This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2015.
In Humboldt County, California, marijuana is more than just the cornerstone of the economy—it's part of the culture. When harvest season hits in early fall, "trimmigrants" from all corners of the globe descend on the area looking for what may just be the last real migrant worker gig left in the nation—closely trimming tight emerald nuggets of pot for the voracious medical marijuana market.
Life up on "The Hill" is never easy. Camping in the cold, long hours (often 14 to 16 hours or more per day), and cramped working conditions are the norm. But the growers often feed the workers, if only to keep them working as much as possible without wasting time to stop and cook their own meals.
Born in New York City and still based there, Jesse Aghravi is a chef who has worked the harvest season here several times. The short-term seasonal gig offers him a break from Big Apple life.
"It's a chance for me to enjoy a semi-vacation doing what I love," he tells me as we chat on the porch of the grower's house, which looks out over the redwood forest-carpeted mountains of Southern Humboldt.
"I am used to the small, tight, very efficient spaces of New York kitchens," he explains "But up here there is just so much more room to play."
The trim crew at this particular "scene" reached almost 40 heads at one point, keeping Aghravi on his toes preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. But he kept the quality high and used the opportunity to dig deep into the local bounty of the region.
"I feel like the farm-to-table culture is very strong in Northern California," he tells me one evening while preparing the outdoor grill. "We went to this outstanding farmers market in Garberville the other day to stock up ,and we got this whole lamb from Ferndale Farms, just 20 miles away, which was super-clean."
Used one night in an Indian-style curry and as sandwich meat for another lunch, the lamb lasted for three whole meals, but it was the first night's smoked shank that was the biggest hit among the crew.
"I enjoy using strong assertive flavors and trying to balance the sweet with the savory," the chef explains. "It's all about choosing the product at its peak and treating it with as much respect as possible. That's my responsibility as cook."
A bit of a foodie himself, the grower also had mature fruit and nut trees on the property and kept his own vegetable garden. This meant Aghravi had fresh California sun-ripened ingredients right at his fingertips.
"In the beginning I was using the apples and walnuts right off the land in almost everything," Aghravi tells me. "They also had some grapevines and veggies that I tried to incorporate."
He tailored the daily menu to the needs of the workers. Every meal had both vegetarian and meat options, and much of the offerings where designed to provide fuel for the long working hours. He confesses that he was "happy to hear that not only did the carnivores of the group genuinely enjoy the veggie fare, but I think I converted some vegetarians back to appreciating meat in their diet."
For Aghravi, there is always a learning curve in this type of work."The meal plan took me a couple of days to nail down but I kept it simple, using the Israeli format for breakfast—consisting of dairy, fruits, vegetables, and grains, and sometimes eggs when time permits."
His lunch menu stuck to a soup-and-salad-or-sandwich format, while dinner consisted of a protein, vegetables, starch, and salad. "With all the great product I have access to, it's not difficult to make tasty food. The challenge is doing it for so many people three times a day, by myself!" he says.
"During the day I give the guys energizing food, making sure they are satisfied and ready for work," Aghravi explains while showing me around the food storage area. "I also use a lot of Mediterranean food and flavors, which goes back to my Middle Eastern roots."
A good example of his fusion of healthy Humboldt hippie-style staples with traditional Silk Road flavors was the hand-toasted granola. Chock-full of nuts and dried berries, it also sported the aroma and flavor of spices like cumin and turmeric, derived from the spice blend of garam masala.
"It was introduced to me as apple pie spice with some oomph," Agravi relates to me as I try the granola. Perfect for a wet and fog-shrouded Humboldt morning, it worked synergistically with my steaming cup of dark roast to get the circulation flowing.
Near the end of his three-week stint on "The Hill", Aghravi took advantage of all the marijuana trim being produced and whipped up a batch of donut holes stuffed with ganja-infused caramel.
"I'm a strong supporter of medical marijuana, especially after my father was diagnosed with leukemia and used it to help him cope with his nausea during his chemo," he told me as I scarfed down my second, and then third, powdered pot pastry. The Jack Flash strain of pot he used gave the filling a bright, exotic fruity burst of flavor that was dangerously addictive.
I spent the rest of the day in euphoric appreciation of the scenery and playing with Butch, a huge South African Mastiff that fit too perfectly into the Narnia-like setting of the Humboldt hills.
Standing outside the food tent as the workers lined up for breakfast one day, I asked the chef if he could ever see himself sticking around Humboldt. With legalization going global, this particular area is poised to be to the herb what Napa County, a hundred miles or so to the south, is to wine.
"It's absolutely gorgeous, but secluded," he says, gesturing out over the ridge top that the operation straddles. "It's mountain life for sure, and although I am not an outdoor junkie, even just driving to the market is a breathtaking experience."
"I am interested in opening my own restaurant, but that's easier said than done," says Aghravi wistfully, spreading his hands open, palms up, in that gesture that says "who knows."
"I have investors that are interested in helping me" he tells me. "My benefactor has mentioned the idea of taking advantage of the high season here in Humboldt County, and the possibility of doing a seasonal spot is a chance to bring some high quality to an area where demand and resources are high but choices are still limited."
But with a New York-style honesty that simply has no time to beat around the bush, he admits, "While I love coming out here and working in the Redwoods, home is where the heart is, and it's always been my dream to have my own kitchen in the city that never sleeps."