High expectations: how chefs are shaping the future of cannabis dining

Photo Credit: Getty Images

If the 1936 film Reefer Madness were made in 2023, the “madness” wouldn’t refer to the unraveling of the social fabric because of cannabis consumption, but rather the exploding industry around the plant’s legalization, including in the food and dining world.

CBD has been the trial ingredient for chefs and restaurants, appearing on drink menus at places like LA’s Gracias Madre and inspiring bakeries like Milwaukee’s Sweetly Baked. And as marijuana legalization continues, more chefs are getting their piece of the (infused) pie, shaping how the food and cannabis industries will interact.

At the time of publishing, medical cannabis is legal in 38 states, and 22 of those allow for recreational use. CBD is legal or conditionally legal in all 50 states. (Quick refresher: CBD is shorthand for cannabidiol, and doesn’t contain THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the ingredient in marijuana that actually causes the high and what recreational cannabis laws refer to.)

All those numbers add up to one thing: opportunity. Research firm Brightfield Group estimates that THC will become a $31.8 billion industry by the end of the year, and everyone from celebrities to beverage companies are buying in. 

Chefs and restaurants are no exception. Here are three examples of how the restaurant industry is getting into the weed game. 

Treating ingredients with care

Gone are the days when cannabis edibles consisted of the boxed brownies your roommate made in your college kitchen. Now that chefs can get involved with edible production, things are taking a decidedly artisanal turn.

Natasha leans against a doorway while wearing a chefs apron

Photo excerpted from “More Than Cake” by Natasha Pickowicz (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2023. Photographs by Graydon Herriot

“When I was growing up, everything was fruit punch, a very artificial fruit profile. The idea was to mask the flavor of the edible,” says three-time James Beard Award finalist Natasha Pickowicz

Pickowicz is one of several chefs who has partnered with Rose Los Angeles, a high-end edible company that is applying the stringent standards of boutique food production to cannabis:  working with small farmers to source seasonal produce and consulting with talents like Pickowicz or Noma-trained fermentation expert David Zilber to create one-of-a-kind recipes. 

“Essentially I’m coming up with ideas, and then relying on Rose to give me feedback on the flower flavors,” Pickowicz says. “Some flowers have fennel notes, and that’s something I’d use in a dessert. It’s a physically small object; how do you layer a lot of flavor?” For a recent collaboration, Pickowicz translated a recipe for a black sesame layer cake from her new cookbook: a pineapple and lime zest base rolled in black sesame powder. 

Pickowicz gives credit to early adopters, like famed Chicago baker Mindy Segal, for creating pathways for chefs to be involved—and wherever chefs go, cultural caché follows.

“I think we’re going to see more food experiences coming into play,” she says, pointing to events she’s done in California and Canada. “These events pair local chefs, floral designers, perfume makers—they are creating these spaces where people are socializing and meeting each other. It shows how cannabis can function in this intersectional way to bring together fashion, music, food, and more.”

Feeding community 

Cannabis chefs Denise and Snoop Hollins embrace.

Denise and Snoop Hollins. Photo credit: Rooted Buds

While much ink has been spilled about high-end cannabis dinners, Denise and Snoop Hollins are taking a more community-minded route in St. Louis, Missouri.

“When we started our biz [Rooted Buds] during COVID, we saw a lot economically: people not having jobs, etc.,” Snoop says. “That’s why we wanted to make our events more accessible to the people they should be accessible to.”

Snoop is a formally trained chef, and Denise has a background in HR and non-profits, so cooking and caring for people went hand-in-hand for the couple, who charge an average of $125 per person for a tasting menu experience.  

The pair started hosting dinners for medical marijuana users, but when Missouri legalized recreational use in December 2022, things really took off. Their dinner series “Fried Fridays” at one of the city’s first legal consumption lounges brought a whole new audience with a range of cannabis experience.

When asked if they thought cannabis could co-exist with food in a restaurant, Denise envisioned an environment where THC would be an individual choice, similar to alcohol.

“You could add things to your meal that are already infused, but people could eat food that is also not infused,” Denise says. “They could control their ride, leave our location, and be safe.” 

“If there was open consumption,” adds Snoop, “we might have a calmer St. Louis!” 

Keeping it local

A box of cannabis gummies against a backdrop of grass and rose petals.

Photo credit: Marion Brewer

Higher Grounds in Portland, Maine, is serving up CBD lattes with a side of advocacy. Both the coffee shop and the attached dispensary give priority to Maine-made products—a logical jump considering that cannabis has quickly

become one of the state’s most valuable crops.  

As the state’s industry grew, founder Mark Barnett started worrying about the ability for local small businesses like his—from growers to processors to dispensaries—to survive as national, well-funded companies moved in. “The voices of smaller businesses, the voices of farmers, the voices of customers are very often completely ignored in cannabis policy,” he told NBC News. 

His concerns drove him to found the Maine Craft Cannabis Association, which works to help shape policy at the state level and recently joined a multi-state coalition to ensure that the cannabis industry doesn’t make the same mistakes that agriculture did in the move toward industrialization, instead envisioning something more akin to the farm-to-table movement. 

While we might be years away from seeing cannabis on restaurant menus everywhere, it’s nice to know that when the day comes, chefs will be there, too, doing what they always do: bringing people together over food that makes you feel something.


Marion Brewer is a senior content strategist at OpenTable whose restaurant background spans from washing dishes to working in marketing at Bon Appétit.