On a January night in Aspen, Colorado, 54 invited guests gathered inside the chic city’s privately owned Crystal Palace building for a guided, five-course tasting adventure.
While X Games snowboarders and snowmobilers competed outside, diners inside nibbled on an ambitious haute cuisine menu featuring items such as pistachio-crusted tuna tataki, roasted duck breast with blackberry red wine marinade, deep-fried baby octopus, and dark chocolate ganache torte.
It was a night of highs—literally—as each dish arrived with a selected wine pairing as well as a cannabis pairing to be inhaled, with strains featuring names like Durbin Poison, Headband, Grand Daddy Purps, 303 Kush, and Platinum Girl Scout Cookies.
Philip Wolf, owner of Cultivating Spirits, which manages various cannabis-infused experiences across Colorado, including this one hosted with the cooperation of Aspen city leaders, urged guests to note the flavor profiles of the cannabis upon inhalation. Later, he directs diners to smack their tongues against the roof of their mouths for a deeper sensory experience.
“It was groundbreaking to see a room of 54 people mindfully consume cannabis and relate the flavors of the terpenes in the Grand Daddy Purps with the roasted duck breast,” Wolf says of the event.
With marijuana now approved for recreational use in four states—Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska—and a number of others considering such legislation, cannabis-infused edibles have gained increasing attention from consumers and foodservice professionals alike.
A Denver Post story last December called marijuana-infused edibles “one of the biggest surprises during the first year of legal recreational marijuana sales,” saying it “stunned” state and industry leaders following the Jan. 1, 2014, legalization of recreational marijuana.
“Potent cookies, candies, and drinks, once considered a niche market, now account for roughly 45 percent of the legal marijuana marketplace,” Denver Post scribe Jordan Steffen reported.
Leading cannabis culinarian Jessica Catalano isn’t surprised.
Catalano started her blog, The Ganja Kitchen Revolution, in 2010, one year after beginning to experiment with cannabis strains in the kitchen and 13 years after beginning to use cannabis for medicinal purposes. Within two years of her blog’s debut, Catalano’s escalating fan base sparked a publishing deal and a cookbook, The Ganja Kitchen Revolution: The Bible of Cannabis Cuisine.
“When magazines like Vogue are talking about my book, we know the interest isn’t just some small fringe group,” Catalano says. “There’s a greater market here.”
Indeed, there appears to be swelling consumer fascination with edibles in this post-legalization era, particularly given that snacking on a cannabis-infused cookie is far more discreet and diplomatic—and, some would argue, more delectable—than puffing away on a joint.
At Cultivating Spirits, Wolf tells of surging enrollment in his company’s events, which range from private grow tours to gourmet cooking events and pairing classes.
“We know that people are very interested in the food aspects of cannabis,” Wolf says, adding that mainstream media coverage, educational panels, and cooking classes have only heightened curiosity. “And as the conversations become more frequent, it’s undeniable we’ll see even more interest.”
The restaurant industry has taken note as well.
Amid the increasing consumer interest in edible cannabis, Colorado Restaurant Association (CRA) president and CEO Sonia Riggs has also witnessed emerging intrigue from a wide range of foodservice industry players. Riggs reports that attendance at the CRA’s ServSafe Food Handler classes from edible manufacturers has increased as individuals look to comply with regulatory requirements.
Again, that development doesn’t shock Catalano, who says a lot more chefs and foodservice professionals are embracing edible experimentation “because cannabis isn’t so taboo.” In fact, she continues, the movement is already happening at private parties and home dinners, where culinary artists are experimenting with diverse strains and techniques to solve one of cannabis’ lingering kitchen challenges: an unpleasant taste.
Just as wines carry unique flavor profiles, so, too, do marijuana strains. While Sour Diesel carries fuel-like, earthy tones, according to Catalano, Lemon Haze delivers a citrus taste with candied undertones.
“It’s exciting to give a lemon taste to a seafood dish when there’s actually no lemon in sight,” Catalano says. “A lot of times, the flavors can be so similar that the diner won’t even taste the cannabis.”
As more chefs experiment and discover what they can do with cannabis, Catalano foresees greater advocacy from chefs interested in placing cannabis-infused dishes on their restaurant menus, especially if consumer interest continues to grow.
“There’s an art to cooking cannabis and if you do it the right way, you can surprise a lot of people,” Catalano says.
For now, however, a chef’s ability to serve up cannabis-infused dishes remains a rather moot point as the public consumption of marijuana remains illegal and the drug remains listed as a Schedule I narcotic by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
“There are conversations happening, mostly in the marijuana industry, regarding the ability to expand what is allowed by law, but it would take a change in the Colorado Constitution to change the ‘no public consumption’ portion of this law, and that conversation is not happening on a serious level with the state legislature,” Riggs says.
And even if such conversations were to gain momentum in legislative houses in Colorado and elsewhere, other deep-seated, thorny issues remain, namely liability and overconsumption. Even a small edible, such as a cookie, can carry significantly more THC—marijuana’s psychoactive element that alters mood and physical sensations—than recommended.
As restaurants and other on-premise liquor licensees are prohibited from serving anyone showing visible signs of intoxication, Riggs says marijuana adds a layer of complication.
“The effects [of marijuana] may be different from what they are trained to look for in a patron intoxicated from alcohol only,” Riggs reminds.
While advocacy for the recreational use of marijuana grows in states throughout the country and interest in edibles marches forward, the bottom line for restaurants is clear: Sit this one out.
“Maybe someday there will be an opportunity for people to enjoy edibles at a restaurant,” Catalano opines, “but we’re not there yet.”
Editor’s Note: For more information on the subject, attend the educational session “Marijuana on the Menu” on Saturday, May 16, at the NRA Show.