As Matt Doherty wrapped up his cooking demonstration, a woman in the audience raised her hand to ask a question: How long would the cannabis-infused butter he had shown them how to make keep in the fridge?
“I’ve never had it go bad,” replied Doherty, the manager of a Capitol Hill hydroponic supply store. He paused. “It doesn’t last long in my house.”
The audience at the cannabis food festival “Blazed and Glazed” giggled a little too hard at the joke. Many of the onlookers had arrived at culinary incubator Mess Hall as baked as a tray of the green herb that Doherty had put in the oven.
But wait — it’s not what you’re thinking. Hosting a cannabis cooking class is tricky when D.C. law permits a person to possess only 2 ounces of marijuana, so Doherty used oregano instead. That herb is a good stand-in for the real thing in recipes for a tincture and a mossy green cannabutter, the building blocks of cannabis cooking — which has reached new highs as penalties for growing or possessing marijuana are eased across the country.
Forget the dorm room brownie. Instead, think cannabis-infused burritos, French macarons, salad dressings, duck breast or a cannabis-infused sous-vide (or “sous weed,” as chef Mathew Ramsey put it) burger. Today, serious chefs are tinkering with the science of getting high, taking it into more rarefied culinary territory.
To the extent permissible by law, of course.
Chocolate mousse with mint contained 25 mg of cannabis at one booth at Mess Hall’s “Blazed and Glazed” event. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
First, some chemistry: Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the marijuana molecule that gives you that buzz. It’s soluble in fats and alcohol, and cannabis cooks often infuse a slow-heated butter or oil with marijuana and then use it as a substitute in conventional recipes. The technique has been around for decades, but now chefs are experimenting with it more openly.
“This industry is in its infancy, it’s fascinating,” said Raquel Pelzel, a former editor at Cook’s Illustrated and the co-author of more than 20 cookbooks. Her next one, co-authored with Bob Marley’s daughter Cedella, is a collection of Caribbean-inspired recipes for dishes such as quinoa and mango salad, with instructions for making cannabutter and cannabis oil infusions and adding them in the proper dosage. It will be released on April 20 — yes, 4/20, “Weed Day” — next year.
Last month, Pelzel participated in the first-ever panel discussion on cannabis cooking at the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference. “It’s like the wild, wild West, and everyone’s looking to stake their claim,” she said.
But to do so, they have to work within the laws of various jurisdictions — and each one treats edibles differently.
Warren Brown, who brought the cupcake craze to Washington with his bakery, CakeLove, is now a partner in DC Taste Buds, an edibles company. But he won’t be the one actually putting marijuana in his jarred cakes when the effort launches later this year.
In the District, “there’s no legal way for an organization like mine to put a finger on cannabis,” he said. The company is taking a conservative approach after consulting multiple D.C. agencies and finding the laws “pretty difficult to navigate,” said partner Victoria Harris. “The language is incredibly vague.”
Instead, they will make the products and partner with medicinal cultivation centers, which will incorporate the cannabis — how, exactly, is a “trade secret,” Brown said — and sell the cakes at dispensaries.
“We’re just going to stay within the bounds of what we can do with the law, and if the law expands to allow us to bake on-site with cannabis, we’ll bake that way,” he said.
Other chefs aren’t so concerned. In New York, where medicinal marijuana is legal but recreational pot isn’t, “Hawaii” Mike Salman and his wife host a private, invitation-only cannabis supper club, preparing free five-course meals for up to 30 guests at least once a month. Their first seating takes place at — naturally — 4:20.
Salman, a self-taught chef, uses THC-infused oils and butters in dishes you might see on a restaurant menu: sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna, sous-vide chicken breast, miso black cod, lamb chops with cauliflower puree. He says he may bring the dinners to Washington someday — he has already perfected a cannabis crabcake recipe.
But the tricky thing about cooking with cannabis is that it affects every diner differently. One person’s stairway to heaven is another person’s bad trip.
With edibles, “it takes a little bit longer to metabolize and digest. You don’t feel the effects so soon,” said Kevin Sabet, president and chief executive of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a bipartisan organization that opposes legalization. Sabet considers edibles extra dangerous: “You could be eating a beautiful lemon chiffon, and you don’t feel anything, and then half an hour later, you could be having a psychotic episode.”
“We want you to be responsible, and part of being responsible is knowing when you’re good,” said Salman, who said he paces his meals to help guests achieve a pleasant high without going overboard.
Still, he acknowledged, “You can’t control everybody.” Sometimes, people “go a little crazy, and they’ll take something off someone else’s plate. We walk through the experience with everyone in the beginning. We really try to provide an environment that is safe and comfortable.”
Cannabis restaurants are on the horizon, too, though so far, they still face plenty of obstacles. Garyn Angel is the chief executive of MagicalButter, a company that sells a $175 suite of kitchen tools to help home cooks make cannabutter. He tried to open a cannabis restaurant in Seattle two years ago, but no dice.
“It was a little ahead of its time,” he said.
Because Washington state’s Initiative 502 doesn’t permit public consumption, “you can’t have marijuana in public view in any way,” said Brian Smith, spokesman for the state liquor and cannabis board.
Even if public consumption laws were changed, a state-by-state patchwork of testing requirements and regulations governing edibles — in Washington, a sample from every batch must be tested for potency — would still pose numerous hurdles for a cannabis restaurant. And then there’s the fear of legal troubles should a guest have a bad reaction to a marijuana-infused dish.
In the meantime, trained chefs who like working with cannabis have found work in grow labs. Dain Colandro, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, is now director of production at Connecticut’s Advanced Grow Labs.
The more grow labs expand their product lines, “the more there’s going to be a need for chefs or trained cooks,” Colandro said. Given the amount of food science that goes into cannabis cooking, “I think they should start to teach this kind of stuff in culinary school.”
Chemistry, of course, isn’t the only important thing — chefs are interested in the flavors, too.
“Cannabis is a hard ingredient to work with,” Colandro said. “Because it’s so bitter, it could be a very aggressive or strong taste that you have to work around or try to mask.” He has found that it doesn’t pair well with acidic fruits, such as lemons. There’s also a harmony to be found in pairing certain strains with certain foods. The sativa strain produces a more vibrant buzz, so Pelzel, the cookbook author, says she thinks it goes well in breakfast foods, or a granola bar before a long hike. The mellower indica is better for desserts or an evening tea.
“Once all the stigma and the negativity surrounding it is put to bed, it will be interesting to see all the incredible ways that people dream up to use the plant,” she said.
Until then, aspiring marijuana foodies learn online, or in oregano-scented sessions such as Mess Hall’s, which drew more than 200 attendees, from 20-somethings to elderly couples.
After the demonstrations, people strolled around a marketplace where they could buy paraphernalia or, with the purchase of a T-shirt, choose a “gift” made by Giovanni Merle, a French-trained pastry chef whose chocolate mousses and macarons each contained a mellow amount of active ingredient.
“This opens the door to a lot of things,” said Melissa K., 36, who declined to give her last name. She said she usually just makes brownies, but now, “I was thinking about making some cinnamon toast, or being a little bit hipster and making avocado toast.”
But even as savory uses for cannabis enter the mainstream, junk food is still where the business is. Pot brownies will never lose their appeal. Even chef Mario Batali has posted his recipe for them. And at Colandro’s Advanced Grow Labs, they’re still the top seller.
The industry still has some growing up to do.
“I think that it’s like when you turn 21 and everyone goes out and does crazy shots and drinks silly drinks. And as you get older, you learn about Scotch and whiskey, and you start to refine and curate your palate and your collection,” Pelzel said. “I think the same thing will happen with cannabis. Everyone will be silly, and then they’ll mature.”