Chef Melissa Parks. All photos via Herb: Mastering the Art of Cooking with Cannabis
When Colorado’s decision to legalize marijuana for recreational use came into effect on January 1, it launched a lucrative new industry that began immediately attracting bud-seeking tourists from around the world, spawned hundreds of dispensaries, and turned Colorado into an American mecca for marijuana. Companies around the state began offering marijuana-infused products in a multitude of wacky formations: from THC-infused soda to cotton candy and coffee. But up until recently, no one in post-legalization Colorado had attempted to coalesce the various forms of edibles in one convenient document.
Enter Herb: Mastering the Art of Cooking Cannabis, which aims to be the first cookbook that presents edibles as “dignified, accessible, and enjoyable.” It’s backed by prodigious social media cannabis cooking outfit the Stoner's Cookbook and authored by seasoned chef Melissa Parks, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis and serves as the vice president of product development at THC and CBD product company Nutritional High International. In Herb, Parks offers a multitude of versatile ways to infuse your meals with the powers of THC, from dishes as simple-sounding as medicated butternut squash soup to entrees like rib-eye steak topped with garlic-herb cannacompound butter. Herb also features information on the science behind cooking THC along with a detailed guide for dosing and technique.
With Herb in the opening stages of a crowdfunding campaign to finance the completion of the book, I decided to give Parks a call at her home in Colorado to discuss how she ended up an expert cannabis chef, what her peers at Le Cordon Bleu think of her career path, and her thoughts on the Colorado government’s attempts to regulate the edibles market.
VICE: How did you start your career in cooking?
Melissa Parks: My mother is a big baker, and so was my grandmother, so I was always interested in baking. I started baking and at some point decided to give bartending a whirl too. But when I was bartending, one of the gentlemen that I became really good friends with, who was the executive chef there at the country club where I worked, said to me, “You’re on the wrong side of the kitchen, honey."
So he encouraged me to start cooking and actually ended up being one of my instructors at the first culinary school that I went to, Le Cordon Bleu. Soon after that, I started cooking professionally. I worked under some amazing chefs, at a Mediterranean-Italian style restaurant in the Minneapolis area. I love learning, so while I was there, I got a little restless. I went through Le Cordon Bleu, but didn’t go through what some people would call a “traditional-style college,” so I went back to school and learned about pastries. I was cooking during the day and doing pastries at night, before I transitioned into doing pastry work and wedding cakes full time.
How and when did you transition into making edibles?
I moved to Colorado in the early 2000s and started doing private chef work in 2005. While I was doing that, I was approached by an edibles company. To be honest, I thought it was a joke; I never even thought twice about doing it. Then, as time progressed, a few of my friends who had various forms of cancer and had tasted my food and my desserts asked me, “Have you ever thought about working with marijuana, and would you ever help me to make an edible that I could consume and would be delicious?” And I was like, “Um, what?”
At that point in my life, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t do edibles, I had no understanding of it. Nothing. But I was like, “Uh, sure? Is it legal?”
I love chemistry and biochemistry, so, just out of curiosity, I started exploring edibles. I was so ignorant about marijuana and what it could do to help heal and alleviate. So as I became more interested in the business, I wanted to get involved and I wanted to do it through a company, so I literally googled “edible companies in Colorado,” and the first one that came up was a gem. I went into Bakked—they’re part of OpenVape—and I walked in their door and literally brought them unmedicated samples of 13 different items that I could make, and I said, "Look, I’ll even work for free. I just want to learn how to do this professionally”. And I did.
Medicated butternut squash soup
How did that work out for you?
I went in there and trained under the person that was making stuff for them, and then after a few tastings and samples of what I put together, they fired their head chef and I damn near had a panic attack. They gave me the position. It was scary, but it was great because I wasn’t alone back there; I had experts coaching me and teaching me the science of creating edibles. It really created a love affair with it for me.
We made a documentary about medical marijuana in Canada, and we talked to one local producer who was obsessed with Colorado. He kept stressing how advanced the industry is there. What’s the industry like there right now?
You know what’s funny? People that don’t live here have this idealized view of what it’s like. Here’s a perfect example of this: I went to Berlin, which is essentially the hemp capital of Europe. I was in the hemp museum, speaking with the owner, and he said, “You’re from Colorado? That’s the promised land." And it’s hysterical because I think people look at Colorado in many different ways, but I don’t know how accurate any of them are. It is still the Wild West. And it is still trying to find its place and work within the guidelines of the laws, as they seem to change drastically quite often. And if you’re not up on top of the law, then your company is at risk of forfeiting something you’ve been working so diligently on. And I think that it’s so much more professionally driven than anybody would ever expect, myself included.
How did you put together the recipes that are in this cookbook?
Having been a chef for so long, I kept thinking, How can I take something that people are so interested in and then evolve it? And bring it into something that has never been done before? In doing so, you also need to translate to people why this might be a good idea. Why would they want to give a sun-dried tomato and a compound butter a try on top of their steak versus simply eating a lozenge that is infused with hemp? I want this book to help educate people to the point where they feel comfortable around cannabis. And to also realise that you can get creative with it. And it’s not just the brownie and it’s not just the crispy treat, it’s not those things anymore. It can be something as elegant as adding it into your balsamic onions and shitake mushroom saute.
Seared bone-in rib eye topped with garlic-herb cannacompound butter
What are the recipes that people connect with the most?
I find that the people just becoming familiar with how to do this at home tend to like sauces. So you can prepare an unmedicated dish, and that way you can share it with others and then people who want to medicate can add something like medicated caramel sauce on top of their ice cream, knowing the information that one tablespoon is approximately eight to 12 milligrams of medium-grade bud. And I think that’s what people are asking me about the most: "How can I keep this the longest and only add it when I want to?" versus "Well, this is already all medicated, so I have to eat it all or throw it out".
So I think the low dose is huge; I think the opportunity to add or take away as they might like is big. People are just looking for variety: barbecue sauces, chipotle ketchups, and, because it’s so trendy now, bacon jam. Those types of things where you make your steak, you make your potatoes, you make your corn, and you take your one tablespoon of bacon jam on top of your steak, it’ll melt and it’ll taste great and it’ll be medicated at a certain level.
What do your peers from Le Cordon Bleu think about where your career is now?
[Laughs] I was featured in a newspaper article, and one of my old classmates saw it and posted it on Instagram. Then, of course, word spread and it started slowly leaking out and people started asking questions, and I was proud of it. I am proud of it. I mean, I take pride in every bit of work that I do, and so I told them, "Absolutely. This is absolutely what I’m doing". It reminds me of our food-science classes: You have to test for viscosity and heat levels and volatility. It took me a year of working with cannabis and almost wanting to put my head through a wall to try to understand how to bake at high altitudes for weddings. And now that I have these little tricks, I’m fine. And the more legalization came to the forefront in Colorado, the more you hear people talking about it. Now you can go to a coffee shop or happy hour and hear people talking about it, and they’re excited.
Coffee ice cream topped with cannachocolate sauce and crumbled ginger-snap cookies
What are your thoughts on the state of Colorado’s attempts to ban edibles because they pose a threat to children?
I think we have to look at it like the same way we look at prescription drugs: There are labels and there are warnings. It’s also similar with items that have been taken off the shelves - look at the different alcoholic beverages that used to have energy drinks in them or the ones that still do. I think Colorado is just trying to navigate its way around legally doing something and responsibly doing something that is rapidly becoming a dominant part of the state’s culture. Everybody is talking about it. I think that for people who are in the industry, there are only so many warnings and special containers and precautions that we can take—we also have to understand that it’s a very shared responsibility. It’s shared with the people who are producing the products and it's shared with the people who are procuring the products and keeping them in their homes. In general, I think it’s a great idea that there are very strict regulations on edibles. I like the fact that they should be somewhat identifiable. Like, having a leaf logo on individual products themselves, for instance. It’ll come down perhaps to the specifics of what’s banned and what’s not banned. There needs to be a middle ground.
What’s the most important thing people should know about edibles?
Be careful. Be careful making them, be careful that you actually understand the properties of what you’re working with, and really do take precautions when you’re eating edibles for the first time. If you’ve smoked marijuana, that’s an entirely different animal from actually absorbing this in your digestive system, and it’s great, it’s helpful, it’s wonderful, and it’s a really unique opportunity, but just take it slowly. Put the brakes on. I know we’re all excited; I know that this is something that everybody’s talking about. But just take a deep breath, make your edible, take a small portion, see how it affects you, and then wait a couple of days or the next day and then go from there.
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