How to Eat, Drink, and Appreciate Cannabis at Restaurants

From infusions to strain-specific cooking, veteran chefs are forging new identities while up-and-comers are making their mark.
June 15, 2019, 1:00 PM UTC
A terpene sugar beignet with lemon thyme curd paired with Hudson Hemp Catskill OG and the Francis Ford Coppola Bees Box Chardonnay. Courtesy of Rachel Burkons
Courtesy of Rachel Burkons

On a recent evening at the James Beard House in New York City, guests decked out in fine-dining attire gathered for an intimate dinner party. The James Beard Foundation had once again invited its members to enjoy cocktails, food, and wine while mingling with the makers themselves. However, what made this dinner party different was that the key talking point—terpenes (more on that later)—was something about which this group of seasoned foodies knew very little. And what made it memorable was that a leading voice in the culinary industry showcased how cooking with cannabis can elevate cuisine even in the absence of a high.

Though it takes plenty of moving parts to assemble a restaurant, cannabis has the rare opportunity to create sweeping changes across the entire hospitality industry. The incorporation of cannabis products into the dining room given its devoted fan base can have a serious economic impact on a restaurant’s bottom line, not to mention impact the dining experience. The National Restaurant Association recently released a report finding that almost 77% of chefs surveyed chose drinks and food infused with cannabis and cannabidiol (CBD) as the top two trends in the industry for 2019.

However, before restaurants and guests can officially embrace this plant without fear of retribution, federal and state officials will have to agree on a plan—a process that has proved thus far to be extremely complex.

The law (as of today)

It’s unsettling to think the meal you are eating could have you entering a plea by the end of the night, but the legality of consuming cannabis is a topic of debate.

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in accordance with the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) currently classifies marijuana—the dried leaves, flowers, stems, and seeds from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa—as an illegal Schedule 1 drug. Schedule 1 drugs are classified as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Though cannabis is composed of many different chemical compounds, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the one that has made the plant a source of controversy, owing to its mind-altering properties.

Because of this, federal and state governments have different laws regarding the use of medical and recreational marijuana. While marijuana is considered an illegal substance by the federal government, states have passed laws which have legalized the drug for both medical and recreational use. Currently, 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use, with 33 states legally approving marijuana for medical use.

Hudson Hemp products at the James Beard House dinner.Courtesy of Timothy Murray
Courtesy of Timothy Murray

However, since federal law overrides state law, cannabis consumption is not without personal risk. Even in states like Maine that have legalized cannabis for recreational use, there have been bans instituted by state health departments on stores selling food made with CBD—one of the many non-psychoactive components of cannabis—owing to health concerns.

Despite the conflicting viewpoints and growing pains, there appears to be progress in clearing up this gray area. The passage of the 2018 Farm Bill by the federal government legalized the production of hemp, a cannabis varietal that has less than 0.3% THC. The act also expanded hemp cultivation broadly outside of educational pilot programs and allows for the transfer of hemp-derived products across state lines for commercial purposes.

Perhaps most important, the new law does not put a restriction on the sale, transportation, or possession of hemp-made products as long as they were produced in accordance with the law. This model provides a starting point for farmers, distributors, and hospitality professionals to work together, building a food system that is completely in compliance with both state and federal law.

While we wait for the government to figure it all out for cannabis, we may as well decide on what we’re having for dinner, which means taking a look at what an actual menu might look like.

Cannabis menu speak: terpenes, cannabinoids, oils, and dosage

While chefs and servers are well versed in explaining ingredients and preparation techniques to guests, adding cannabis to the menu will likely require additional conversations. For Holden Jagger, the chef behind the James Beard dinner “An Exploration of Terpenes,” that meant breaking things down to the molecular level.

“The best thing about terpenes is that every single bar and restaurant in America is already using them and doesn’t even know it,” says Rachel Burkons, Jagger’s sister and cofounder of the cannabis-focused hospitality group Altered Plates. “Terpenes are aromatic molecules that are responsible for flavor and aroma in a wide variety of fruits and botanicals, including very common ingredients. They are also responsible for the flavor and aromas of cannabis, and combined with a specific variety’s cannabinoid content, can guide the ‘experience’ of a specific variety.”

The Altered Plates brother and sister team of chef Holden Jagger and Rachel Burkons. Courtesy of Timothy Murray
Courtesy of Timothy Murray

If terpenes help attract the nose and mouth, cannabinoids can be thought of as encouraging healthy behavior for the body. Research suggests cannabinoids interact with the human endocannabinoid system (ECS) and can trigger various physical responses in individuals, such as a sense of relaxation or reduced inflammation. However, they do not make people high, unless they are being activated by THC. Like other plants, there are plenty of ways chefs can prepare them, with some of the most popular infusions coming in the way of oils, butters, and honey. A cannabis-focused dinner might also include the stems, seeds, and flowers from the plant in order to provide a full sensory experience.

No matter what food or drink you’re enjoying, portion size should come into play, and that especially rings true when consuming edible cannabis products with THC, which are typically measured in milligrams. “The fact of the matter is that everyone’s endocannabinoid system is different,” Burkons explains. “What’s just right for one person may be too much for another, and not do a thing for somebody else. But when guests don’t know yet where they land on that scale, or what type of cannabis experience they prefer, the industry standard is ‘Start low, go slow.’”

Often, people who ingest THC might not feel the effects until 45 minutes to an hour later, so there’s a significant responsibility on servers to provide all the necessary information in order to ensure the safety of all guests.

Where to make a reservation: private dinners, neighborhood joints, and … consumption lounges?

The legal complexities of the cannabis industry as they stand have made incorporating cannabis into restaurants difficult. “Businesses may feel the pinch of limited banking services most acutely, as federal laws strongly discourage federally chartered institutions from providing essential banking services to anyone within arm’s reach of a cannabis plant,” says Andrew Aamot, president and CEO of Colorado’s Sträva Craft Coffee, which makes a CBD-infused coffee that it distributes to restaurants and cafés.

Because of these constraints, hospitality professionals involved with cannabis have chosen to pursue the private-events route, like Altered Plates, or to partner with companies that make cannabis-related products in order to showcase them at their place of business. Though chefs might not be actually making cannabis dishes in their own kitchens just yet, several restaurants have given their guests a sense of what might be expected.

A watermelon margarita with Azuca hemp–infused syrup at Bubby’s.Courtesy of Alexander Stein
Courtesy of Alexander Stein

At Bubby’s in New York City, owner Ron Silver found a way to combine his passion for cannabis into his family-friendly dining room. Silver, founder and chief creative officer of Azuca, uses several infused syrups in drinks at his restaurants. Top Chef alum Spike Mendelsohn has a line of CBD beverages, PLNT, available at his Springfield, Va., eatery, Vim & Victor.

Naturally, guests have brought with them plenty of preconceived notions. “We’ve been serving CBD coffee in Colorado for two years, and it’s been a challenge to educate our customer base,” explains Blue Sparrow Coffee owner Jeffrey Knott. “We have people visiting our café every day from out of state, and as soon as we mention CBD coffee we get adverse reactions like, ‘Oh, I have to drive,’ or ‘My company has regular drug screenings.’”

In an industry where profit depends on maximizing table turnover, the logistical challenges of accommodating the invariable questions that come with putting cannabis on the menu might prove to be more time-consuming than first anticipated. That is why an alternative solution has been discussed by members of the cannabis hospitality industry.

Much like Prohibition unintentionally gave rise to speakeasies, the idea of dedicated cannabis-friendly consumption lounges is appealing to some members of the community. Altered Plates is currently working on opening one of the City of West Hollywood’s on-site consumption lounges, slated to debut in 2020. These lounges are expected to pave the way for the true restaurant-level cannabis dining experience, but the city has released only eight of these permits thus far.

How to make the most of your culinary cannabis experience

The emotional and physical experience guests have while dining will ultimately determine the long-term success of culinary cannabis concepts. Though some might question the idea of consuming cannabis in a public setting, trying new foods and drinks in the company of friends has always been a long-standing tradition of dining out.

Equally important, people who don’t enjoy drinking alcohol now have an alternative when socializing in public. “I’m pretty new to this, but I think as a cook and a diner, I want a gradual buildup of flavors and dose,” says chef Nicole Rucker of Los Angeles’ Fiona bakery. “To start, I want some delicious bread or perfect radishes slathered with or dipped in a THC and terpene butter, so the progression of the meal is front-loaded with the largest dose.”

Gabe Kennedy, a Culinary Institute of America–trained chef and cofounder of Plant People, advises guests to approach cannabis as you might a traditional meal and rely on your instincts. “Quality is imperative because cannabis is a remediation plant and will suck up any impurities, heavy metals, or toxins within the soil. Potency does not equate to quality,” Kennedy says. “You want the flowers to be visually consistent, free of mold or mildew and to have an enticing aroma.”

As businesses and consumers figure out a way to work together, perhaps the greatest feeling of relief will come not from CBD but the idea that we’re in the early stages of helping perfect a cuisine for future generations. After all, building a cuisine from the ground up is never easy.

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