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Cannabis Cordon Bleu

Caleb Pershan | October 11, 2013 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink

Gabriel Reeves wants to be the Paul Newman of pot. Alongside the salad dressings and salsas arrayed on upscale grocery shelves, he envisions an entire line of high-end, mass-produced, made-with-a-conscience products, maybe with a picture of him on the label: bright red beard, tattoos, pot leaf–green apron, and all. But for now, he’ll settle for being “Chef Gabe” and teaching a weekly “Cooking with Cannabis” class at Elemental Wellness, a medical marijuana collective and health center in San Jose.

Tonight, wearing skateboarding shoes, a bandanna headband, and that green chef ’s apron, Reeves is preparing a lightly laced mango-pineapple-miso dressing; last week it was Key lime pie milkshakes with cannabis cream. He typically begins his cooking process with a handful of dry marijuana leaves or a lump of processed hash, infusing his active ingredient at high temperatures into culinary building blocks like butter, cream, or olive oil. This time, he presents a tincture of marijuana extract for his 20 students to admire before he adds it to the dressing with an eyedropper. “The little bit of protein creates a really nice texture,” he shouts over the rumble of an immersion blender. “That is mango-pineapple destiny!” he adds with a bit of celebrity-chef panache. “Miso goodness!”

Before he decided to devote his professional life to elevating and legitimizing pot cookery, Reeves worked as a chef at famously food-loving Google, where he prepared pleasing fare for tense techies: “You soothe them with good flavors and aromas and visual presentation,” he says. He considers cooking with cannabis an extension of this ethos. “If I can include, literally, anti-stress medicine in your pasta sauté, that’s invaluable for me.” His belief in the medical merits of the herb comes in part from his experience as a survivor of testicular cancer. “I know the medicine is real. I know it works,” he says.

Like the Bay Area’s multitudinous wheat germ evangelists and flaxseed pushers, Reeves thinks of his go-to additive as both medically beneficial and rich in flavor-pairing possibilities. “We’re going to be able to pair this extremely unique botanical herb with every base flavor we’re already familiar with,” he says. “There’s shortbread and mashed potatoes, but what about Blue Dream shortbread or garlic herb Lemon Skunk mashed potatoes?”

According to Reeves—and a growing number of local edible-cannabis manufacturers—that future is close enough to taste. Scott Van Rixel, a European master chocolatier and certified chef de cuisine, founded Oakland–based Bhang Chocolates in 2010 with the goal of pairing medical-grade cannabis with high-quality cacao. “I know how to make and market chocolate,” says Van Rixel, who left behind a mainstream gelato and chocolate company for an industry he sees as a “winner.” “I asked, how do I do this in a way that increases respect for cannabis and doesn’t diminish the value of chocolate?” Bhang Chocolates are made from fair-trade Venezuelan cacao and natural ingredients, are packaged in slim black boxes, and wouldn’t look out of place at an upscale grocery . “Except for the fact that there’s cannabis in there, everything about our package and product would be allowable and encouraged on the Whole Foods shelf,” Van Rixel says.

But of course, you won’t find Bhang’s toffee sea salt bar at Whole Foods. Not least among the challenges faced by pot gourmands is the law: Like smokable cannabis, edibles are legal as medicine in California, but illegal under federal law—which means that people like Reeves and Van Rixel are forced, in a way, to fear their own success. Many companies don’t disclose their sales figures or the location of their facility, and all operate with the knowledge that they could be shut down—or worse—at any moment. “Every day I come into work, I assume there’s a possibility that someone’s going to kick down the door,” says Reeves.

Full legality is a long-term goal, but for now, it’s foodie legitimacy that Reeves has his sights on. After all, if cannabis really is to become the next kale, it needs to appeal to people who may be turned off by Bob Marley and bong rips. “Anything that moves us away from the stereotype of a big smoking joint is a move in the right direction,” says Reeves (who, nonetheless, agreed to pose for this magazine with a big, smoking joint).

Partly to differentiate their products from dorm-room pot brownies and the dubious wares of the Dolores Park truffle guy (and partly because dispensaries require it), these high-end edibles companies focus seriously on professional packaging, labeling, and testing. Many rely on CW Analytical, an Oakland lab that tests products for potency and contaminates. When I visit the facility, Dr. Robert Martin, a biologist who worked at Kraft Foods before founding CW, has just spent the morning going through a massive database of one client’s products. “We’re justifying the milligrams of THC based on actual testing, not calculation,” he explains. “We’re bringing a new quality standard to the industry.”

Martin is chief executive officer of the Association of California Cannabis Laboratories, an organization for which he saw a pressing need. “If you’re a patient and you’re buying a product that’s tested properly, that product will deliver consistently. That way you know, if you [eat] more than a half a bar, what it’s going to do for you.” Homemade edibles vary greatly in potency, which can turn some people off. Martin’s job is to calibrate a dosage—somewhere between “lightly buzzed” and “at one with the couch”—that’s consistent every time.

“You’re not making this for a turkey dinner anymore,” Martin tells his clients. “You’re making this for people you don’t know, who might have allergies or a compromised immune system. The labels need to be right, and the amount of THC delivered needs to be right.”

In stark contrast to Martin’s work—and to the general rise in the transparency and professionalism of edible pot products—is the operation of two women I see near an entrance to the Outside Lands festival. There, while keeping an eye on their two small children, they hold up a sign for “Ganja Salted Caramels.” The homemade products are $5 each, unlabeled, and wrapped in waxed paper. When asked if they test their candies, they respond brightly: “We eat them all the time!”

It’s not so far from how Reeves got started: While in college in Hawaii, he would bring weed-laced cookies to a local beach every Sunday. “In a very nonmedical fashion, we sold them,” he says. “One week we even did cannabis-infused fried tomatoes.” But now, he goes on, “I want to build a community of people who are creating edibles the right way”—with testing, labeling, and, not least, culinary savoir faire. If this is the start of a new era for cannabis cuisine, Ganja Salted Caramels might represent the end of another.

Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco

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