You’ve all heard of space cakes, and some of our more devilish dear readers may even have tried them. But with the plant becoming evermore accepted (California, Nevada and Massachusetts all voted in favour of legalisation late last year, bringing the total number of pot-friendly US states to seven, on top of the dozen or so countries where it can be consumed, legally or through decriminalisation, for medicinal or recreational purposes, or both), a growing number of chefs are experimenting with weed.
Chris Sayegh is a former medical student who has worked in some of the top eateries of the USA’s east and west coasts. Now known as The Herbal Chef, he has made a name for himself in the world of cannabis cuisine, and claims munching on marijuana to be a “cerebral experience”. “You’re eating with a different perception with each bite, with each course,” says Sayegh in a video presentation from his Hollywood home. “You’re literally changing your brain chemistry.”
Ingesting pot infuses the body with tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects. While smoking forces THC into the body faster, and in more potent concentrations, eating it will mean it will remain in the system for a greater length of time.
“In a nutshell, eaten cannabis gets metabolised by the liver, so delta-9-THC becomes 11-hydroxy-THC, which passes the blood-brain barrier more rapidly and has more of a psychedelic effect than standard THC,” Mitch Earleywine, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Albany and author of Understanding Marijuana, tells the Daily Beast. “Smoked or vaporised cannabis bypasses the liver and doesn’t create the same 11-hydroxy-THC.”
Amanda Reiman, policy manager of the California Drug Policy Alliance, adds that medicinal marijuana users usually opt to eat the drug because of the longer lasting effects: “However, marijuana ingested orally is more difficult to properly titrate dosage due to the increased time of effect onset.”
Dosage is something chefs too are still trying to perfect. Chris Yang boasts an undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Southern California University, but rather than pursue a career in science, he taught himself how to cook, learning many of his tricks from watching Gordon Ramsay videos on YouTube. He says his science background has enabled him to understand cooking techniques at a molecular level and how different food interacts with the cannabis plant. “Legalisation does relieve a lot of stress from the stigma of cannabis, but it still comes down to the dosing mechanism,” he tells The Cannabist. “There is still a lot to be learnt about how to properly administer a dose to someone before we can all fully proceed.” Yang, a “pop-up restaurateur and cannabis entrepreneur”, has organised more than 50 pop-up eateries in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, now going under the name Pop Cultivate. The events are usually held in warehouse-type settings, welcoming up to 40 guests at a time.
The word ‘cannabis’ stems from the Greek for hemp — κάνναβις, pronounced “kánnabis”. It was recognised by some of the earliest civilisations the world over for its versatility, its fibres used for such things as rope and fabric; its seeds used to extract oil to be burnt. Weed-infused drink bhang — concocted by grinding the buds and leaves then mixing the green paste with milk, butter and spices — originated in 10th-century India. Published in Italy in 1474, De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine — ‘On Honourable Pleasure and Health’ — was the first ever cookbook and contained a cannabis cocktail. Contemporary cookbook The Ganja Kitchen Revolution: The Bible of Cannabis Cuisine, offers all sorts of tasty tips on getting the most out of the drug, with the basic theme being that marijuana should just be treated as any other culinary herb. In 2014, Vice launched Bong Appetit, a show about marijuana cooking. Among its stars was a 91-year-old grandmother who prepares classic Italian dishes using butter infused with hash.
Sayegh’s high-end, high-inducing dishes include such treats as carrot confit gnocchi with cannabis-infused pea emulsion; New York strip steak with parsnip puree and ‘medicated’ red wine reduction; and sticky toffee pudding with toasted coconut and pot-infused chocolate. But, the chef says that rarely will anyone taste the weed in his wares, unless he specifically wants them too, as it’s “not a pleasant taste” and can “throw off the whole flavour of the dish”. Sayegh currently cooks his cannabis menus in private homes or pop-up events around Los Angeles. (But diners must show their medical marijuana cards. Though the state has voted to legalise the drug, it won’t be legal to sell or buy for recreation until 2018. Until then, it can be legally gifted, but only purchased for medicinal purposes.)
“We’re moving beyond marijuana as something frightening,” notes David Bienenstock, co-producer of Bong Appetit. “A lot of people are curious, and food is a great way for people to access the culture. Once they can access it, they start to understand it’s something we shouldn’t be suppressing and should be celebrating.”