One evening early last December, some 20 dinner guests sat at a candlelit table in a converted Logan Square factory loft eating carnitas with red mole infused with NYC Sour Diesel, a strain of cannabis known for its relaxing, euphoric effects. Next came chilaquiles with kale salsa, soubise crema, roasted mushrooms, and smoked habanero cheddar with a smoked guajillo oil infused with a cross strain of AC/DC and Haze. Due to its low THC levels, the last has little psychoactive effect, but thanks to a high concentration of cannabidiol, aka CBD, it’s good for relief from anxiety and chronic pain.
As effective as those strains might be, the evening wasn’t as chill as you’d expect. The diners—all card-carrying beneficiaries of the Illinois Cannabis Patient Registry Program—were surrounded by other guests who weren’t partaking in the six-course meal but who milled about chatting and sipping CBD-infused micheladas. Now and then, in twos and threes, partygoers slipped in and out of a side door leading to a carport that emitted drifting whiffs of smoke.
In the corner a DJ was playing a mix of pop and international-oriented dance music while two photographers and a videographer prowled the space capturing the party vibe for posterity—with a particular focus on the large open kitchen where chef Manny Mendoza and his crew briskly plated the food before it was marched over to the guests by a team of runners. As there often is at notable food events, a group of food media hangers-on sat at a separate table eating uninfused courses. I don’t have a medical marijuana card either, but I lurked around in the background trying to look inconspicuous with my pen and notebook. One guy approached and genially asked if I was a narc.
This was the Chicago debut of Herbal Notes, a culinary cannabis pop-up supper club Mendoza started from his home base in San Diego last year. Weed dinners by pedigreed chefs are no big deal in California—or any other place where legal recreational cannabis and a progressive food scene coexist. Given the anemic caliber of Illinois’s current medical marijuana law, events like this are much less regular here.
Mendoza, who’s 25, aims to change all that. Born and raised in Pilsen, he came into cooking with cannabis about five years ago, after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He returned home, took music and business classes at Harold Washington College, and worked at a handful of notable restaurants: Owen & Engine, and the late Senza and Green Zebra.
Meanwhile, he’d started experimenting with cannabis as an ingredient in food. A pot smoker since he was 15, he’d had one or two unfortunately prototypical edible-eating misadventures: nasty sugar-loaded brownies and baked goods of unknown strength that led to unpleasantly unnerving highs.
Mendoza began infusing oils and alcohol based-tinctures with cannabis flower and incorporating them into hard fruit candies, but he often used trim and sometimes stems and seeds, not realizing that these parts of the flower are less than ideal and can contribute undesirable volatile compounds to the end product. He had a breakthrough one day in a glass of chocolate milk. He gently simmered some Grand Daddy Purple in whole milk, then mixed in chocolate and chilled it down. It was “cold, refreshing, rich, and decadent,” he recalls. “With onset within 15 minutes, [it had] soothing strong sedative effects. I remember a mild head high but very potent relaxation.”
Mendoza began to toy with the idea of combining cannabis and its therapeutic effects with his own food, and presenting it at multimedia events with music, in comfortable surroundings. But he was worried about pursuing the plan in Chicago. Plenty of friends over the years had been arrested and jailed for simple possession. He himself was caught with an empty herb grinder and fined almost $1,500 in 2013.
“I’m just fresh out of college, and I’m working like crazy just to maintain. To get slapped with something like that really threw my life off,” he says. The bust played a part in his decision to go west. In California he found restaurant work and continued to experiment, spending time on both conventional and pot farms, where he learned to grow his own.
Mendoza prefers to make his own infusions from flower, but particularly in Chicago, where supply and higher prices make that inconvenient, he uses precisely dosed and commercially available tinctures and oils. Typically his method is to finish off uninfused food with low-dosage sauces and seasonings. He’s made a name. Last November he reached the final round of the High Times Cooking Competition at the annual SoCal Harvest Cup.
He started throwing dinners in San Diego in February 2017, but last year, with an eye on the political appetite for recreational legalization that’s been steadily growing in Illinois, he decided it was time to bring Herbal Notes home. December’s dinner, titled Windy City High, was his way of testing the waters. How dark was the gray area surrounding the practice of serving infused food to medical marijuana patients—essentially tastes of their own medicine? Unexpected publicity for the event, including a TV news segment for which he says he was never contacted, had him a bit worried. “I knew that they were pretty much signaling the police department, or somebody, that ‘Hey, this is happening here.'”
Still, the $125 six-course dinner sold out almost instantly. Guests, who’d revealed their medical condition and cannabis tolerance beforehand, were directed to the previously undisclosed location on the day of the dinner. Also in attendance was a large group of guys from a local start-up called CannaRaw, who cosponsored the event and were attempting to launch a number of nonpsychoactive CBD-infused products, like the tequila that was being mixed into cocktails by Javier Garcia, the bartender behind Big Mich, a Chicago-born michelada mix.
Mendoza’s Chicago-recruited crew included Daniel Espinoza, then chef at the South Loop’s Lobo Rey, who conceived three of the dishes. Together they banged out six courses, including a swordfish ceviche seasoned with a Watermelon Haze keef-Tajín seasoning blend; a crispy pig-head croquette with black-bean puree and Watermelon Haze thyme salt; and a tamal with cranberry-ginger reduction, roasted sweet potato, and Cherry Kandahar pepper. With each course Mendoza or Espinoza addressed the guests and broke down the dishes, each of which contained about a 3.5 mg dose of THC—what, in the current parlance of responsible cannabis consumption, is known as a microdose.
By the time the dinner was over, the guests, who varied greatly by age and whose conditions ranged from PTSD and anxiety to chronic pain and cancer, drifted out the door with a small kit of olive oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper together with instructions for infusing them at home. There was no staggering, no delirious giggling, no white-knuckled, wide-eyed paranoia—just a mellow postprandial denouement.
Since then Mendoza’s returned to town twice, first for a three-day stand in January, then for a dinner and three brunches in March. He’s expanded the number of guests he feeds, and his crew, which now numbers about 20, includes David Hollinger, a friend from culinary school he’s brought on as pastry chef. Hollinger, who’s worked at Topolobampo and the Bakery at Fat Rice, has contributed decidedly unbrownielike sweets like a cafe de olla mochi with a CBD-infused canela and a Guatemalan-style concha stuffed with fried plantains spiked with CBD oil.
For the four sold-out events Herbal Notes has scheduled this week, Hollinger is making a Skywalker OG-infused tres leches cake. Mendoza is planning, among other things, courses like a savory quiche with green chorizo, queso cotija, and a fire cider vinaigrette infused with his own proprietary cannabis oil; vichyssoise with curried salmon, double-smoked bacon, and an infused creme fraiche; and chicken mousseline tortellini with wood-grilled mushrooms, apple-lemon beurre blanc, and infused brown butter. Garcia from Big Mich will be debuting a Tangie-infused Malort cocktail with smoked piloncillo, Chinotto, vanilla, and a Green Dragon-infused cherry.
Mendoza’s opened these dinners up to anyone—no medical card required—in an effort to widen and drum up support for recreational legalization. If any of the above gives you the munchies, you’ll have more chances to try Mendoza’s food this summer, provided you have a medical marijuana card; he plans to hold at least one series in Chicago every month. If not, he’s banking that one day soon you won’t need one.
Next week he’s giving a free informational talk and Q&A on cannabis at a time and location TBD; e-mail email@example.com for details. “I’m trying to be an educator and advocate on all aspects of the plant,” he says. “From the horticulture to the medical benefits to differences between strains. And social responsibility is the key to all of it—especially in Chicago.” v