Now We’re Cooking with Grass

Top-name Boston chefs are experimenting with marijuana as a key ingredient. As Massachusetts grapples with legalization, Jolyon Helterman embarks on a chase through a secretive, drug-fueled dining subculture. Is this the next great foodie frontier—or is it merely a pipe dream?

cooking with marijuana

Photograph by Toan Trinh

The first time the pot dealer invited me to one of his fabled drug-laced dinner parties, I totally blew it. For months I’d been chasing rumors of an underground network of pop-up dinners featuring dishes infused with tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. From what I could gather, this new weed cuisine had nothing to do with the pot brownies of yore—pasty, weirdly vegetal confections dispensed from crumpled foil pans, that could leave even staunch stoners reeling. Instead, I’d heard, local chefs were experimenting with sophisticated recipes—and how to dole them out over the span of the meal so that diners left pleasantly high, not baked.

My most promising contact was a person I’ll call Jackie, the impresario and raw-material supplier behind a series of weed-infused dinner parties. When we first met, Jackie and I hit it off instantly: Outwardly, at least, he seemed thrilled by the notion of seeing the feasts he was orchestrating appear in a glossy mag such as this one. But a couple of weeks before his next scheduled dinner, things headed south. I was probably too pushy: I was determined not to miss a single behind-the-scenes moment—which meant bombarding Jackie with impatient requests for access to his crew. The needier I became, the longer it would take for Jackie to get back to me. It began to feel like I was chasing, well, a drug dealer.

Our strained relationship reached its breaking point when I broached the sticky question of anonymity. Yes, we could keep Jackie’s identity off the record. But couldn’t I ask the chefs if I could use their names? Wrong question. Jackie cut off all contact. The rumored dinner came and went without me.

Still, there were tantalizing glimpses. On Instagram, I’d gotten a peek at one of these pop-up potlucks. My jaw hit the floor: The rumor mill had seriously undersold the haute-ness of this cuisine. With gourmet ingredients like quail eggs, bone marrow, and enoki mushrooms, these artfully composed dishes were on par, at least visually, with those in the city’s finest restaurants, a Menton or a L’Espalier. Who the hell was cooking this stuff?

One thing was for sure: This wasn’t the work of rank amateurs playing around with stoner grub in the throes of midnight-munchies inspiration. It had all the trappings of seriously sophisticated cuisine meant for discerning palates. If only I knew where to find it.

 

In 1920, following the ratification of the 18th Amendment, alcohol became illegal in the United States. For the next 13 years, the nation’s blossoming cocktail artists found themselves shunted underground into a murky subculture of speakeasies. The period gets romanticized today. But those years of mandated temperance were an exceedingly grim age of unscrupulous bootleggers, Depression-gutted paychecks, and epithelium- stripping bathtub gin.

And yet: When I found myself closed out of the clandestine weed-dinner-club circle, I was struck by the parallels to that earlier epoch of Prohibition. Not so much the swill or the organized-crime-stoked violence but the forced secrecy of it all: the specter of culinary artists pursuing their passions in shadowy exile from polite society, flourishing creatively, all the while skittishly peeking over their shoulders.

Months later, I finally heard from Jackie again: I was on vacation in the tropics, passing through a rare patch of broadband, when a flurry of pent-up emails burst into my inbox. Among them, an unsolicited message from Jackie’s “anonymous” account bearing an invitation to one of his elusive dinners on the very day I returned to Boston.

On my flight back to Logan, when I finally had a chance to examine the menu for Jackie’s dinner, my heart sank. There were a couple of sophisticated hors d’oeuvres—a bacon-wrapped scallop drizzled with THC-infused basil oil, for instance—but the main event was a taco bar, for gosh sakes. For months, I’d been imagining this secret world as Clio for the cannabis set, not a pot-laced El Pelón.

On the bright side, the guy in the kitchen was a local chef I already knew and admired—I’ll call him Marcus. He was the talent, I’d learned, behind the intricate platings I’d seen on Instagram. Perhaps he’d be serving some ironic “deconstruction” of a taco, the stylized fixins artfully tweezered out across an austere plate like an edible Kandinsky.

Spoiler alert: They were just tacos.

The evening’s venue was a private brownstone home, east of the city. A buffet table held condiments—pico de gallo, roasted-garlic crema—alongside bowls of marinated olives and tamari-spiced nuts. Next to an ice bucket sat two pitchers of THC-infused beverages.

With no communal table, the 15 or so guests separated into cliques, some settling on the sofa to watch patterns across a muted TV screen. A water bong made an appearance. As they gurgled, I watched my big scoop go up in smoke, too. “Breaking: Local Stoners Spend Sunday on Couch with Bong and Tacos.” But then, in the kitchen, I spotted Marcus and introduced myself. This was no stoner pirate: He was a clearly a food geek who loved the science as much as the artistry of cooking. He said he’d spent a lot of time experimenting with titration, and— absolutely!—would be happy to chat about it some time. Jotting down his number, I grabbed a to-go bag and made my exit quickly, just in case paranoid Jackie cried foul.

 

Soon, I heard Marcus and Jackie had parted ways—and, switching gears, I threw in with Marcus, who had begun to contemplate more-ambitious weed dinners. To my mind, Marcus was the modern version of the 1920s mixologist—the artiste of the underground scene. And I, as the culinary-art historian, seemed perfectly justified in my pursuit of him instead of Jackie, the mere bootlegger. Right?

But in January, Massachusetts granted its first round of medical-marijuana dispensary licenses, and Marcus was suddenly eager to get in on the ground floor. The weed dinners went on the back burner, and instead he began working on recipes for gourmet “medibles”—weed-infused candies he hoped to sell at the dispensaries, if and when they eventually opened. He blew me off half a dozen times over the winter.

By spring, I was preparing to abandon the story—when Jackie popped up again. He was wondering why I’d been so hard to connect with; he had a big dinner planned—this one at a restaurant—in late April, two weeks away. Was I interested?

Here are the terms we agreed to: no names, no identifying details about the restaurant, no quizzing fellow guests. In exchange, I could have the run of the place. There were cloak-and-dagger precautions: I was instructed to get to a certain neighborhood, then text him for a location. But finally, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, in a restaurant I’d patronized many times before—under very different circumstances—I finally gained entrée to the gourmet underground.
From the first, it was clear that this dinner party was a far different beast from January’s taco night. Bartenders prepped garnishes and checked glassware for spots. Servers polished silverware and straightened place settings, which featured cloth napkins and the night’s menu printed on heavy card stock.

In the back, half a dozen cooks were getting their mises en place in between sips of beer, tokes, and general roisterous carrying on. You know: like a restaurant kitchen. But also similarly, any time the head chef, whom I’ll call Tristan, uttered anything to do with food prep, an unbreachable, militarylike hierarchy resumed. No joking, no discussion.

When one cook asked how much THC-infused syrup should be used in the drinks, Tristan specified, “Eight drops in the bottom of each glass.” Sure enough, I passed the guy a few minutes later administering the syrup with an eyedropper, counting under his breath.

During a break, Tristan gave me a primer on his techniques. You can’t simply fine-mince a bag of weed and sprinkle it like parsley. Accessing THC requires heat and/or alcohol. The most common method—heating the marijuana with a fat, like butter, until the THC leaches out—is the magic behind the pot brownie. “But what if someone can’t process dairy?” Tristan asked. “You try to figure out: how else? There’s coconut oil and soy milk and….” Good point: If legalization marches forward, there’s no question gluten-free, paleo-vegan, low-foam cannabis options will be de rigueur.

The alternative to fat infusion is the tincture, wherein the plant matter is steeped in grain alcohol or glycerol. Tristan uses both, but deploys them strategically across a sequence of courses. Alcohol and glycerol tinctures hit the bloodstream almost immediately, whereas fat infusions require digestion. Tristan likes to start with tincture-method items—tonight, THC Arnold Palmers, then a series of small bites including an infused jalapeño jelly on a biscuit topped with ham and cheddar—before launching into fat infusions. That way, diners get a little buzzed from the get-go and are less likely to overdo it as they wait for the delayed-release time bomb to hit.

Tristan also likes to keep the infused component as a removable condiment or garnish—for instance, the three house-medicated barbecue sauces served at every table, for diners to doctor up the (otherwise uninfused) smoked ribs as they please. Though certainly more complex, it dawned on me how similar this strategy was to offering a tasting menu with optional wine pairings.

As 6 p.m. neared, a very mixed crowd milled in. The stoner and restaurant- industry crowd I’d expected, sure, but just as many strait-laced couples who would look more at home in an L. L. Bean catalog than an illicit drug dinner. That’s when it hit me: how wrong I’d gotten it on Jackie’s infuriating caginess. He wasn’t the ruthless bootlegger, protecting his turf. He was protecting all these people. The young cutups in the kitchen, the veteran chef, the paying customers from all walks of life—every last one of them had entrusted Jackie to shield them from a list of consequences ranging from professional embarrassment to prison time. Out of 80-odd people in attendance tonight, there was only one potential enemy: me.

The lights went down, the music went up, and the festivities commenced. The Arnold Palmers worked their magic quickly, as Tristan had predicted. The THC loosened lips, transforming awkward tables into friendly gab fests. A series of small plates followed: deviled eggs with infused aioli and jerk spices, then biscuits and fried green tomatoes.

I held myself back cautiously until the fourth dish arrived: a Lowcountry boil—a traditional southern stew of Gulf shrimp, corn on the cob, andouille sausage, and new potatoes, served in a rich beer-based broth redolent of Old Bay seasonings, onions, and peppers, simmered all day before being finished with a whole mess of cannabis-infused butter. This South Carolina boy couldn’t help himself—it was so freaking good! It was also the time-release-type fat infusion Tristan had warned about. Sure enough, some time during the middle of the main course, the THC hit my system—a different high, starting from the core, rising outward, enveloping the body like a…like a—

Hoooooooly. Shit.

My table companions were there already. We got into some out-there discussion on whether you could infuse bone marrow by feeding a cow pot while it was still alive. “Well, you need heat, so…what about a solar-powered trough?” Et cetera. I can’t remember if we finally solved it, and my notes from the evening offer little clue. “If infuse marrow cow = Life of Brian, have to pause,” I dutifully noted.

Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to call an Uber, thank Jackie, and head home before things got too weird. But before I rolled out, I looked back in from the sidewalk, through the completely unshaded windows, and marveled at the scene, an utterly civilized dinner behind an unlocked door, protected only by a sign like those you’ve seen a million times: “Closed tonight for a private party—please come back tomorrow!”

I have no idea if Massachusetts will ever legalize marijuana to a degree that leaves restaurateurs free to dispense responsible amounts of it, as they do other drugs in their apothecary—the shot glasses of Talisker, the vials of grand-cru bordeaux. But if they ever do, I think this is what it looks like.

  • http://digicraft.com/ daveevans

    Enjoyed these parties in Brooklyn 20 years ago. An people enjoyed them 20 years before that. What’s old is new again.

    • http://www.mikecann.net/ Mike Cann

      Yep, been going to these sorts of events for years in Boston area…They lose money on me when it’s a buffet.. ;)

  • Haiku Jew

    A hamburger high
    The McDonald’s Mary Jane meal
    only for adults.

  • Millicent Broderick

    Medical marijuana is supposed to be for very ill people