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The Quest for the First Great Weed-Cooking Show

Marijuana has edged its way into the mainstream, but that still isn’t reflected on food TV. Netflix’s ‘Cooked With Cannabis’ is the latest show to try to change that.

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Chef Lauren Williams has presented a dish that looks familiar, even if all of its ingredients aren’t. Sous vide chicken thighs sit atop a hickory-smoked potato purée, finished with raw truffles and a drizzle of truffle oil. But the purée was infused with Chemdawg, a strain of marijuana described on a chyron with these not particularly appetizing words: “Pungent, diesel-like aroma. Potent high.” The crispy skin of the chicken was seared in clarified butter infused with Chemdawg. And that truffle oil? Also infused with Chemdawg. In total, the dish has 3.5 milligrams of THC in it.

“This one is my favorite,” says judge and comedian Emily Panic as she digs in after sampling a duck breast and a ribeye steak that had a combined 4 milligrams of THC. During the appetizers she’d ingested an additional 14 milligrams of THC. (In California the maximum legal dosage for a single serving of an edible, like one weed-infused gummy or lollipop, is 10 milligrams.) “Why am I holding a spoon?” she suddenly asks herself, before arriving at the obvious answer on her own. “Cuz I’m high. Oh right, that’s why.”

The first six episodes of Cooked With Cannabis hit Netflix on April 20, the international holiday for weed. It’s by no means the first weed-related or weed-cooking show: Pot dealers have been the central characters on Weeds and High Maintenance; network-comedy star producer Chuck Lorre set his first Netflix series Disjointed in a dispensary; and Viceland took a more documentary-style approach with the shows Weediquette and Bong Appétit. In fact, Cooked With Cannabis isn’t even Netflix’s first cannabis-cooking show: In 2018, the streaming service quietly released Cooking on High, a two-chef showdown whose episodes of less than 15 minutes appeared to be shot in someone’s actual home kitchen in Venice. Cooked With Cannabis has higher production values and an eye toward professionalism, and it places modern cooking-show conventions on a formerly unconventional subject matter as marijuana continues to push further into the mainstream.

Cooked With Cannabis is the first cooking show from 25/7 Productions, the company started by David Broome, who is best known as the creator of the reality competitions The Biggest Loser and Ultimate Beastmaster. The seed of the concept was brought to him by Jeff Gaspin, his producing partner and the former chairman of NBC Universal’s television department. Though he was in his mid-50s when they began putting the project together, Broome had never gotten high before he started working on Cooked With Cannabis. “I didn’t start with an edible,” he explains. “I took a vape hit and I had about 20 people watching me and filming me. I said, ‘That shit better never end up online anywhere.’ It was a nice experience. I did it a couple more times.”

Each episode of Cooked With Cannabis features three chefs who usually either have experience working with cannabis as private chefs or are employed by a cannabis company. They prepare a three-course meal based on a broad theme, with a total dosage limit of 8 milligrams of THC per competitor. The show is hosted and judged by Kelis, the adventurous R&B singer who attended culinary school in the late aughts, and Leather Storrs, an amiable goofball who transitioned from cooking in Portland, Oregon’s, high-minded restaurant scene to putting together special dinners that showcase his playful take on weed-infused cuisine. The show’s guests are a motley crew that includes rappers El-P and Too $hort, Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio, Insecure actress Amanda Seales, NBA veterans John Salley and Nate Robinson, former talk-show host Ricki Lake, and RuPaul’s Drag Race runner-up Alaska Thunderfuck.

Ultimately, the show’s main inspiration comes from the type of small private events that Storrs is now known for, in which he creates an elevated multicourse menu that marries cannabis to contemporary cooking trends and flavors. Cooked With Cannabis takes this concept, adds a competitive element, and puts a clock on the proceedings. “The goal from day one when we were developing the show—prior to even taking this out and pitching this and bringing it into Netflix—was that this was not about pot brownies,” Broome says. “At the same time, it’s not about finding Michelin star dishes that aren’t accessible.”

Unlike Chopped or other timed cooking battles, there are no mid-round eliminations on Cooked With Cannabis, so everyone gets to present their entire meal concept—and in the end, the competitors with well-thought-out approaches to how they parcel out their milligrams tend to win. “As a weed chef you are also a shepherd or a steward because eating cannabis is a very different feeling than smoking it,” Storrs says. “With the THC and the CBD, these chefs are allowed to craft experiences. That, in my opinion, is much more nuanced and much more interesting than just hitting someone in the head with 20 milligrams of THC out of the gate.”

Much in the way that eating the drug is different than taking a bong rip, Cooked With Cannabis differs from most of the glassy-eyed, fully baked exploits in the weed entertainment subgenre. There are flashes of mild pot humor, but ultimately its goal is to showcase some of the science-like intricacy, discipline, and cuisine artistry that can be employed when cooking with marijuana. “Cannabis as an ingredient in gourmet cuisine really allows for not only delicious food, but a feeling of euphoria,” Kelis says. “I liken it to having two glasses of really good wine.” It familiarizes viewers with the possibilities of cannabis cuisine, like how early seasons of Top Chef helped broaden the awareness for molecular gastronomy and farm-to-table eating.

Cannabis remains an unpredictable ingredient to most chefs, one whose intoxicating effects can vary from person to person. And because marijuana is still illegal on a federal level, there’s been a limited amount of research on how it impacts the human body. But now chefs are among those doing some long-delayed exploration. “The endocannabinoid system is not only unique to everyone, but really pretty remarkable,” Storrs says. “The fact that the Cherry Pie strain works incredibly well on me, but not well on you, that’s just very interesting. So our goal [on Cooked With Cannabis] was to say, ‘We’re thinking about this.’ People are talking about this in a way that’s not so Brad Pitt with the honey bear. It’s more: What can we do here? What can we unlock?”

Marijuana consumption is of course intrinsically linked to food, if only for the fact that getting high often makes you super hungry. “The munchies are real. It’s a verified, scientific, proven phenomenon,” says David Bienenstock, a longtime writer on cannabis and the cohost of the podcast Great Moments in Weed History. “Of all the bad stereotypes put on weed smokers over the years, [having the munchies] was one that was always rooted in fact, even in propaganda-like portrayals of cannabis consumers.”

Ingesting marijuana through food in modern Western culture isn’t that new, either. The British version of The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book from 1954 notoriously included a recipe for “haschich fudge.” Illicitly sold space cakes and glowing green Rice Krispies treats have been mainstays in the parking lots at jam-band concerts for decades. Even the medicinal benefits of edibles as a delivery system were increasingly explored in the 1980s as nauseous AIDS and cancer patients turned to them to ease their symptoms. But many pot consumers remain hesitant to use edibles because of how hard it can be to control how stoned they will get. “I have seen people who are literal legends of hash-making who have been reduced to being waaay too high from eating a brownie; and I know people who have sworn off brownies forever who smoke weed every day,” says Elise McDonough, the author of The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook. “Homemade edibles had a reputation for a reason, because it was super easy to overdo it.”

In more recent years, jokes about the delayed effects of edibles sneaking up on people have proliferated online through variations on the This Edible Ain’t Shit meme. As expected, a wacked-out-looking character from Spongebob is often involved.

During the 2000s, more states legalized the medicinal use of cannabis, while dispensaries proliferated around California, often catering to a clientele who earned their medical marijuana cards through incredibly chill evaluation procedures. (You would not believe how much rampant insomnia was treated in those years.) In 2012, both Colorado and Washington passed initiatives that made recreational usage legal. Nine other states have since followed them.

These developments had a momentous impact on the cannabis cooking world. “You see the whole scene sort of fracture,” McDonough says. “There’s legal cannabis edibles that have dosage limits and very strict regulations. There’s homemade edibles, just like there always were. And now there’s these gray-area events that aren’t technically legal, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of motivation to crack down on any of those underground infused dinners.”

In 2012, the late Pulitzer Prize–winning food writer Jonathan Gold wrote about attending one of these private cannabis dinners for the Los Angeles Times. He didn’t seem that impressed, or get that stoned, but the cooking world took notice. “It started a national conversation amongst chefs about weed, and what stoner cuisine is and should be,” Bienenstock says.

At the start of the 2000s, when Bienenstock was working at High Times, the famed 46-year-old marijuana publication and brand, he put together an instructional cannabis cooking DVD called Chef Ra: Ganja Gourmet. In 2014, he began writing a column about marijuana and food for Vice’s culinary vertical Munchies called “The Weed Eater.” That year he made a video for Munchies at Owl Farm, Hunter S. Thompson’s old compound in Colorado, where Thompson’s widow hosted a gourmet cannabis meal cooked by Chris Lanter, the chef at Aspen’s upscale restaurant Cache Cache.

That video helped set a template for the web series Bong Appétit, which Bienenstock produced. On the series, they traveled around the country spending time with personalities such as Nonna Marijuana, a 91-year-old grandmother in Santa Cruz, California, who put her instructional videos on YouTube, and the married couple Wanda James and Scott Durrah, who owned a dispensary and cooked Caribbean food in Denver, Colorado. “In terms of making people comfortable with weed culture, food is such a great way to do it because everybody eats and there’s something about watching people share a meal that is very familiar,” Bienenstock says. “Food is a way where we are used to crossing cultural boundaries. Most people, even if you grew up in a very monoculture-type place, you’re used to eating food from distant places.”

After Vice started its own cable network, Viceland, they transitioned Bong Appétit to the channel, but without Bienenstock. The format changed, too, with each episode instead focusing on a celebrated chef learning how to make a cannabis-infused meal. Los Angeles figures like Wes Avila of Guerilla Tacos and the Mahendro brothers of Badmaash were aided by the cannabis chocolatier Vanessa Dora Lavorato and bud expert Ry Prichard. After two seasons, it transitioned again into a competition show, Bong Appétit: Cook Off.

Judging a cannabis-cooking competition brings its own unique set of challenges. Lavorato recalls that after filming the pilot for Bong Appétit: Cook Off, she put herself on an even more intensive weed consumption regime than usual—smoking, vaping, and eating marijuana all day to build up her tolerance. “Shooting 10 episodes in a month meant that it was just constantly being really, really lit,” she says. “Which is totally fine if you’re at home and you’re under quarantine and you’re binging Netflix. But when you have like three cameras in front of you, an entire production team, and they’re telling you to introduce the next round and talk about Alice B. Toklas, you’re kind of like, ‘Huh?’”

Laurie Wolf is the 65-year-old owner of the Oregon-based edibles company Laurie + MaryJane and the author of multiple cookbooks. In a 2017 profile, The New Yorker referred to her as “the Martha Stewart of marijuana edibles”—though to be fair, that nickname, or a variation on it, is often applied to any successful woman of a certain age in the cannabis industry. Even Martha Stewart became the Martha Stewart of marijuana when she started working with Canopy Growth Corporation last year on a line of CBD products for pets.

So far, Wolf hasn’t been particularly interested in any of the recent marijuana-cooking shows. “To me, it’s kind of sad that they’re competitions,” she says. “I think the competition part takes away from the importance of cannabis. Do you really learn how to cook with cannabis if these people are running around like lunatics just trying to beat the clock?”

That may sound like intergenerational, post-hippie dismissiveness, but the legalization of cannabis has trended toward a uniformity in what’s available commercially and a customer base that’s not always aware of the culinary possibilities. “[The regulated market] has chased out a lot of small operators,” McDonough says. “It’s definitely winnowed the diversity of products down to a very few types of items that are shelf stable. And that’s why you see things like gummies and chocolates being so popular. They’re easy to homogenize and they stay shelf stable for a long time.”

In turn, these products have become increasingly corporatized and more expensive for customers. Those who are interested in the health benefits of marijuana are usually looking for something that feels more homespun or organic. “People are desperate to learn to cook with [cannabis],” says Robyn Griggs Lawrence, the former editor-in-chief of Natural Home magazine who has written two books about marijuana and food. “It flips them from consumers to producers when you can teach them how to cook, as opposed to having them just go to the dispensary. That was my problem with the food in dispensaries, too. It was like going to 7-Eleven and trying to get sustenance.”

Aside from videos you can find online, there hasn’t been a cannabis show yet in the mold of those old-school instructional cooking programs pioneered by chefs like Julia Child and Martin Yan or the figures who used to dominate the Food Network. And because many of the concepts involved in marijuana cuisine are novel to viewers, shows like Cooked With Cannabis have to spend a chunk of their runtime explaining information like the difference between THC and THCA, or what the decarboxylation process means.

But Cooked With Cannabis opts to relegate those sort of explanations to chyrons or quick voiceovers from the hosts. In place of deep lessons, and interspersed between the moments of “I didn’t know you could do that’’ ingenuity, the show works because it offers the recognizable buzzes that viewers have come to associate with cooking shows. There are the quick flashes of immobilizing panic as the chefs realize how deep in the weeds they are, the overconfident banter between the competitors as they try to mask their insecurities, the last-second desperation of getting everything on the plate before time runs out, and the looks of modest relief that come over the contestants’ faces when they realize that the judges don’t hate what they’ve asked them to eat. For all of Cooked With Cannabis’s high-minded aspirations (no pun intended) and gourmet flourishes, the show’s success boils down to simply being good TV. “I just don’t know if [instructional cooking] makes for interesting television in an entertaining way,” Broome says. “I think at the end of the day, an audience sits down, it’s on Netflix, and they just want to enjoy and have a good time. Whatever you’re giving them education-wise, teaching them has to come in an entertainment way”

It may not satisfy the cannabis cuisine experts, but it’s a worthy gateway drug for everyone else—a necessary step for the subgenre before the Anthony Bourdain, Ina Garten, or Alton Brown of marijuana cooking arrives.

Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.

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