talk to him about his new line of marijuana edibles, Relevant Innovations, which he debuted this week at the Cannabis World Congress and Business Expo in Manhattan.

ronsilver_IMG_0896

Ron Silver. Photo by the author.

But over the course of nearly 90 minutes, the conversation repeatedly veers off track. The 53-year-old restaurateur is a polymath, an autodidact, and a whirling dervish of a conversationalist. He's also one of the most interesting people I've met in recent memory.

Silver's office is, indeed, a fucking disaster. The floor's littered with cardboard boxes, completed and half-completed paintings. His desk is a nest of invoices, paintbrushes, and empty coffee cups, on top of which sits a dog-eared copy of Michel de Montaigne's Essays and a can of walnut oil.

Silver blames much of the mess on preparations for the expo. He has prototypes of his product range, which is based in pot-friendly Oregon, lined up on a table near a stack of canvases: medicated sodas and chocolate bars, THC- and CBD-infused sugar and syrups, and a caffeinated cannabis coconut oil shot called Fat Brain, with labels designed by artist Dave Ortiz.

Some of the prototypes for Silver's edibles line. Photo by the author.

So it's yet another edibles line. Not to put too fine a point on it, but considering the glutted edibles marketplace, who gives a shit?

Then Silver explains exactly why I should give a shit.

"We have a way of delivering THC in a fast-acting, highly metabolized way," he says with a grin. "You take a teaspoon of this and put it in your coffee, and you're buzzing within 15 or 30 minutes, as opposed to one to four hours. It's a process that gives you a really high-speed, controllable dose."

His goal is to take the guesswork out of edibles by using a patent-pending process he helped to develop himself.

Syrups will be infused with THC and CBD. Photo by the author.

"It acts quickly, so you're not waiting around for six hours to see how high you are," he says, adding that these products are primarily intended for the chronically ill and "little old ladies" who would otherwise get doped up on opioids and sleeping pills. "It's meant to be understandable and to take the fear out of consuming cannabis, so you know that you can just get a little buzz."

But how, exactly, did a middle-aged New York City restaurateur develop a cannabinoid-extraction process that, if as promising as he makes it sound, could revolutionize the edibles industry?

"I was doing a lot of research on how to make pharmaceuticals more water-soluble and more deliverable," Silver says. "I just did a lot of research and read theses, and talked to scientists in Amsterdam and Pakistan on the phone and asked them questions like, 'Why isn't anyone doing this?' It's all been very educational."

Chocolate gets the medicated treatment, too. Photo by the author.

As if to demonstrate, he pulls out a thick pharmaceutical textbook entitled Drug Delivery Strategies for Poorly Water-Soluble Drugs. I ask him if he has a background in science.

"I have a science background in that I dropped out of eighth grade and started washing dishes and became very good with certain chemicals like soap and bleach," he says with a certain terseness that bubbles up throughout our conversation. "That's my science background."

I can't tell if he's pissed at me, so I quickly change the subject to the paintings that line the room. Silver's office is also a studio, and though he's been painting since he was a child, he says that he didn't start in earnest until Bubby's needed some artwork for its walls.

We walk around the perimeter of the room as he explains each of the works. He points to one: "That's a dude getting killed in a bullfight." And another: "That's a firing squad."

One of Silver's paintings of a firing squad. Photo by the author.

I notice one canvas that I figure must've been intended for the restaurant. "Is that a bagel?" I ask. "Or a donut?"

"It's a guy getting punched in the face with a boxing glove."

Oh.

Beyond these explosions of violence, however, are images of Silver's heroes—James Baldwin, Abraham Lincoln. There's a portrait of Harry Smith, who recorded the Smithsonian American anthology of folk music. There's a rendition of a Man Ray photograph, and another of a Francis Bacon self-portrait.

There are also nudes—a lot of them. "I paint girls that I would totally hook up with if I wasn't married," he winks. Grinning, he points at a painting of a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl holding what looks like a hula hoop.

Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl. Photo by the author.

I ask Silver what other painters inspire him.

"I'd say Egon Schiele—my moment of getting struck by lightning, scales coming out of my eyes," he says. As a young baker who worked in Greenwich Village, he'd travel past the Metropolitan Museum of Art each day on his way down from his apartment in Harlem. Eventually he decided to stop inside, worked his way past the Greek and Roman rooms and the collection of artifacts from Papua New Guinea, and stumbled upon three works by Schiele.

"I literally got tears in my eyes," he says, his voice cracking. "It's amazing that someone can talk to you from the wall."

Paintings in various stages of completion in Silver's office. Photo by the author.

I ask Silver if he sees a continuous thread through all of these ventures: cooking, painting, psychoactive chemistry.

He thumbs his stubbled jaw for a few seconds and says, "I guess, for one thing, I'm an artist. And that's a hard thing to admit to, in a way. Like, you can call yourself an artist to other people, but then you run the risk of them thinking you're just a fucking idiot. I don't mind that—a lot of people think that about me anyway."

He adds: "I like to think I'll leave something behind that will maintain some sense of beauty over time."

Inside Bubby's Tribeca. Photo by Mikey Pozarik.

For Silver, beauty means being able to give something to other people, whether it's a comforting meal, a sublime experience with a painting, or a psychotropic soda that makes you momentarily forget the exquisite pain of terminal illness.

"It's a blessing to feed people their sustenance and for me to know what my job is," he says. "If somebody dies, if somebody's born, if somebody gets married, I know what my job is."

And knowing that gives him a sense of adrenaline. "If you can do it in a mischievous way it's, like, totally getting away with everything. It's like pulling off the great scam of actually having fun and giving something while doing it."

The Tribeca location is homey and familiar. Photo by Mikey Pozarik.

Mischievousness has followed Silver since he was a child. He grew up in the mountains of Utah "doing country boy shit," he says—stealing horses, rolling cars, lighting stuff on fire.

Of course, mischief informed his decision to found an edibles line, too. "I've used cannabis all my life," he says. "My first job out of high school was growing marijuana in California. I've always been in trouble for it, all of my life."

To an outside observer who sits down for a meal at Bubby's, however, mischief is hardly apparent. The original location of Bubby's in Tribeca—casual, homey, familiar—has remained there for two and a half decades serving solid, if not earth-shattering or genre-bending fare: pies, burgers, barbecue, and a brunch menu that's available every day. You could argue that the most remarkable thing about Bubby's is its ability to survive New York City's cutthroat restaurant marketplace, where 80 percent of restaurants close within five years of opening.

You could also credit that to a certain inflexibility in Silver's style. "Bubby's is pretty old-fashioned in that it's busy and you're working in something of an old-fashioned way," he says. "And there's virtually zero room for creativity. I don't let sous chefs come up with specials. Even for me, there's not a lot of creativity. I really want simple food on the table."

Pancakes at Bubby's. Photo by Mikey Pozarik.

Silver tells me that, in the not too distant past, he did work with some management consultants who wanted to spruce up the menu. That didn't exactly pan out.

"'Oh, this acid cuts through the sweetness and the oil just perrrrfectly,'" Silver imitates them, affecting a mewling voice. He makes a shotgun-cocking motion with his hands. "Just fuck off."

The menu has retained stalwarts and featured some curiosities, including James Beard's pancake recipe, but with the buttermilk swapped out for sour cream. ("I feel like Mr. Beard would approve of our pancakes and that's important to me," Silver says.) The sourdough starter for the sourdough pancakes dates back to the 1890s, part of an art project Silver participated in with students Hannah Jickling and Helen Reed in 2009.

On a tangent, Silver tells me that he often consults what he calls a "board of directors" in his head to give him advice: James Beard; Mark Twain ("if I piss him off, that's not good"); Plato ("he's hard to piss off because he has a lot of patience"); Montaigne ("very sweet"); and Abraham Lincoln.

Silver considers Montaigne one of his heroes. Photo by the author.

He consulted them, too, when the prospect of a Bubby's outpost in Japan came along. "My manager calls me and says, 'These guys called and they are very interested in opening up [a Bubby's] in Japan.' And I said, 'Call them back and tell them to blow me.'"

After some urging by his manager, however, he did meet with those guys. "Two weeks later, I was walking through some vanilla box in Yokohama with a hard hat on," he says. Six years after that, Bubby's now claims five locations spread throughout Japan.

Despite those five locations, and the two in Manhattan, Silver still wants to grow Bubby's in a way that's "sane and sustainable."

"It's obviously a profitable business," he says, "and I think it sets a nice standard for things that people have taken for granted to be sort of shitty, like diner food. Diner food doesn't have to be shitty food."

Yet Bubby's is still a far cry from Denny's, and Silver knows that he has benefitted from placing his restaurants in communities where people are willing and able to pay a little more for better-quality fare.

A sketch of a display intended for the cannabis expo. Photo by the author.

"I think it's possible that this weed business will help with Bubby's growth, and once the stigma is gone, they both have a certain purity to them that I'm happy to stand behind," he says.

And for now, Silver is focused on getting the edibles business off the ground, building a kitchen in Oregon, and tearing down, brick by metaphorical brick, the stain of guilt surrounding marijuana use in the US—regardless of the threats posed by federal law or bloviating politicians stuck in a 1930s mindset.

"I'm an artist—I'm leaning on my artist cane. They can do whatever the fuck they want to me, but they'll never crush my spirit," he says. "Fuck off."