Whenever I talk to a chef for the first time (for whatever reason), I invariably work my way around to one particular question. I try not to take them off guard, but it’s something to the effect of: “Are you now cooking with, or have you ever cooked with, cannabis?”
“The first time you asked us about it we were like, ‘Are you the cops?’ says Randi Howry.
“We looked at each other and we were like, ‘Do we lie? What do we do?'” says Kelly Ijichi, her partner at Mom’s, Politan Row’s preeminent purveyor of katsu sandos, fried Spam musubi, and house-made niku udon.
Ijichi and Howry do, in fact, cook with weed. For now, like many who do, it’s “just for fun,” but they wouldn’t mind getting into the business. People have been cooking with some form of cannabis for thousands of years, but until the advent of legalization it was largely stigmatized by the collective memory of every shitty pot brownie that ruined a good time. And yet, increasingly, chefs across the country are doing new and innovative things with culinary cannabis, and they’re marketing it just as they would any hot new trend. (Full disclosure: I contribute to a magazine devoted to the subject.)
There are no cannabis restaurants (yet), but chef-driven, cannabis-infused cuisine is everywhere in both states where it’s legal and prohibited, usually taking the form of pop-ups, parties, or branded product lines. New edibles and culinary cannabis events are popping up right here in Chicago, all the time.
Some of this is driven by the generally sorry (and unhealthy) nature of the legally available edibles sold in dispensaries. A lot of it comes out of the same creative spirit that motivates most chefs excited by a novel ingredient.
“We know there’s a higher call for a higher level of edible,” Howry told me about a month after I popped the question, when she and Ijichi presented me with a special edition of their ube-flavored Big Cream Puff, this one infused with Purple Kush.
It’s the exact same recipe they use for the Beard Papa-inspired paté a choux pastries that they serve at the food hall, just that the crumbly topping and the Barney-colored creamy yam-flavored filling is infused with an old-school strain best known for its bright, fruity flavor and euphoric, sedating, and analgesic effects. Nevertheless, Howry was thinking like any good chef when she infused the flower into the butter, dosing it heavily but using only a little bit of it in the pastry cream, balanced by unmedicated butter to temper its assertive flavor. That night at snack time, I could barely detect any greenery, but afterward I slept like the dead.
Ever since the state’s recreational cannabis law passed this summer Howry and Ijichi have been thinking about how they could apply their skills out in the open without worrying about getting hassled by the man. Ijichi is especially fascinated by the possibilities of savory applications, particularly ramen. “A lot of our chef friends have talked about this,” she says, “how cool it would be.”
“Everyone is talking about it,” says Howry. “But we wanted to take a step to try and get our foot in it.” They think culinary cannabis pop-ups would be good place to start, much the same way they got Mom’s off the ground.
But the language of the bill seems to discourage these dreams. For one thing, you’re not allowed to resell cannabis. So suppose a chef makes a squab and foie gras terrine with a mustard-apple garnish sweetened with Apple Jack-infused cannasugar and charges money for it. Is she reselling cannabis or just drawing from a well-stocked larder?
Well, not so fast, chef. It seems the sausage makers have already ground up your dreams. There’s nothing in the law that specifically addresses chefs, restaurants, pop-ups, or hollandaise seasoned with cold-water hash, but when I asked the legislative aide for bill cosponsor Heather Steans if such things would be commercially viable in a recreationally legal Illinois, here’s what the state senator had to say on the matter:
“The only entities allowed to sell cannabis or cannabis-infused products are dispensaries. There are provisions under the Dispensary Article that state that all of their cannabis and cannabis-infused products must be sold from the physical retail location. The bill also restricts dispensaries from infusing cannabis with their own products* and it restricts infusers from selling products directly to the public, so there is no possible way to have a singular space where a chef could prepare cannabis-infused products and then sell it.
“Also, we specifically prohibited sales promotions or events where a cannabis business or person promotes the sale of cannabis or cannabis-infused products by giving away cannabis products, or conduct games or competitions related to the consumption of cannabis or cannabis infused products. This was in direct response to issues in other states where cannabis businesses were hosting events to draw people in to purchase their product. It does not mention pop-up events specifically but it appears that these types of events sound similar.”
The zoning ordinance the mayor’s office introduced at yesterday’s City Council meeting refers to a plan to license cannabis businesses for on-site consumption without outlining what that means. In California, this was originally meant as a social equity proposition—providing a place to go to light up if you had nowhere else to do it—but in the case of the country’s first so-called cannabis restaurant, Lowell Farms, a slick farm-to-table concept with a weed sommelier that’s opening next week in West Hollywood, it’s a huge compromise from what was originally envisioned. Chef Andrea Drummer, a pioneer in the modern culinary cannabis movement, can only suggest weed pairings—to be sold separately—to enjoy along with her uninfused food.
So after January 1 it looks like chef-driven culinary cannabis, a la minuit or otherwise, will have to remain underground in Illinois, and anything like Mom’s Purple Kush Big Cream Puff will be out of reach except for the state’s most adept home cooks.
*Presumably she meant infusing their own products with cannabis. Requests for clarification were not returned.