Will Pot-Friendly Restaurants Become a Thing?

It's been four years since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana — so where's the cannabis cuisine?
July 25, 2016
by Ruth Tobias

At the edge of a flower-lined pond in Longmont farm country, long banquet tables set with china and crystal stand beneath big old shade trees. Waiters bearing hors d’oeuvre trays circulate amid the well-dressed, all-ages crowd gathered on the lawn to mingle and sip Arnold Palmers from Mason jars. If you didn’t know, you’d guess you were at a wedding reception. Until, that is, the THC-infused tea in your drink starts to kick in. Turns out this elegant affair is a multicourse cannabis dinner catered by no less than acclaimed chef Hosea Rosenberg (Blackbelly Market) — the sort of thing food media has been clamoring for ever since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use in 2012 (us included, as this video attests). Bye-bye pot brownies; hello haute cuisine for so-called cannasseurs.

Though “we’re still building a reputation for these experiences,” says Mason Jar Event Group founder Kendal Norris, “people are excited about the level of sophistication” they can achieve. “I use my parents as an example: they would never go to something like this unless it was in a setting where they felt comfortable.” Rosenberg agrees, seeing his involvement as a chance “to be a part of something amazing, brand-new, experiential and fun.” For now, he eschews cooking with cannabis in favor of wine-style pairings: “We talk to the growers about what they see as the qualities of a particular strain and create dishes that pair best with its flavors, aromas and overall sensations.” Take the first course at the Longmont dinner, in which a sprightly salad of beets, fennel, goat cheese and pistachios matched the citrusy aromas and energizing effects of OG Kush. But Norris incorporated edibles into the meal as well, such as the BlueKudu Black Forest chocolate bar that accompanied dessert, and Rosenberg predicts that the future for boutique infused foods, “not just sweet but savory" too, is “limitless.” .

Edibles on the rise
Josh Pollack of Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen (no relation) can vouch for that: in 2015, he caused a national stir when he made a cannabis-laced lox for a 4/20 event. After that “eye-opening experience,” infused matzoh balls followed, and now he’s toying with the idea of infused corned beef, timing its debut to give the Jewish high holidays a whole new meaning. Jokes aside, it’s no gimmick for Pollack, who began “experimenting with typical brownies” back in college — but “as I got into the restaurant business, the science of cooking with it became interesting to me, the ability to dial in the effects of different strains. Sativa tends to be more uplifting, energetic, while indica makes you want to lie on a couch — that’s how you decide how you’re going to use it in a meal.”

Striking a balance between deliciousness and psychoactive pleasure is challenging enough, but there’s a third component: wellness. That’s where Scott Durrah (pictured below) and Wanda James come in. The owners of Jezebel’s Southern Bistro in LoHi and neighboring dispensary Simply Pure have long been at the forefront of the cannabis-cuisine movement in Colorado and beyond. As far back as 2009, they were packaging the likes of infused peanut butter, marinara, chutney and (of course) green chile; meanwhile, Durrah became known as a personal chef to clients struggling with everything from sports injuries to cancer and AIDS. And just last week, the couple announced the launch of a regular cooking-demo series, starting on August 6 with “Flavors of the Caribbean,” where he’ll focus on dosage: “If one person has insomnia and another has anxiety, I try to teach them to make the same curried shrimp in a way that works for them.”

Dosage is critical because, as Pollack observes (and Maureen Dowd proved), even healthy people “can have a really bad experience if they consume too much." And that’s only one of the legal and practical barriers facing chefs who dream of a future filled with cannabis eateries.

Pot-friendly restaurants and bars on the horizon?
The biggest obstacle, of course, is that open marijuana use in public settings remains unlawful. That’s why Mason Jar’s events are invitation-only. It’s why Norris considers securing a venue her most daunting task: liability-minded proprietors, she says, “just don’t want to put themselves out there.” And it’s why Rosenberg “wouldn't get too deep into the cannabis-friendly restaurant idea until I knew exactly what was legal, both in the state and in the nation,” with respect to on-premise food, alcohol and cannabis consumption. “I have always wanted to be taken seriously as a chef, first and foremost,” he insists. “I don't want to tarnish that reputation. And I'm not willing to put my liquor license at risk.”

But two Denver ballot initiatives under consideration for November may serve as first steps toward true legalization. The first would allow consumption of pot (but not food or liquor) at members-only private social clubs; the second, says attorney Rachel Gillette, “would allow neighborhood authorities to decide” whether local businesses, including bars, could maintain separate consumption areas. They’re a long way from creating those utopias where customers could kick back with a Vesper in one hand and a vape pen in the other, but they’re a start — and Gillette believes “both have a good shot of being passed by the voters.”

In the meantime, Norris continues to envision a future in which she can put on large-scale cultural events that include “music, art and full sensory experiences,” while Durrah says he and James are just getting started as entrepreneurs: “Imagine a Whole Foods Market that gets involved in cannabis, or a luxury resort. Food is the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow of green. The infrastructure is there; the government just needs to support it.”

(Top and middle photos by Dog Daze Photo; bottom photo courtesy of Simply Pure)

maureen dowd
hosea rosenberg
josh pollack