Photo courtesy of Holden Jagger and Altered Plates
Holden Jagger calls himself “Chef, Cultivator, Ganjier,” though he should probably precede that list with the important modifier “tireless.” The California-based chef trained in restaurants for eons before leaving that specific sect to pursue marijuana-infused food with his private dining and consulting company, Altered Plates. It’s been a lot of work but Jagger’s enthusiasm for what he does is palpable. And, unlike many people who work in edibles and pride themselves on the lack of dank twang, this chef selects strains with the herb’s nuanced tastes in mind and how those may complement the dish at hand.
MERRY JANE got with Jagger to talk about the growing industry, learning from his mentor (and James Beard semifinalist) pastry chef Shannon Swindle, and how cannabis is really a lot like wine. He also shares a lifted recipe sweet enough for your sweet ma this Mother’s Day.
Kiva Blackberry Dark Chocolate Panna Cotta
(Serves 50 — enough for the whole family, just make sure you tell them it’s infused! 2.4 mg of THC per serving)
1 Kiva Dark Chocolate Blackberry bar
4 quarts heavy cream
1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
16 sheets gelatin
2 teaspoon salt
630g of 70 percent chocolate
4 vanilla beans, scraped
Bloom gelatin in cold water, wring dry, set aside. Scald half the cream, salt, and vanilla bean in a heavy sauce pan. Add the gelatin, whisk, and dissolve. Pour over the chocolate and whisk until smooth. Add the remaining liquid and strain through a fine-mesh strainer. Pour the liquid into 2-oz. molds and refrigerate for at least 4 hours until set. To un-mold, place the set panna cotta in a warm water bath to loosen it from the mold, invert, and plate. This panna cotta will stand on its own but would be wonderfully accompanied by some macerated blackberries with a little lemon zest, and fennel frond for garnish and color.
Above, chef Holden Jagger, photo via Altered Plates
MERRY JANE: A lot marijuana chefs pride themselves on how their food doesn't taste herbalicious at all. However, you've said before you like to find ways to enhance dishes with cannabis's flavor nuances. Tell me a little more about that.
Holden Jagger: As a chef, the various aromas, flavors, and tastes that cannabis produces is what draws me to wanting to work in this space. There is one approach to cannabis cuisine where you make a beautiful dish and sneak THC or CBD into the dish without the guest being aware of its presence, other than the delayed inebriation from those chemicals. I think that those experiences are great, but they just don't excite me as much as playing with cannabis as a vegetable, or pairing dishes with cannabis the same way you would wine.
As a cultivator, I have had the opportunity to examine the plant as a whole, searching for flavor in the plant itself, not for infusion purposes, but rather inclusion. I start most meals or events with an examination of cannabis as vegetable, where I put together some bites that use cannabis in unique ways. What if I pickled it? What if I cured it? What if I fermented it? These are the questions that swirl in the mind of a chef as they play with a new ingredient. I am simply using that lens and applying it to cannabis.
Can you tell me more about how that informs your practice?
I feel like infused meals are having their time in the sun, but I think that the examination of tasting cannabis and how that ties into the hospitality space is more interesting and has more depth to it than mere infusion. There are natural parallels between wine, cannabis, and food, and when you understand the nuances of how to taste cannabis, and understand that each varietal has a distinct flavor and aroma, you can think about this plant differently. That’s the experience I want to give my guest: a respect and appreciation for the cannabis plant, and a celebration of its flavors — not just hiding it in some food to get you high.
That is something I am really focused on: it’s not about the dinner, it’s certainly not about me, or my food or my ego — it’s about the guest and their experience. I feel like that understanding is lacking in this space right now because we haven't been able to fully bring hospitality into the conversation, but that is changing.
How are you working to melt the stigma of marijuana use? What kind of progress have you seen since you started Altered Plates?
I’m not sure how much I have directly contributed to the melting of stigma. I think the stigma is fading because it has always been a fabrication. The idea of cannabis users as failed persons, unable to hold a job, or contribute to society was never fully-formed in my mind. I grew up around many successful people who used cannabis for various reasons, who were never hindered by using it. The concept of this plant being dangerous is rather new, in comparison to how long cannabis has been part of human life. Anyone with the right lens can plainly see that the dangers associated with cannabis are far less than the dangers of alcohol, yet alcohol is on most dinner tables. This is another reason I advocate for cannabis following a similar path to craft spirits and wines in the hospitality industry. Placing cannabis in the hospitality space and on the same level as wine and spirits will help break down those barriers and stigmas more than a dispensary in your neighborhood ever could.
Who do you think is finessing the edibles market best these days? Do you have anyone you look to for mentorship and if so, who?
I really like some of the health and medicine focused edible products coming out of the Bay. Swerve Confections makes delightful ice water hash which they use in their delightful edibles. They have uplifting and sedating products that taste great and do what they advertise. I really like the way Swerve bars make me feel. I am sure that is because they grow their own product; control in the means of production of the base product is crucial to making a finished product that is clean and dependable.
I do have a mentor in the kitchen world, my chef at Craft restaurant in Los Angeles, Shannon Swindle. He taught me the importance of quality in food. Being his sous chef for three years helped me develop my understanding about the relationship we have with everything that grows, and I have carried that passion with me into the cannabis world. I feel like there is a disconnect between cannabis chefs and the farmers who produce the product. Most of the cannabis that is out there is produced by mono croppers whose sole drive to produce this product is profit. I know small farmers in Mendocino who use cannabis to subsidize their organic vegetable and livestock production. Those are the people who deserve a place in this industry, more than the profit-driven commercial producers who are running the show right now.
What are some unique challenges presented in the edibles market in general or with your company specifically? What's next for Altered Plates?
I have a few projects I am working on right now. I am not big on talking about the things I am doing or will be doing. I would seem kinda odd for me to talk about a restaurant or a space when right now there is no path for any of those to really exist yet. We kinda shot ourselves in the foot with 64 and the prohibitive language for public consumption, but this is California, and we will figure it out. But I want to be part of the high-end cannabis market, and at the end of the day, the most important part of that conversation is establishing exactly what makes cannabis a high-end product. For me, a big part of that conversation is celebrating sun grown and organically farmed cannabis, just like what we look for in our produce, and care about where everything else we put in our bodies comes from. Could you imagine buying the most expensive bottle of wine and finding it was grown indoors or a greenhouse? It would be unsettling to even consider.
What about the edibles market and the larger marijuana industry is so exciting right now?
First off, testing. I think that this market has been unregulated for too long. I mean, we have come a long way from gooballs and pot brownies, but without regular testing of product at every stage, dosing, and food safety are always in question. The product that is used in infusion needs to also have rigorous testing, and with the implementation of regulation, I hope that we can make moves to protect the consumer from inferior product.
Tell me about the dish you're sharing with us today. How would you pair it with booze, if you would at all?
Even though I’m passionate about pairings and flavors of cannabis, of course I cook infused food, and I think something like this, a chocolate panna cotta made with Kiva chocolate, is a great way to introduce the uninitiated to cannabis. First, let me say I love the Kiva chocolate, for consistency in not just potency, but also taste. There are few edible products that hit the spot for me the same way. With edibles I usually take no more than 5mg total. Anything higher and it gets to be a little too much for me. This recipe yields a large batch and maintains a low dose of 2.4mg, which is perfect for second servings. I’d serve this with some nicely macerated blackberries and a little lemon zest to add a little acid, which plays nicely with the creaminess in this dish.
For more on Holden Jagger and Altered Plates, visit his website here.
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