The Canna-Culinary Diaries: A Low Dose Revolution Takes Cannabis Mainstream

By / Photography By Alex Junho Kim | April 20, 2018
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Confit, seared speckled hound squash, cannabis-infused squash puree, braised beets, candied pecans, purple kale chips, and chickweed prepared by Michael Magallanes. Photo by Alex Junho Kim

We are one hour into this party, and a warm, buoyant sensation is blooming in my chest. Down the center of the dining table spills a bacchanalian mound of paper-thin charcuterie, creamy cheeses I can’t leave alone, and tight bundles of mint green hydrangeas. There are chandeliers and champagne and a fireplace, and from what I can tell, I am underdressed. And probably stoned. 

The good news is that everyone else is too. This is the inaugural Thursday Infused, a dinner series organized by Herb Somm—a one-woman blog and lifestyle guide to using cannabis as a gourmet culinary ingredient. It is for people like me, uninitiated to the potential of marijuana as a not-gross brownie, that this dinner exists. But against the backdrop of my own experience with pot—which is an unspectacular history confined mostly to college, and hallmarked by more burritos and raw cookie dough than I’d recommend to anyone—the exquisiteness of it all is arresting. 

Even so, exquisiteness is the point. January 1 marked the end of Prohibition, as the cannabis community likes to call it, and advocates like Herb Somm hit the ground running with a clear mission to give weed the image overhaul it deserves. That means transforming something the federal government still considers a Schedule I drug, right next to heroin, into something you might, you know, take with your morning coffee before work. 

So what does it take to pull off a makeover like that? Jamie Evans, the wine expert who founded Herb Somm, says it’s about getting information out there.  

“The industry right now is all about education,” says Evans. “People think cannabis is for lazy people who sit on the couch all day, but they don’t know it can be part of an elevated dining experience, or that it can be healing. We want to elevate the reputation.”

Part of that elevation is the airy rice cracker in front of me, hoisting a cloud of coconut powder topped with pickled Fresno chiles and avocado crema; the impeccably styled woman with skin like a pearl who greeted me at the door with a flute of sparkling rosé; the coordinated wash of serene blues and greens in the dining room. It is Evans herself, polished and earnest, in a beautiful yellow silk dress and handsome leather boots. All in all, this is an awfully sophisticated place to eat weed.  

This degree of luxuriance might feel overwrought, and at moments it does, but according to the cannabis entrepreneurs I met, pulling cannabis into the mainstream means overcoming some formidable hurdles. The plant's Federal Schedule I classification positions it as more dangerous and more addictive than methamphetamine, cocaine, methadone, and fentanyl—the last of which you might recognize from the opioid crisis. 

“It speaks volumes,” says Coreen Carroll, cofounder of the underground supper club The Cannaisseur Series. “That is quite a big stigma to have to change. We’re talking about 90 years of this plant being in prohibition, and there’s all kinds of perceptions about this drug, from it being harmful to it being a gateway drug to it creating laziness to it not being helpful or medicinal at all.”

Looking around the room, it strikes me that many of us grew up amid the war on drugs. Unsuccessful as that war was, I’ll give it credit for the two-page play I wrote in fourth grade about an all-star basketball player who started smoking pot and then died. Right before the championship game. I loved a good ending, clearly, and I don’t doubt D.A.R.E. did its work to instill an adequate amount of paranoia in my friends too. If only for a little while. 

Whatever paranoia does exist in the public imagination has been watered down by time, and fortunately, cannabis users and even nonusers aren’t generally afraid of dying because of it. But it’s still a long way to go to pull something up from underground. 

The thing is, cannabis can make you sleepy. That is, if you consume too much, or the wrong kind. What cannabis entrepreneurs want to teach us is that lazy stoners are just a very small piece of this new potential world. The rest of that world is filled with highly functional people—moms, CEOs, productive artists, athletes, and just the regular bunch of us trying to live our lives well and feel good—who use cannabis skillfully to find balance and well-being. Most of us just don’t know how to get there, and Herb Somm wants to help.

“I think that the more people learn how they can incorporate it into their everyday life, and learn to use it in different ways, the more it will be normalized and help break stigmas,” said Evans.

Cannabis offers more than just a sense of well-being, too. Cannabis has two main cannabinoids, THC and CBD. THC is the psychoactive component that produces a high, and CBD is the non-psychoactive component popular for treating anxiety, sleeplessness, and pain. 

“We’re seeing cannabis save children from epilepsy and cure people from various types of cancer, and help people with high anxiety and social disorders. I think the only way we can ever change stigma and ignorance is with education.” says Carroll.

Dinner is punctuated by educational speeches from cannabis entrepreneurs. There is Garden Society, a low-dose edible company founded by women for women. And HoneyPot, a cannabis-infused honey company that harvests from 12 hives in Hayward. Mighty Health presents a nutraceutical that combines a microdose of cannabis with L-theanine, theobromine, and B-6 to improve everyday focus. All of them speak about the urgency of destigmatizing weed. Except no one calls it weed, or pot, or marijuana, because that’s part of the destigmatization too. In this new world, it’s called cannabis. 

The role of cannabis chefs in dissolving the stigma is twofold: to normalize cannabis as a nonpsychoactive ingredient by, say, juicing or sautéing the leaves, and to teach diners that eating cannabis can be enjoyable and delicious. 

But of course, you can’t just eat marijuana flowers. You can try, but you’ll probably just end up with a stomachache and a weird feeling (not the good kind). Cannabis has flavor, texture, and aroma just like any other ingredient, and whether ingesting it gets you stoned depends on a process called decarboxylation, which activates the psychoactive compounds through manipulating time and temperature (read: cooking). The amateur method involves crumbling the flower onto a sheet pan and stinking up the whole house while it probably overcooks in the oven, which works if all you’re after is the high. But canna-culinary culture is about much more than that. 

opulent chef michael magallanes

Michael Magallenes, aka Opulent Chef. Photo: Angela DeCenzo

The chef behind tonight’s dinner is Michael Magallanes, whose Michelin-starred pedigree includes Aziza and Mourad. These days, he works under the name Opulent Chef, cooking private dinners with and without cannabis. 

“People have been putting hash into food forever, but to do the type of food that I’ve been doing for so long and want to keep doing, and adding hash to that, is something no one is really doing at all. It’s unexploited and unexplored,” he says. 

It’s true, people have put cannabis into food for ages. But making it taste good is another story. Canna-culinary culture does not deal in weed brownies that taste like a skunky compost bin, oh no. Chefs like Magallanes are looking deep into the complex chemical makeup of cannabis and the vast array of aromas and flavors possible within it. 

The sensory experience depends on something called terpenes—the organic compounds that give cannabis strains (and other plants) their unique aroma, taste, and effect. For example, there’s limonene: a citrusy compound that smells like lemon, lime, grapefruit, or tangerine. Or myrcene, which is earthy like mushrooms, herbs and hops. Pinene smells like a forest floor, and linalool like lavender, sage or geranium. Terpenes also affect the way cannabis impacts the human body. Citrusy strains could be energizing and uplifting, while a linalool-dominant strain might be an excellent relaxer.

The way that cannabis expresses its terpenes depends a little on genetics and a little on cultivation. Like wine and tomatoes and cheese and all the earth-born products we’ve pulled into the Bay Area’s artisanal, locavore zeitgeist, cannabis is impacted by the soil, microclimate, and cultivation. In other words, cannabis has terroir, which seems like a very good thing to have as far as rebranding a Schedule I drug goes. 

Over 100 terpenes have been recognized so far in cannabis, making it an exceptionally exciting thing that chefs can utilize in a few different ways. Decarboxylated cannabis is fat-soluble, and a chef might prefer to infuse an herby aioli with a pinene-rich strain. Or, a floral strain could be ground and sprinkled atop a winter citrus salad. Mario Tolentino, the culinary director of Market on Market and the chef behind the occasional Point of View cannabis dinners, has been known to grind flavorful flower into a salt brine for fish or beef. And some chefs, like Carroll of The Cannaisseur Series, like to use joints of a certain terpene profile to punctuate courses of corresponding flavors and facilitate the energy level and general state of her guests.

“The most important thing are the effects,” Carroll says. “I want to make sure you feel this way when you eat this. I’m not going to be serving you a heavy-hitting strain at the beginning, and I’m not going to feed you uplifting energy-filled strains at the end.” 

But terpenes can really shine next to wine, which is Herb Somm’s specialty. Evans started studying wine at 18, and her blog is filled with practical guides to pairing cannabis with the right food and wine. She recommends matching limonene-dominant strains like OG Kush or Lemon Haze with oysters or seared scallops. Strains heavy in linalool like Lavender Confidential or Amnesia Haze might go well with ginger honey chicken or coconut jasmine rice. 

Tonight, we’re dipping our noses into Purple Tangie, a light and citrusy cannabis strain, and drinking a crisp rosé; next, zinfandel with Gorilla Glue, an earthy, sedating strain with more weight. The couple behind both the wine and the weed are Devika Maskey and Jonathan Neisingh, who run Ellipsis Wine Company in Healdsburg, and TSO Sonoma, a luxury cannabis brand that produces sun-grown, sustainable, and pesticide-free flower. As we pass the jar of Tangie, Maskey guides our tasting notes.

“That citrusy, tangerine, candied citrus peel just jumps out of the jar in your face,” she says. “Those are some of those wonderful terpenes. You can smoke Tangie flower all day and be sociable, just like drinking rosé all day,” she says. 

Maskey tells us that pairing wine with weed is about more than flavor and aroma, it’s about the weight and body of the wine too. The light Purple Tangie complements the light, dry acidity of the rosé, while a heavy zinfandel stands up to heavy Gorilla Glue. Neisingh does the farming, and he’s quick to philosophize about the merits of regenerative agriculture and the impact of healthy soil on the quality of terpenes. All of the components that go into developing a distinctive wine—from the sunlight and soil, to the climate and the cultivation method—also contribute to a distinctive cannabis. The difference in the flowers is a little lost on me, but what is not lost on me is the difference between this and the nameless dime bags of dry weed in high school.  

By the time we finish the second course—coffee-roasted carrots and parsnips perched on a swipe of infused chocolate ganache—I’m feeling hazy and sapped. It might be the wine, or it might be the cannabis. The truth is, I don’t love being high. It tends to make me feel spacey, disconnected, and tired. Then again, I never paid attention to the cannabis I consumed in the past because there were never options—you just took it or didn’t—so who’s to say what causes that feeling you feel. It could be the method, the dose, the terpenes, or me. But what I do know is that I enjoyed the carrots and I am now focused on remaining a functioning person at this dinner party and it is going okay. Mostly.  

Still, it begins to make me wonder: who is more in control of my experience, me or the chef? In one sense, it is me. I chose the dosage—2.5 milligrams, half of what everyone else is getting—and I know that’s what I’m getting. The wine consumption is under my control too. But still, there is a differnce between sipping wine at dinner and eating potatoes drenched in, say, psychoactive aioli. Wine isn’t something the chef slips into a meal in a mysterious if elegant way. A glass of wine sits in front of you, and you watch it go down. Your level of consumption is measured in real time, staring you down.  

Diners are generally in control of their dose at a cannabis dinner, but in a different and slightly less direct way than with wine. Dosage is usually advertised; each hors d’oeuvre, for example, might be 2.5 or 5 milligrams of THC per, and each cocktail 1 milligram. Perhaps the whole dinner is 10 or 15 milligrams, and maybe there are infused sauces on the table for anyone who wants to up their dosage. If you don’t know your tolerance, you’re not alone. But I can say that as a woman who is 5" 8" and of average weight who rarely consumes and tends to be sensitive, a 3-milligram caramel lofted me into a pretty surreal and loopy state and into an involuntary, heavy slumber three hours before midnight this past New Year’s Eve. I can’t imagine being comfortable or functional on 10 milligrams, which seems to be where many dinners begin. But everyone is different.

The canna-culinary community seems to like comparing cannabis and wine, and there is some logic to it. The character of each depends on a similar mix of genetics and terroir. Both of them are intoxicating, and we ingest them in order to feel more pleasant. If we can treat ourselves to a few glasses of wine at night and wake up a little hungover, why not use cannabis for a similar effect and wake up refreshed? Plus, it’s safer in high doses. 

“At the end of the day if you drink too much wine, you can end up in the hospital and die. If you smoke too much cannabis you will end up in the hospital with a hangover and probably sleep for four days,” says Carroll. “Right there I think it’s medicinal because it helps with so many different things and at no point can it harm you to the point of death, where alcohol still can.” 

But in moderation, wine can be relaxing and delicious, and so can cannabis. If we’re into wine pairings at dinner, why not cannabis pairings too? Magallanes tells me there’s work to do before the public feels as comfortable with cannabis as they do with wine, but keeping them linked is part of the whole break-the-stigma thing. 

“With wine, people know they’re not going to get all weird and introverted and freak out or not know where they are. With cannabis, it’s a different type of drug, and we have to teach them how to use it properly so they can enjoy it like wine,” says Magallanes.

This is the other reason Herb Somm exists: to provide an experience that teaches cannabis rookies how to consume and how much.  

“The canna-culinary world is promoting smart dosing,” says Evans. “Everyone had that experience where no one educated you in college and you just ate that whole brownie. We want people to feel the cannabis but not to walk away and not be able to function all day. The more we promote smart dosing, the more people get to learn what it can do for them.”  

And apparently, cannabis can do a lot. The human body is already outfitted with an endocannabinoid system that functions to preserve homeostasis, or balance, in the whole ecosystem. THC interacts with the same receptors that our self-made endocannabinoids do, which would imply that cannabis can be used to help balance our system, giving it therapeutic potential. But only at a certain dose. 

Knowing your tolerance is key to enjoying a cannabis dinner, but now that legalization has opened the cannabis world to everyone, how do you count on first-time consumers to know what they can handle? Like Herb Somm, some seasoned chefs are scaling their dinners back to concentrate on education. But whatever the answer, the concept of dosing guests is still enough to make an experienced cannabis chef nervous.

“It’s a new process for a lot of people, and over-medicating people is one of my biggest fears,” says Carroll. “One of the worst things I can imagine is someone leaving my event and not having a good time.”

Carroll’s dinners are a mix of infused and regular dishes, and pairings. She kicks off with passed infused hors d’oeuvres, between 2-5 milligrams each, followed by a 4-course non psychoactive meal. 

“It’s 10 milligrams max if you eat all the hors d’oeuvres. You won’t get nauseated, or not be able to stand on your feet, or get the spins. That would be horrible to me.” 

Carroll integrates all parts of the plant—from juicing or cooking the leaves to working the terpene properties into a cocktail—and supplies a joint or vaporizer between courses. She keeps CBD joints in the middle of the table to help temper the effect of THC if a guest has overmedicated. 

“I definitely don’t think [dosing] is the diner’s responsibility. It’s the chef’s responsibility because we’re the ones who are educated on it, and we’re the ones who have the information and the most recent research. And we’re the ones cooking the food,” she says.  

Wading into the canna-culinary world, one notices that most of the entrepreneurs seem to be women, many making products for women. And most of them are championing the low dose revolution. 

“Going into a dispensary is not comfortable for women,” says Betsy Kabaker, a brand consultant for the Garden Society.  “This whole idea that cannabis isn’t ladylike is the biggest problem with getting people to consume. It’s that women think of themselves as not cannabis people. But what does that even mean?” 

She shows me a neat, colorful palm-sized tin with cornichon-sized joints inside. “We call ’em dog walkers,” she says, “because that’s when a woman would smoke them.” The idea seems a little retro in a problematic way, but I don’t mention it. Because it’s enticing too, like taking a beer on a dog walk in the summertime, which I like to do from time to time. 

Evans, like many of the entrepreneurs I met, discovered therapeutic cannabis after a traumatic experience. In her case, witnessing a gruesome car accident that gave her insomnia. Resisting pharmaceuticals, she looked to cannabis and found a sound sleep and a regulated nervous system. After attending a conference filled with inspiring keynotes from women in cannabis, she walked away devoted to a new venture, using her wine skills and culinary knowledge to spread the cannabis word.

And then there is Felicity Chen, founder of HoneyPot. She started infusing honey to help her asthmatic mother with her sleeping problems. “I’m second-generation Chinese, and I knew she would never smoke with me,” said Chen. The honey helped, and calibrating dosage is easy.  

Garden Society was founded by Erin Gore, a busy woman with a corporate career looking for a holistic way to manage the pain from multiple hip surgeries and the stress of a busy life. Her marketing and communications director, Karli Warner, is a working mom and cancer survivor who attests to the therapeutic benefit of low-dose edibles. The company uses only biodynamic cannabis. 

Jewel Zimmer of Juna is a fine-dining pastry chef and sommelierwho makes low-dose silken drops—cannabis with MCT oil—in various formulations geared to heighten a sense of well-being and sensuality. Melissa Tervet of Dovana, a low-dose caramel confectioner, discovered cannabis soothed the aches and pains of aging that she and her husband were experiencing. And Carroll uses cannabis to manage everything from anxiety to her monthly cycle. 

The benefits of therapeutic low dosing aren’t inherently gendered—men and women both experience pain, anxiety, sleeplessness, and lack of sensual desire—but women may be disproportionately affected by those things. Women are more likely to develop insomnia and anxiety, and a high proportion of us experience menstrual pain and the mood-altering effects of PMS. Plus, there seems to be a sensitivity issue.  

At a recent panel, Charlotte Burger Troy, cofounder of probiotic chocolate company OARA said, “I used to bring my chocolates into dispensaries, and all the dispensary bros—and it’s always bros—would say ‘I really love these things but I have to eat the whole fucking bag to get high.’” 

The low-dose revolution is not about eating the whole fucking bag, it’s about understanding cannabis as a subtle, everyday wellness product. Convincing the masses to microdose before a big meeting or dig in to a psychoactive custard is a tall order, and a long way from the Reefer Madness days of yore. But what better locale for cannabis to reinvent itself than the birthplace of the Instagram filter?

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The Canna-Culinary Diaries: A Low Dose Revolution Takes Cannabis Mainstream originally published in the Winter issue © 2018 Edible San Francisco. 

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