How a chef brought his passion for cannabis into the kitchen
'This plant was once forbidden ... then all of a sudden you have this brand new ingredient and it's so unique'
When he started attending the Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown, John MacNeil found his passion for food.
Growing up in the small coal-mining community of New Waterford, N.S., in Cape Breton, he says he wasn't exposed to many techniques or styles of cooking.
"It was something that was very different to me, to see all these new techniques. Coming from overcooked sirloins to boiled dinners, there was no medium rare, no rare food, so my eyes were opened to the possibilities," he said.
This experience may not be uncommon among chefs — especially those from rural areas — but what is unique is MacNeil's joining of his love of food with his passion for cannabis.
"There's a lot of people out there that like to expand their mind or expand their consciousness and I'm one of those people," he said.
MacNeil will be on the Island next week for the Forage Food Symposium Oct. 18 and 19, where he'll give a chef's perspective as part of a panel discussion about edible and infused cannabis products.
He says in the last five years — since several U.S. states legalized marijuana — professional chefs have started to explore what might be possible by using cannabis in their cooking.
Always start low and go slow if you're not experienced with cannabis edibles.— Chef John MacNeil
"I think [legalization] really opened a lot of people's eyes to say that this is really okay to do, and it's safe and edibles can be safe, consistent and reliable and you can have a really good time," he said.
"All of a sudden you have this brand new ingredient and it's so unique, the flavour profiles, the way it grows, the possibilities are really endless."
'It is charged'
MacNeil works for ReTreat Edibles, a Calgary-based company that currently offers several lines of cookie and brownie mixes, which people can add their own THC-infused oil or butter to.
He says until federal regulations around edibles are created, the company won't be selling any THC-infused products — but that doesn't mean he isn't honing his craft.
"I've been researching now for two years about the extraction process and really working with the cannabis and feeling it," he said.
He says the infusion process — the first step in cooking with cannabis — involves roasting the plant and combining it with a fat or oil of some kind.
MacNeil says there are a range of flavours — orange, lemon, bitter, sesame, cocoa — that can be added through the infusion process, which expands the tastes he can create.
"If I'm using a scented coconut oil for my infusion, after the infusion is done, you strain it and you're left with this infused coconut oil," he said.
If you have a whole room of 100 people, they're all experiencing different effects right?— Chef John MacNeil
"You could use it in a brownie mix, or you could be a little bit creative and, it has the flavour of coconut, maybe mix in a little peanut butter, mix in a little bit of red curry paste and then all of a sudden you have this sauté sauce that you can start brushing on grilled meats."
MacNeil said one of his favourite creations is a White Widow vinaigrette, using Spanish olive oil infused with THC, and mixing it with vinegar made with marijuana plant stalks.
'Start low and go slow'
One hurdle edible producers face is the drastic difference in the effect of the drug when it is ingested rather than inhaled.
"When people are inhaling it, the effect is felt within almost seconds ... within minutes. And when you have an edible … you eat your edible and then you don't really feel anything, and then you have another one and after that one you start to feel the first one, and then the second one kicks in and then maybe you're not feeling so well," he said.
"So always start low and go slow if you're not experienced with cannabis edibles."
It is for this reason MacNeil hopes once regulations for edibles are created, they will ensure consumer safety.
"There'd have to be some strict rules, there'd have to be a lot of training involved…. I would want an experienced cook or chef preparing that meal as well, there'd have to be some kind of certification to know what you're ingesting," he said.
"Same like someone that's serving alcohol that they're not over pouring or serving something that's overly intoxicated as well."
As this sector of the burgeoning industry grows will it become common for restaurants to offer cannabis infused dishes on their menus? MacNeil doesn't think so.
"I think maybe more intimate dinner parties, instead of having a room full of people that are ingesting cannabis because everybody's body does metabolize it different, so if you have a whole room of 100 people, they're all experiencing different effects right?" he said.
"Something a little bit more intimate … that could be more something that could happen down the line … it's so exciting to be on the forefront of this and Canada is really doing something special here."