In 2012 Rocio Vargas had a vigorous marijuana plant growing in her closet, and three more in her West Lawn backyard. Thanks to the advice of an arborist friend, she and her boyfriend were growing more weed than they could smoke.
At the time she was a recent culinary school graduate working as a line cook at Park Hyatt in Oak Brook, where she’d cooked for the likes of Will Smith, Betty White, and the Blackhawks. So she decided to put her skills to work on the surplus.
“There was a lot of trial and error and a lot of wasted weed,” she says. She experimented with the classic pot brownie at first, overcooking the cannabis in one batch, burning another when she’d fallen asleep and left it in the oven. But over the years, through online research and consultations with chefs in California, where cannabis cuisine was in a renaissance, she began to get the hang of it, infusing foods with more predictably dosed batches of cannabutter, canna-oil, and concentrates like hash oil and Rick Simpson Oil. She even found a way to infuse duck fat and foie gras paté.
Four years later she’d worked her way up to sous chef at the late Charlatan in West Town when her father, who was suffering from congestive heart failure and lung cancer, took a turn for the worse, dropping a couple hundred pounds in the span of a year. Vargas hinted to him that cannabis could provide some relief from the ravages of chemotherapy, but he usually demurred. By the time he started coming around to the idea it was too late.
Against doctor’s orders he flew to Mexico to his late mother’s farm in San Luis Potosí. Vargas followed. “When he passed away I took a step back from my career,” she says. “I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want to deal with anybody.” She spent a month on the farm reflecting on her life and work, and it seemed like a sign when she discovered her grandmother’s marijuana plants still growing on the property. Her grandmother wasn’t a smoker. Like many in the area who practiced traditional medicine, she infused the flowers into alcohol to make a topical painkiller. “That’s when I decided to merge both worlds,” says Vargas.
Back in Chicago the restaurant grind was offering its own encouragement. When the Charlatan closed she took a line cook job at the Duck Inn. She was already at her wit’s end one particularly shitty night when a chef got in her face and blew his top. (It wasn’t owner Kevin Hickey, she says. “I love that guy.”)
“I looked down at my cutting board and told myself ‘fuck this.'” She walked out in the middle of service and hasn’t worked in a restaurant kitchen since. That’s when she started Canna Chicago, a cannabis catering company, specializing in pop-ups and private consultations with medical marijuana patients. She threw her first dinner last February in a rented apartment overlooking Milwaukee, Damen, and North in Wicker Park, serving some 25 guests coconut chicken injected with cannabutter, and charcuterie with carrots and cauliflower pickled with vinegar flavored with cinnamon, chile de arbol, and cannabis-
infused sugar. She’s done 17 events since then, most recently a “Friendsgiving,” for which she prepared turkey, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, and roasted acorn squash with chimichurri, all spiked with cannabidiol, aka CBD, the non-psychoactive cannabinoid known for its antianxiety and anti-inflammatory properties (among many others).
After an invitation to do a dinner in LA last April, Vargas started thinking beyond Chicago and changed the name of her company to Planda—Gaelic for “plant.” One of her first events after the change was a collaboration with Passion House coffee roaster Colin Frew called Beans + Greens, a tasting of three infused coffee varietals, paired with Vargas’ uninfused dishes created to complement the profiles of the coffee, as well as the strains they’re paired with. Course one was an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe spiked with terpenes, or essential oils, extracted from the sweet, tarty Super Lemon Haze strain, and served with a radicchio-burrata-
almond salad dressed with a citrus vinaigrette. Next came a Costa Rican pour over with a joint, and a mushroom-nutmeg ricotta flatbread.
Vargas’s dedication to helping people didn’t extend only to her father, and she’s become sought after for speaking engagements. Last month she spoke to a group of cancer patients at Gilda’s Club, where she explained how to decarboxylate. That’s the process of heating marijuana to activate cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD. You won’t get much from your infused olive oil unless you do that first. She went on to explain microdosing, eating small amounts of infused foods to gauge your tolerance and how much you need to relieve your symptoms. And she explained how to wash raw cannabis to diminish its muddy flavor. Her presentation ended with her sautéing mushrooms and quinoa in olive oil (unmedicated this time, to keep within legal boundaries).
Vargas currently has four private clients she’s teaching how to use their medicine. Her current challenge is creating cannabis suppositories for a woman suffering from MS, arthritis, and breast cancer.
As Illinois moves inexorably toward passing recreational marijuana legislation, chefs like Vargas and Manny Mendoza are increasingly operating above ground. On December 1 Vargas is hosting a five-course dinner (orzo and spinach salad with Blue Cheese terpenes, grilled octopus paired with a Cherry Punch joint, CBD kombucha, s’mores cheesecake with Rick Simpson Oil caramel sauce), followed the next day by a three-course coffee pairing, both at a location to be announced. She sells tickets through her website, https://www.planda.co/.
Eventually Vargas wants to open a permanent space “for people that were arrested because of this plant or have had doors closed to them due to a criminal background. Ultimately teaching speaks to me. If I can ever teach classes in infusion or cooking I want to build a whole army of chefs that know how to work with cannabis.” v