Chefs and 420: A Taste of Weed Culture from America’s Cooks

Chefs are sensitive to flavor and aroma and the complicated psychology of pleasure. When a chef is also into weed, those same elements are definitely in play. For 4/20—cannabis Christmas and Hanukkah and, hell, Arbor Day and the Fourth of July, all rolled into one (heh)—Justin Bolois spoke with three chefs on two coasts about their nuanced approaches to weed. We’re not advocating here, merely reporting; if weed is illegal where you live, even as medicine, you should heed that. Still, we’re not passing judgment. A lot of restaurant cooks choose to consume weed: It’s part of modern chef culture, like sleeve tattoos and Japanese knives. So everybody just chill. —John Birdsall, Editor

YOU KNOW we’ve already turned some corner as a society when “haute” shows up as a word to describe stoner cuisine in the nation's paper of record. Mixing different types of cereal in one bowl won’t cut it anymore. It’s gone beyond late-night tacos from the lonchera. (Though both are still plenty fine.) Braised beef, pork belly, and bacon have made their way into the conversation, and with the growth of dispensaries (at one point they outnumbered Starbucks in Los Angeles), we’ve seen an influx of cannabis edibles that put first-time pot brownies to shame.

Many restaurant cooks I talked with for this story had lots to say about cannabis, but the list narrowed when it came to those who’d actually mastered cooking with it. Most agreed that marijuana is no longer taboo (in a few cases chefs told me they figured that upward of 70 percent of their restaurant coworkers smoked pot). At the same time, only three agreed to be part of this story, one was cool about letting me use his real name, and everybody declined to go public about where they work. Here’s how those guardedly vocal three roll when the floor mats are up and the shift’s over.

"JASON," A SOUS-CHEF IN OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA

FARM-TO-CHILL
I make weed tinctures, concentrated herb extracts, no different than making an echinacea tincture for when you’re sick. I use the secondary trim from the garden, and I bake it at 170 degrees [Fahrenheit] for 10 to 15 minutes to trigger the chemical process and activate the THC. It begins to develop a strong smell. After that, I put it in a blender and dump in a bottle of Everclear until it turns frothy and green. I let it sit for two months, then strain. It has an intense burn from the grain alcohol, but you can remove that by adding lemon verbena or anise hyssop. Some people use vegetable glycerin instead of Everclear—it’s an option for people who don’t like alcohol. Glycerin is a food-based product similar in consistency to corn syrup, sweet, but it doesn’t have the negative corn affiliation. You can blend the Everclear and vegetable glycerin tinctures. The sweetness and viscosity of the glycerin tincture helps cut the burn of the alcohol, so I make a blend of the two. If I have a rough Saturday night at work, rather than going home and throwing down a six-pack of beer I take a couple of drops of tinctures and I sleep like a baby.

MISE EN SMOKE
Joints. Blunts are Bay Area, but they’re too intense. And vapes are too expensive. I don’t know any chef who has $600 to blow on a vape. But joints are just nostalgic.

ON-POINT MUNCHIES IN THE BAY
There’s the In-N-Out Animal Style burger, of course. And Mission Chinese Food: Last time, we ordered the General Tso’s Veal Rib. It was like a rib chop that had a bone on it, and glazed like orange chicken. It was spicy and sweet and had a big steak knife sticking out of it.

BRANDON COATES, A RESTAURANT COOK IN WEST LOS ANGELES

KINDA LIKE ROSEMARY
As a cook, I prefer to be creative when I’m stoned, so anything braised or confit or poached in butter, lest we forget anything with bacon. I like bold, fatty flavors. I love fresh and herbaceous, anything funky and different. I find it somewhat disparaging to always see weed in the form of desserts. From a patient’s aspect, edibles should be healthy and delicious. Although oil and butter are not necessarily healthy, I prefer more savory options. I started making savory edibles shortly after culinary school: hummus, aioli, confit chicken or pork, salad dressing. Cooking with marijuana is about simple infusions, like any other culinary herb. It makes it even more fun given the different textures, flavors, and notes from different strains—I think that gives marijuana even more culinary value. I would treat weed like I would thyme or rosemary: infuse it in a stock or a beurre blanc, perhaps infuse some whiskey, too.

MISE EN SMOKE
Blunts, preferably in a social setting; joints for the road if I’m on my bike. And pipe bowls at home.

NAME THAT PIECE
I haven’t nicknamed a piece since college, so after breaking several, just “The Piece.” I try not to get attached.

ON-POINT MUNCHIES IN LA
Top Round’s Black & Blue (a roast beef sandwich with black pepper, blue cheese, and caramelized onions); the rattlesnake and rabbit sausage sandwich from Wurstküche; Artisan House’s spicy chicken; ramen with extra backfat from Daikokuya; al pastor truck tacos; and Dunbarton Blue, a Wisconsin blue-veined cheddar from The Cheese Store of Silverlake.

'FRANK," A SOUS-CHEF IN CHELSEA, NEW YORK CITY

COMFORT ME WITH GREEN
The first thing I ever made was a box of Betty Crocker cookie brownies. I used about a quarter ounce of total garbage in about a half pound of butter—they tasted like I dipped chocolate in my mum’s herb garden, then charred it. I realized later I burnt the butter, hence the flavor problems (obvious now, but I was still young). I still prefer making brownies and cookies because of those days. Not only do they taste great, but they also remind me of simpler times. Nostalgia is a big part of cooking for me in a lot of ways, and it’s no exception when it comes to cannabis-laced foods. I do make the occasional entrée with it: I find the flavor of good pot oil actually can contribute to some dishes, like a pesto or autumn vegetable glaze. Pot as an ingredient is a tricky flavor. You can either try to hide the heavy herbal woodiness or you can join it. When you’re trying to make a savory dish you should cave to the earthiness and work with it. I like it in dense, heavy meals: meatloaf and “green” mashed potatoes, for example, ribs and black-eyed peas tossed with a little oil right before you plate it.

MISE EN SMOKE
I’ll always be a joint guy for some reason—it’s a bit of a waste but I just enjoy the tactile feel of it. I smoke bowls and have a couple of showpieces, but when I’m just bumming around or relaxing on my roof it’s always a joint.

ON-POINT MUNCHIE IN NORTHERN MASS; WTF NEW YORK
Back home in Massachusetts I was always about this little roast beef spot called Bill & Bob’s Famous Roast Beef, a.k.a. Slobs, only place in my hometown that stayed open till 1 a.m. I always get a Super Beef with this vinegar barbecue sauce and pickles. The sesame bun is always toasted just right and the beef is cooked fresh every day. Down here in New York I try to keep it a bit healthier, but I’ve been known to slip into a local bodega and re-create that magical sandwich. They never get it right.

DEFINE “STONER FOOD”
It’s food that satisfies as many senses as possible in a familiar way, but is still surprising; food that can take you to a time and a place, that makes you smile immediately and get that warm feeling in your gut. How the sautéed onions smell right under your nose when biting into a rare burger from Bartley’s in Cambridge, a seared, blackened NY strip steak with Tiger Sauce so hot you tear up. It can have transporting properties when it’s done right.

Main photo, styling, and smoke shots by Chris Rochelle