Many restaurant workers are pivoting toward making cannabis dishes as the industry booms across the country
Best friends Jeni Cohen of Dia De Los Tamales and Rebecca VanderKloot of Puffs of Doom met a decade ago while selling their products next to each other at a farmers market. In 2020, when COVID-19 shut down the festivals and events where they worked, they decided to pursue another longtime passion and take advantage of cannabis legalization by starting Flame Princess Confections, which sells THC-infused food ranging from chocolate bars to pasta sauce and provides catering for dinner parties.
“It was a natural progression, especially with COVID,” Cohen says. “There seems to be this desire for people to really find something to help them handle the pandemic situation. It really allowed the canna-curious person to find something they were more familiar with as opposed to traditional edibles — your big pot brownies or gummies with pot leaves and red eyes.”
Cohen is one of a growing number of Chicago entrepreneurs cooking with cannabis, which they see as the new frontier of the hospitality industry. And they’re taking the craft to new levels, challenging stoner perceptions and pushing into uncharted culinary territory.
Another is Rob Menor, who expanded his Adobo Loko pop-up business with an edibles line, 8th Street Treats. He cooks dishes inspired by his Filipino heritage, and 8th Street Treats’ flagship is the Ube Doobie, a pastry incorporating purple yam and 20 milligrams of THC and CBD. For customers looking for just a light buzz, he offers Budbinka, a spin on the Filipino baked rice cake bibingka made with 3 milligrams of both CBD and THC. Getting the dosage right in every batch has required lots of experimentation.
“It’s a lot of math homework and learning new vocabulary and almost a whole new science on my own through practice,” Menor says. “It was sort of like learning to cook again at a different level.”
Pilsen native Manny Mendoza began cooking with cannabis soon after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, moving to California to take advantage of the state’s trailblazing in the legalization movement. He hosted pop-ups throughout California and Colorado before returning home when Illinois made cannabis legal for recreation and launching Herbal Notes, a dinner series where he offers six-to-seven-course tasting menus starting at $150. Every dish is infused with a microdose of THC and CBD. Attendees at an Herbal Notes dinner shouldn’t expect to get high eating dishes like king crab with cilantro cavatelli pasta served with a poblano Mornay sauce, spring peas, and crispy prosciutto.
“We’re very deliberate and intentional with how we’re infusing and how we’re controlling dosage,” Mendoza says. “The point isn’t to get people incapacitated. THC and CBD are like seasonings. I want to add just enough so you can get the idea. You don’t want to be overpowered by it, just like you don’t want something to be too salty or too sweet. You want balance.”
Many workers burned out from the long hours in the restaurant world have pivoted toward cannabis, and one estimate claims 375,000 total already work in the cannabis industry. Another projects that 1.75 million will have jobs once cannabis is made legal across the country.
“I want to be part of a movement for cannabis tourism and hospitality,” Mendoza adds. “It’s a whole new sector that will create so many jobs and so many entrepreneurs that will be able to build generational wealth by starting their own edible businesses or lounges or bed and breakfasts or art studios and learning centers.”
But the attraction isn’t only financial. West Garfield Park native Tiffani Piearson used cannabis to treat her postpartum depression and then began using it on a daily basis. She launched Canna Cafe, a restaurant chain that serves pizza, chicken tenders, and fries made with delta-8. Derived from hemp, the compound is similar to the active ingredient in cannabis, though many users say it provides a gentler high. It’s also subject to fewer regulations, which has allowed Piearson to open locations in the West Loop along with Los Angeles. She plans to expand to Miami and Philadelphia.
“The initial goal was to get more African American people like myself to eat healthier food and also use a healthy additive like hemp or delta-8 as an icing on top,” she says. “Most of our sauces are vegan and gluten free. We don’t fry our food. We don’t use butters. We don’t use any unhealthy cooking methods.”
The effects of delta-8 are felt in about 45 minutes, so Piearson says customers often linger a bit longer to enjoy the relaxed feel.
“You can always tell when the effect is there,” she says. “You might have had a bad day, but you go from a bad day to smiling really quick. We love to see that.”
Cohen also advocates a balance when catering parties. She might start with a charcuterie plate with infused mustards and jams alongside a tray of other appetizers without any cannabis. The strain is also important. She suggests starting a meal with sativa, which boosts alertness and focus, and finishing with a dessert using the calming indica. Matching the dish to the terpenes, the aromatic compounds prevalent in cannabis, is another challenge.
“One of my favorite things to do is to find cannabinoids and terpenes and flavor profiles that match really well with what it is that we’re making,” Cohen says. “Whether it’s something more citrusy or more piney, those tiny profiles really add to different dishes.”
Mendoza avoids that issue by using oil extracts instead of flour made from plant material.
“We use lab-tested stuff,” he says. “That allows us to have more control and accurate dosing of whatever we’re serving. It’s made in a licensed facility. It tastes good, [whereas] if you’re trying to make it at home it tastes strong and nasty.”
Cannabis chefs work to educate customers who may have never used the drug or last tried it illicitly decades ago. Cohen says she often brings clients to a dispensary to talk to a budtender about their health concerns and find a strain that will work best for them.
“That’s the glory of cannabis being legal now,” she says. “As science continues to develop and we continue to learn more and explore it, we really find what works great for different symptoms. Once you open their eyes to realize that this isn’t the weed from 30 to 40 years ago, it really changes their idea as to what’s going on. We’re not smoking a joint of some random weed where we don’t know how high we’re going to get.”
Reliable access to high-quality cannabis is essential to making a consistent product, and some chefs are pioneering a new version of the farm-to-table movement. Menor works with Co-op Botanical Distribution, a Wauconda meat-and-dairy farm that also allows investors to purchase a plot of land for the cultivation and preparation of cannabis. Mendoza practiced urban regenerative farming in California and envisions operating a vertically integrated business across multiple states around the country, with a focus on helping marginalized communities.
“There are whole communities that could benefit from having cannabis introduced into their economy in an intentional way that’s healing,” he says.
Piearson also sees legalization as a door opening for minorities.
“For so many years, minorities were going to prison for marijuana,” she says. “Now it’s medicinal, now it’s great for all of these things that people go through on a daily basis.”
Cohen, who is Latina, sees similar opportunities to help shape the nascent industry’s evolution.
“Every industry that we’ve ever participated in has existed,” she says. “Whenever we show up, it’s us trying to push the people at the top out of the way to make room for us. For the first time ever in my career, the top doesn’t exist yet. We get to make it.”