Introducing Chefs to the Cannabis Business

By Caroline Hatchett


Caroline Hatchett
Philip Wolf, Mindy Segal, Miguel Trinidad, and Elise McDonough on the cannabis industry
Philip Wolf, Mindy Segal, Miguel Trinidad, and Elise McDonough on the cannabis industry

The potential for chefs and restaurant professionals to tap into the cannabis industry is staggering. It’s a $1 billion industry in the state of Colorado alone, and last night, California, Massachusetts and Nevada joined Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. in legalizing recreational marijuana use—reaching a full 20 percent of the U.S. population. 

Late last month, and for the first time at a StarChefs Congress—or any mainstream food conference for that matter—some of the leading names in the cannabis world came together to start a conversation and help chefs determine their next move in marijuana.

Joining moderator Elise McDonough from High Times were StarChefs Rising Star Pastry Chef (turned edibles maker) Mindy Segal of Chicago’s Hot Chocolate, Pot Sommelier Philip Wolf, and Chef Miguel Trinidad of New York City’s Maharlika and Jeepney restaurants (along with underground dinners through 99th Floor). With decades of experience and good (and bad) highs under their belts, the panelists focused on three touchstones of the business: flavor, regulations, and dosing. 

Flavor in marijuana is derived from the terpenes produced in each strain. For the uninitiated, terpenes are the volatile compounds found in plants that help attract pollinators and repel predators. They’re also responsible for the aroma and, hence, flavor of an apple, a tomato, a sprig of dill, or a particular breed of bud. Of the approximately 215 terpenes found in cannabis, there are 12 to 15 primary compounds, according to Wolf, who runs Cultivating Spirits, a pioneer in the cannabis pairing and event world. “We teach people to inventory terpenes through smell,” he says. “We break them down from a connoisseur level and have a dish that layers the flavor of the terpenes. We enhance what’s going into your mouth—first through smoking, then eating, and drinking.”

Cinnamon, lilac, mint, dirt, moss, lemon, rosemary—these are all flavors Wolf and Trinidad detect in weed strains. Trinidad treats cannabis like any other spice in his mise-en-place, using the flavor and aroma to enhance a dish. “The Girl Scout Cookies strain works well with grilled meats and fall vegetables, for example,” he says. “There are so many combinations that work.” 

Segal, whose edibles are produced in partnership with Cresco Labs, takes a different track. “I work with a flavorless, odorless product. We remove all the terpenes through double distillation,” she says, letting her edibles’ core ingredients—butter, chocolate, and nuts—shine.

The only problem is, in Illinois, Segal isn’t even allowed to taste her own products without a prescription. “There are cameras everywhere in the lab, and I have to go behind them to try batches. I’m not putting out a product that I don’t taste,” says Segal (or maybe she didn’t say this—totally possible we’re misquoting her.)

If you think the byzantine nature of liquor and building permits are frustrating, welcome to the world of working with weed. 

McDonough says it’s nearly impossible to scale an edibles business right now because of state-by-state variances in packaging regulations, that often change year to year. The wording, nutritional values, packaging size, and pictures all have to be approved by state agencies. In Colorado, lawmakers recently required THC symbols be imprinted on all edibles, even though packaging is childproof (and sometimes high adult proof). 

“We find that regulations are never defined until there’s a court case,” says Wolf. “I’ve been in the business since 2009, which allows me to make the most educated decisions possible, but we need to encourage municipalities to make regulations.”

Users and producers also need a basic education in dosing. First-time users don’t often realize that edibles take two hours to metabolize, leading to gnarly highs and bad experiences. “There’s a lack of social examples to follow,” says McDonough. “Growing up, you absorbed the social cues of drinking, for example, but not consuming edibles or smoking.” 

While Segal has the advantage of highly calibrated testing equipment at Cresco, Trinidad started his own dinners because he saw how irresponsible other chefs were with dosing. His meals with 99th Floor top out at a responsible 10 to 15 milligrams of THC. 

“When people are stepping into a dinner, it’s our job to educate them. It all takes time to kick in. We recommend that you try a small dose, and work up from there. Try a hit. See how you feel,” says Wolf. 

Easing in might also be good advice for restaurant professionals entering the murky legal grey zone of the cannabis industry. Without a clear, legal path forward, Segal and Trinidad maintain their traditional restaurants while pursuing weed-related business. That said, there could be serious rewards for early adopters who have passion, an aptitude for flavor, and an appetite for risk.


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