How fine dining gave cannabis a high-end makeover

A Chicago chef says cooking with marijuana as an herb is delicious and may even bring more respect to communities of color.

Manny Mendoza
Manny Mendoza speaks with WBEZ's Reset on April 20, 2022. WBEZ
Manny Mendoza
Manny Mendoza speaks with WBEZ's Reset on April 20, 2022. WBEZ

How fine dining gave cannabis a high-end makeover

A Chicago chef says cooking with marijuana as an herb is delicious and may even bring more respect to communities of color.

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Fine dining might not be the first thing to pop into someone’s head when they think about cannabis, but Chicago chef Manny Mendoza wants to change that.

With his culinary company, Herbal Notes, Mendoza cooks with cannabis almost the same way he would with any other herb, using it to take his cuisine to a higher level.

His work with cannabis helped him win a Netflix cooking competition show, Cooked With Cannabis, back in 2020. Mendoza described winning as “life-changing” and like “divine intervention.”

Mendoza’s culinary background began with watching his mother cook and being inspired by growing up in Chicago’s South and West sides.

“[My mother] is from El Salvador,” Mendoza explained. “I’m also half-Mexican, so we have a lot of flavors.”

The scent of vegetables — like onions, garlic and tomatoes — along with spices toasting in a pan, became embedded in Mendoza’s memory.

“I really pay a lot of homage to my mom for, you know, giving me a sense of flavor identity so that I could carry that on for the rest of my life, just putting flavor into anything, even things outside of food but just layering different kinds of flavors,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza went to culinary school in New York and farm school in California to broaden his horizons, not so he could be a chef at a restaurant, he said. He became interested in food and agricultural inequities after seeing disparities in his community while growing up.

Right now, his favorite cannabis cuisine recipe is a cilantro cavatelli with spring peas and butter-poached king crab. The cavatelli – a small, shell-shaped pasta – is made from scratch and infused with cilantro so that it is bright green. The sauce, infused with poblano, is green as well.

Herbal Notes hosts private events in Chicago where guests can try a cannabis-infused, multi-course, seasonal tasting menu. Tickets for the meals go for $150 each.

Mendoza wants to set a high standard for cannabis cuisine in order to bring more respect not just for cannabis chefs, but also for communities of color, he said.

“For 100 years at least, but even before that, you know, cannabis was prohibited and used disproportionately to target, you know, Black and brown people,” Mendoza said. “It is something that caused generations of harm and trauma that still hasn’t been fully healed and still hasn’t been fully atoned for even today.”

Mendoza and his team strive to instill that lesson to people through their events.

“We want to be a vehicle for healing by educating people and broadening their horizons and showing everybody from youth to older people,” he said. “That is a whole new train of thought that we can use for cannabis as that vehicle by teaching them and educating them on, you know, what it really is and the fact that it’s a part of our DNA.”

Cannabis fine dining has become more common over the past decade as use of the plant moved into the mainstream. As of April 2020, recreational marijuana is legal in 19 states and medical use is legal in another 13. The top growth category in the industry is consumable cannabis, according to Food & Wine magazine, citing studies by Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics. Edibles — including THC- and CBD-infused drinks and foods — make up most of the category.

Chefs, meanwhile, are infusing foods, pairing inhaled marijuana with food and “mining the spectrum of flavor profiles and distinct psychoactive effects of different cannabis strains,” Food & Wine reported. Cooking with the plant requires chefs to understand the science behind THC, which gives cannabis its effects.

Cannabis-infused experiences can range from large events to more intimate gatherings and can be found in cities across the country. The events also do not need to center around cannabis, but may have it as a background component, according to Business Insider.

What Mendoza wants people to know about cannabis is that it can be used as a tool to care for the community and bring about solutions to social equity issues. That includes addressing the equity challenges in Chicago’s cannabis industry. Grassroots organizations, such as Cannabis Equity Coalition Illinois, work to help more people have access to the legal marijuana industry by explaining the business’s intricacies and how to work through the red tape.

Herbal Notes also wants to educate its customers about the social responsibility of cannabis use in general.

“We want people who are going to dispensaries to really understand where to put their dollars and to support who they really want to see in this industry, not just give into the status quo or what’s just there because it’s already there,” Mendoza said. “There’s entrepreneurs of color who are trying to make their way and by supporting them with your dollars, we’re making a collective effort and push towards that kind of industry.”

Watching people be touched by and appreciate cannabis cooking excites him the most, Mendoza said. “Seeing people’s reactions to our events, to our dinners, is really beautiful and it’s surreal because you kind of don’t anticipate or expect having a safe place to be able to do and enjoy food and cannabis in a professional, in a responsible way.”

Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @biancacseke1.