Bringing marijuana into the realm of fine dining
BY KATE JONUSKA
White wine is for fish. Red wine is for beef. By remembering those basics, a food lover can squeak by in most of the wine-drinking world. Of course, youʼre not in most of the wine-drinking world, but in an envelope-pushing state where diners may soon understand new maxims for food pairing: Sativa is for fish and indica is for beef.
“Food and cannabis pairing is very Colorado,” says Hosea Rosenberg, executive chef at Boulderʼs Blackbelly restaurant and former Top Chef champion. He has planned many menus pairing excellent food with excellent Colorado cannabis.
“We were the first state to legalize recreational weed, so no oneʼs been able to do this kind of thing—at least not out in the open,” he says. “Itʼs fun to be on the cutting edge.”
“Itʼs really cool to teach people about cannabis through the pairing platform,” says Philip Wolfe, who runs Cultivating Spirits, a food, wine and cannabis tour organization. Just like at any upscale wine event, its dinners feature a recommended strain of cannabis to consume with each course; the food itself is not infused with marijuana.
In Wolfeʼs and other industry professionalsʼ opinions, cannabis can and should be treated the same way wine is in the food world, right down to the words we use to describe its flavors.
“There are a few flavors you can pick out that are easily distinguishable for someone without any palate or nose for cannabis,” says Kendal Norris, founder of Mason Jar Event Group, which organizes cannabis-themed dinners and yoga events. “Citrus is one really recognizable flavor for people and is also very accessible to use in dishes.” She says citrus tones are prevalent in sativa strains of pot, which tend to give a more energetic and creative high, as opposed to indicas, which are more relaxing. Thatʼs why sativas are compared to lighter white wines and indicas to heavier reds.
“The weed leads everything, we like to say,” Norris continues. “Letʼs say weʼre going to use something like a Triangle Kush [a relaxing indica strain] that has undertones of tobacco and green mint. We work with that and figure out where in the meal it would fit.”
In the case of the Kush, one of her recent dinners paired the strain with a sea-salt caramel and chocolate budino, or Italian custard, topped with a crunch of toasted pistachios for texture and served with an Assam black tea. “The combination was just spectacular.”
According to Wolfe, cannabis flavors are mostly a product of terpenes, the organic compounds inside the plant that give it its aroma. The one called myrcene, for instance, is earthy and herbal, sometimes with notes of musk or cloves. Pinene is sharp, clean and piney, while limonene is named for its citrus notes.
“A strainʼs terpenes can often reveal its attributes before you even consume it,” he says. “Strains with that pine smell help with focus and memory retention. People always want to stigmatize cannabis as making you lazy, but really thatʼs about overconsumption.”
And overconsumption is not a small issue, with one recommended strain per course, but the point is not to get blitzed. At Wolfeʼs food, wine and cannabis events, the education component is huge. Before they sit down to their paired meal, guests learn to taste the flavors of smoked cannabis from industry experts and growers, who also conduct tastings of chocolates, cheeses and wines to further educate the palate. No one is urged to overconsume—or indeed, to consume at all.
“Everyone is free to choose how and when theyʼd like to consume,” says Norris, whose events attract industry professionals as well as people with more curiosity than experience. “We provide those cannabis-curious folks with a fun, safe and exploratory environment.”
In other words, no, youʼre not going to be sober, any more than a guest at a wine or whiskey dinner with five paired courses would be. Both Mason Jar and Cultivating Spirits events provide guest transportation to and from the dinner, and stress safety and transparency.
“We donʼt want you to feel this is going to be a grimy, back-alley, shadowy experience, because itʼs not,” says Wolfe. “These are very upscale, sophisticated events.” Unlike wine dinners, however, this budding industry operates under significant legal restraints. Advertising a cannabis dinner or directly selling tickets can run afoul of current laws, which vary from town to town. The events have to be private and all guests must be invited. In order to find such a dinner and reserve a spot, diners who arenʼt already on a mailing list have to do a lot of legwork themselves—or hire a private chef and host their own event on private property.
“Working within the laws is part of figuring out the puzzle of cannabis,” says Wolfe. “For a small-business owner itʼs hard enough, but then there are all these other obstacles on top of that. Itʼs unfortunate, but we have to lead the way.”
Canna-lovers and the canna-curious obviously appreciate the effort, because these events are incredibly popular. Norris says her farm dinners sell out within 24 hours of invitationsʼ being issued, and that she receives almost exclusively enthusiasm when she speaks about her work. She sees the stoner stigma associated with the modern cannabis industry waning, as does Chef Rosenberg, who often works for Mason Jar.
“Iʼve never gotten a bad response,” he says. “Iʼve been waiting for some kind of hate mail on our Facebook page, but no one has said anything negative about [me or Blackbelly] being involved.” In fact, the only downside to paired dinners, from his perspective, is quantity.
“We have to bring larger portions,” says Rosenberg, “because people do tend to eat a little more than usual when theyʼre high.”