This is a question that can be answered in a myriad of ways depending on whom you ask. As a chef, enthusiast and someone who cares about what I put into my body, I cannot provide one all-encompassing answer, even after three years looking at the space.
One thing I can say is that there are a lot of similarities in the cannabis and culinary spaces when it comes to the people and the cultures. Food brings people together, as does cannabis, and good chefs are naturally drawn to great farmers so it should be a huge win for all.
People that cook for a living, I feel, have this inner drive to serve people and their community and bring joy to people’s lives through things created by their own hands. The very same can be said about cannabis farmers and extraction artists: The desire to bring joy to people’s lives is there, and it’s undeniable.
What’s happened in our country over the last ten years is incredible when it comes to food, both in good and bad. The average American now knows way more about food than any previous generation, and we can thank the Food Network, Martha Stewart, Emeril and many others for that. Everyone seems to know about Yelp (not a fan), OpenTable, RESY, Postmates, Caviar and all the other culinary-enabled apps to help us satisfy our many cravings. The dining experience has reached new heights in our major cities like never before. It’s just as difficult to get an 8 p.m. reservation at Alinea in Chicago or Eleven Madison Park in New York as it is to get Hamilton tickets. As a chef, this new reality is incredible, but it comes with tremendous expectations that, while tough to satisfy, inspired chefs and restaurateurs to reach levels never before thought imaginable.
With a few exceptions, the same elevation has not occurred within the edibles movement, and it’s been one of my obsessions over the past three years to find out why.
Mercantile Provisions is a thriving restaurant in Denver that proves it’s possible to do things the right way and at scale, and its success highlights the consumer demand for such culinary experiences. However, I marvel that consumers in a city that supports Mercantile Provisions so often accept low-grade edible products. The great people of Denver understand and appreciate good food, so why don’t they expect and therefore demand the same quality in their edibles?
I could say the same thing about eating at Gjusta, any of Roy Choi’s spots, Tosca Cafe, French Laundry, Chez Panisse or any of the other amazing restaurants throughout California. I could name-drop amazing places in Seattle, or Portland, or Vegas, but I think you get my point: Good food exists, customers know where to find it, and they aren’t afraid to demand it. With notable exceptions, this same consumer demand for quality cannabis edibles has not taken root in the legal cannabis markets.
Every time I walk out of a dispensary, it reminds me of a humbling and eye opening experience I had early on in my food career. I had just started as a sous chef in what would become an incredible and ground breaking brand and concept in NYC. I was carefully cleaning and picking parsley as I had many times before, and the owner approached me and asked me what I was doing. I calmly stated I was prepping parsley for the sauce and was kind of perplexed why there was a problem. He told me, “Here, we don’t do it that way. We cut right through the stem, and use the wilted and discolored parts.”
Now as someone who had just worked in a critically acclaimed restaurant, I was stunned by this direction, and politely askwhy as that was the way I had been taught. (Note: In fancy restaurants, you don’t throw that stuff out, it just goes to what is known as “family,” and you use it to feed staff.) The owner calmly told me, “The average customer can’t tell the difference, doesn’t care if it’s done the right way and is willing to pay for it regardless of whether it’s done the right way or not.” Admittedly I was stunned when I heard this. However, after years in one of the most competitive markets in the world, I discovered, as much as I hated to admit it, he was right.
So knowing that, I was able to come to understand why, in an emerging multi-billion-dollar industry, consumers expect and/or accept so many low-quality products at premium prices.
I live in New York City where it’s not crazy to pay $18 for a cocktail. I am not talking about places that exist to just rip people off, either, as New Yorkers know those places are what tourists are for. When we pay $18 for a cocktail at a place like the Nomad Bar, we expect and receive premium products and service at all levels. The liquor is all top shelf or selected by a true professional who knows it’s the right product for that drink. The citrus is all fresh and squeezed that day, the glass is the perfect vessel and temperature for that drink, and even the ice is special—maybe even shaved in front of you.
The point: $18 is a lot for a drink, and it certainly should not be lackluster at best. Thought and care should go into each and every step. The drink should be much more than just something with alcohol in it.
After looking at the edibles space the last three years, I found that, for many companies, the culture is not about creating the best-tasting products or the most unique presentations. The food, the cannabis or both often fail to reach an acceptable standard. With notable exceptions, many companies are about the bare minimum, at the Budweiser level. Now that’s not me shitting on Budweiser, that’s me saying there is no person in the world who thinks a six pack of Bud is worth $20 bucks, which is the average price for an infused candy bar in a dispensary.
I could sit here and call out all the companies I think do it the wrong way, but that’s not productive or informative, and as a chef I don’t want to knock people trying to make a legitimate effort. Rather, I want to celebrate the first-rate companies who are doing it right. (See image above for examples of wrong vs. right.) I am going to venture out and find the best edibles and discover people who truly care about the products they create and the people they serve. My goal is to bring to you the very best of what’s out there and try and elevate the conversation beyond the basic and into the next generation.
One thing I want to make very clear is that I realize we live in America and operate in a capitalist society. Every person and company is entitled to put out products and provide services and charge prices that they choose to be fit. Every company is entitled to do that and does not have to live up to my standards or some false culinary standards as those standards do not exist. All I am trying to bring to the surface is the start of a conversation about the people and products that go above and beyond and should be celebrated for their culinary and cannabis endeavors.
Culinary and cannabis don’t need to be mutually exclusive anymore. Our dining dollars should be just as valuable in dispensaries as they are in a traditional dining room.
This article original appeared in PR0HBTD on July 5, 2017.