The way things are going, it's only a matter of time before a single chef will be able to boast of winning both a James Beard award and a HIGH TIMES Cannabis Cup for best marijuana-infused edible. And, for the moment at least, Mindy Segal would appear to have the inside track. In 2012, after four previous nominations, Segal finally took home the James Beard Foundation's highest honor for a pastry chef. Now she plans to bring her 30 years of culinary experience into the world of medical marijuana.
Best known as chef-owner at Chicago's acclaimed Hot Chocolate Restaurant, and author of a bestselling cookbook called Cookie Love, Segal tells the Weed Eater that in the near future there's going to be "a real synergy" between the worlds of high-end cuisine and connoisseur-quality cannabis edibles, and she's thrilled to be in the vanguard of that movement. She also sees adding medical marijuana to some of her favorite confections as a way to make an incredibly safe and efficacious medicine accessible and appealing to people who've never been a part of underground cannabis culture before, but want to try out the herb's therapeutic properties. (Or really anyone who likes bud and has tastebuds.)
To meet a product launch set for this February, Segal has partnered with Cresco Labs—one of Illinois' largest medical marijuana cultivators, and specialists in making the kind of cannabis oil extractions that most commercial manufacturers use to add THC and other cannabinoids to their edibles. Instead of infusing raw plant material directly into butter or oil (as most home cooks do), these so-called extraction artists first use a solvent to separate out the plant's "active" ingredients before adding them to food.
At this point, Illinois' medical marijuana dispensaries have been operating for little more than a month, and state regulators have approved only 3,600 patients for the highly restrictive program. Segal says the plan is to develop the product line and brand in her home state, and then expand nationwide as the law allows.
She made time to talk with the Weed Eater while prepping a holiday buffet for a catering gig.
MUNCHIES: You've already got the kind of culinary career that almost any chef would envy. So what attracted you to making marijuana edibles? Mindy Segal: I'm not the first chef to move into this space, and I won't be the last, because food and cannabis go hand-in-hand. I got into the food business because I want to make people happy, basically, and cannabis is really no different. So mixing the two should be a win-win situation, don't you think?
Also, I can personally attest to the medicinal qualities of marijuana, having suffered with chronic back pain and severe migraines for years. And both my mother and my mother-in-law are cancer survivors, so that inspires me to be a part of creating and providing this great medicinal product for chronically ill people. As a chef who cooks for a living, and tries to make people happy six nights a week, it's my duty to provide food for everybody. If someone comes into the restaurant and says their a celiac, or a vegan, or a diabetic, we cook for them. So what's the difference with cannabis?
What would you recommend for someone who shows up already stoned at your restaurant? Well, hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies, of course. Let me tell you something: We always know when people come into my restaurant baked, and we laugh at how happy they are to be in a place with so much pastry.
How did you decide what type of edibles to make for the medical marijuana market? From a culinary standpoint, I'm approaching this the same way I'd approach any of the food I serve in my restaurant. Basically, [I'm] trying to come up with great things to eat, even if they didn't have cannabis in them. So we're doing a line of brittles, and just like the hot chocolate at my restaurant, they're all blends of chocolate—including a blend of caramelized white chocolates with butterscotch nibs, peanut butter brittle with beer nut toffee and whipped peanut butter, and a blend of dark chocolates with smoked almond toffee. We're also doing a granola line with different mixes of seeds, nuts, dried fruit, caramels, honeycombs—again, all in different blends. And then, of course, hot chocolate drinks.
What's been your experience with edibles up until now? I've dabbled in making my own edibles, but I've always used butter. I've never used cannabis oil extractions before, so learning how to do that is going to be a challenge. But I've joined up with a great team. When medical marijuana was first passed in Illinois [in 2013], I was approached by a couple of groups, and after really looking into things, I felt that Cresco was the right company to partner with. Because from a professional standpoint, I'm really interested in learning to extract cannabis oil in a way that translates into a perfect serving in every edible.
What's been the reaction among your peers in the food world? Obviously, everybody wants to be a taste tester. [laughs] Really, though, I've gotten no negative reactions, and lots of positive feedback. I feel totally good about what I'm doing. My husband, my parents, and my staff at the restaurant all support this decision. Everyone's really intrigued by this opportunity, and nobody's too surprised that I'm one of the first people that's come forward from the culinary world.
Cannabis is really just starting to mature as an industry, and meanwhile the food industry has just skyrocketed over the past five to ten years, so it's an exciting intersection. I'm humbled and honored to be a part of it. I've also got a lot to learn, and that's another very appealing aspect to this.
What was your favorite treat to make back when you just dabbled in edibles? I've made my oatmeal scotchies with cannabis butter. I've also made my toffee with cannabis butter. But I particularly like to infuse the oatmeal scotchies, because you really can't taste the cannabis flavor in those.
Thanks for speaking with me, Mindy.