Elevated Dining at the James Beard House

The foods most closely associated with cannabis consumption are best described as “junk.”

Monumental over-orders of McDonald’s, movie theater candy, any chip whose name ends in “-itos” or home-baked goods laced with that distinctly “herbal” tang — this is the cuisine that sits at the traditional intersection of dining and cannabis. Somewhere between decadence and sloppy excess, munchies and edibles are inseparable from cannabis culture, but they’re not exactly fine dining. 

Yet, according to the sibling duo behind the cannabis hospitality company Altered Plates, high-end cannabis dining experiences are exactly where the food world and the legal cannabis industry need to head together. Hospitality industry vet Rachel Burkons and professional chef Holden Jagger believe there is an eager audience for 420-friendly eating experiences composed of the same elements that make a more conventional fine dining experience special: high-quality ingredients, carefully considered pairings and excellent service. 

“Right now in the cannabis industry, the most interaction a consumer is going to have with a budtender is going to be 10 minutes,” Burkons says. “But when you start to shift that to more of a hospitality and restaurant-focused dining experience, it’s going to really require a whole different level of education and hospitality and those things, for us, 100% go hand-in-hand.”

And the gatekeepers of the culinary realm over at the James Beard Foundation seem to agree. Izabela Wojcik is the programming director for the James Beard House, the foundation’s New York City home base. She says that cannabis-focused programming falls perfectly in line with the esteemed non-profit’s motto: “Good food for good.”

“People have long looked to the foundation as a resource for food, especially in recent years as new, progressive formats and offerings have hit the scene and the plate,” Wojcik says. “Obviously, CBD has become a point of fascination among food conscious consumers and the industry, but a lot of questions remain. We feel like we have a responsibility, now more than ever, to provide education and perspective on the issue.”

That’s where Altered Plates comes in: This spring, Burkons and Jagger hosted a two-part event, a terpene-focused dinner and a CBD-oriented industry panel the following day, both at the Beard House. For chef Jagger, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

“I would have been happy to wash dishes at the James Beard House,” he said. 

The dinner itself, held in the Beard House’s famous dining area, consisted of five courses. Carrot tangerine soup, duck carnitas and tempura donuts dusted with terpene-infused sugar, to name a few of the dishes, made for a sumptuous menu just as indulgent as stereotypical munchies —  only infinitely more sophisticated, paired with Francis Ford Coppola wine instead of AriZona Ice Tea. 

And although no CBD or THC was consumed at the dinner, Burkons and Jagger made sure cannabis was still present on the table by including a hemp sprout salad and three hemp flower pairings from Hudson Hemp that guests were invited to sniff and savor. 

“We brought hemp and cannabis to the James Beard House and put it on the same table with wine,” Jagger said. “We told people to pick it up, examine it, crush it between your fingers and smell it, and create a level of similarity between how they were experiencing the wine pairing and how they were experiencing the cannabis.”

The next morning’s Q&A, also hosted in the Beard House, featured an admittedly exhausted Jagger on a speaker panel, alongside Burkons, Plant People cofounder Gabe Kennedy, Cowen cannabis investing expert Vivien Azer, lawyer Meryl Holt Silverman and Well+Good co-founder Melisse Gelula. 

Each panel member fielded questions from the panel’s moderator and from audience members, including one chef who was curious about how to reliably source cannabis in a grey market and another who wondered about the difference between cannabinoid delivery systems, such as sublingual preparations versus infusions. 

The only snag in the process? The fact that the original concept for the dinner focused solely on superstar cannabinoid CBD. 

When Burkons and Jagger first coordinated with the foundation earlier this year, they pitched a CBD-oriented dinner, which would have been the second time that cannabinoid had been served in the Beard House. But then, a recent CBD edibles crackdown by New York City officials sparked a change of plans, and the menu was reoriented with terpenes on parade instead. 

Ultimately, this change did not impede the Beard House mission, nor did it stop Jagger from serving up a quality dinner menu. 

“The terpenes focus proved a better fit anyway, as it allowed [Jagger] and [Burkons] to expand the conversation and to have a more profound teaching experience,” Wojcik says. “Additionally, it allowed diners to more fully understand the connection between food, cannabis, aromatics and flavor perception.”

For Altered Plates, the warm reception from America’s culinary elite bodes well for the future of culinary cannabis as a movement and an artform. 

“It’s one thing to have Carl’s Jr. rolling out some burgers,” Burkons says referencing a 420 PR stunt involving CBD burgers, “but it’s another thing entirely when an organization as respected and as hallowed as the James Beard Foundation says there’s clearly something here and you should start looking at it.”

TELL US, are you surprised to see culinary institutions warming up to cannabis and hemp?

Originally published in Issue 39 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE

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