Lead image via Sam Horine; additional images via Ryan Jones
“We’re in a place where you’re not interacting casually with the plant,” says Brooklyn-based chef and event producer Michael Cirino as he stares intently into the cortado he’s just ordered at the prestigious Ludlow House, a members-only club that triples as a caffeinated workspace, restaurant, and bar. “It’s not a beautiful ritual to me in the same way that coffee is.” Don’t get Cirino wrong, the experimental chef is a major proponent for cannabis, but as a futurist of sorts, he’s constantly looking forward to tackling the social stigmas that have surrounded cannabis use since the prohibition days.
Cirino is deeply concerned about the future of socially acceptable cannabis use, and helping society get there sooner. His Brooklyn Kitchen “Cooking with Cannabis” class isn’t about making brownies and cookies, but rather canna-cooking in a responsible and artisanal way. To Cirino, the most effective way to make cannabis use a socially acceptable ritual on par with drinking coffee or wine is to bring the plant to upper echelon.
While sipping from one of Ludlow House’s fancy coffee contraption, Cirino shares his thoughts on cannabis rituals, optimal cooking methods for the plant, and getting cannabis to a socially acceptable level.
MERRY JANE: What do you think is currently preventing cannabis from reaching a more socially acceptable status?
Michael Cirino: I believe that entertainment usually has three flavors: There’s a story, an experience, and an artifact. The story is infinitely scalable and portable, the experience is temporary and ephemeral, and the artifact is fixed and at your control. When I look at cannabis, I find that all three of those things seem to be broken right now. Everybody seems to be focusing heavily on the current user and the user in prohibition. Right now, we’re still in a heavy scarcity mentality, because it’s a hard and uncomfortable thing to get and have. Because of that, it affects an enormous amount of psychological perceptions of the plant, the way we interact with it, the way we consume it, the rituals that we’ve created around its consumption, and the integration in our society.
When coffee came to England it was thought of as disruptive. Coffee houses were where political foment happened. The Royal Science Academy started as a coffee drinking society. Isaac Newton was addicted to caffeine. The beginning of that conversation, before it became regulated, it was just like how it is now with cannabis. We need to get past that.
How can we get cannabis to integrate better with society?
Smoking is awesome, but it’s dangerous, dirty, off-putting, and it smells bad. There’s an infinite list of things, but it has its place. Same thing with vaporization. It’s not a beautiful ritual to me in the same way that coffee is, or ordering a bottle of wine at a restaurant, or watching a bartender make a fancy cocktail. Going to a fancy coffee shop and seeing all of the different things that can go into coffee-making as a ritual is awesome, and none of that exists for cannabis right now. There’s no presenting a bottle of wine at the table [for cannabis].
How are you able to work with the plant and teach cannabis cooking in New York, which isn’t the most progressive state?
It’s tricky. A lot of what I’m doing is thinking and writing and designing. We’ve been working on a machine that would be similar to coffee roasters and distillers, and things that could have high efficacy for decarboxylating cannabis, grinding and extracting the THC, while being artisanal and being able to affect the way it’s roasted and how that has a flavor cycle.
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How do you approach cannabis in the kitchen?
I try to approach it more like a finishing product, like truffle oil, or bitters, or something you add at the end of something. It gets to a place where you’re controlling it precisely, you’re also not integrating it into your recipe with all of these potential degradations to its quality. Sautéing with cannabis oil is a terrible idea—you might destroy all of the THC just by sautéing—but if you just drizzle it onto the pasta when it’s in the bowl, boom, you got it. It’s your individual dosage for your bowl of pasta. You don’t have to be precious with it, worried about it, you can just eat your pasta and know that you just got 3 to 5 milligrams of THC and that’s enough.
What do your “Cooking with Cannabis” classes entail?
Most people are used to smoking weed, which automatically decarboxylates it. I talk about how you actually have to do that when you cook—you can’t just take a bunch of raw weed and throw it in something. Sometimes that’s hard for people to understand. After we talk about what decarboxylating is, we go through the process of how it happens. I give a couple of different recipes at different temperature levels—dry in an oven is one way, and in a double boiler. The oven is used for both fat and alcohol, the double boiler is only used for fat. Then I talk about dosing. I have two rough areas of dosages that depend on the strength of the weed. One is roughly a cocktail strength and the other is roughly a coffee strength—that’s the difference between 6 to 8 milligrams and a 1- to 3-milligram dose.
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I also talk about how making brownies is the worst thing you can make, for a couple reasons. Any snack food is terrible because you have to make sets of them—snack foods with and without cannabis—because if you get stoned you’re going to want more snacks, and then you’re going to overdose. The biggest complaint that most people have about cannabis is that they eat too much and get uncomfortable, and that’s because they have no idea what their dosage is. Second, cannabis is not easy to distribute easily in large recipes like that. Your ability to get that to where it needs to be evenly is not as good as you think it is.