Right now in the cannabis cooking scene, there isn’t a single person with the star power of Chef Nikki Steward. Her ability to infuse cannabis into healthy foods and command a room with stories that follow the throughlines of food history is why Chef Nikki is the go-to chef for legends like Dave Chapelle, Naomi Campbell, and Snoop Dogg, as well as a whole handful of corporate leaders, athletes, and social media influencers. Her High-End Affair brand — a touring cannabis culinary and entertainment experience — is booming and she’s absolutely in demand among the weed-imbibing elite.
Recently, Chef Nikki teamed up with cannabis vaporizer brand Pax Labs for a special collaboration that saw the chef pairing Pax’s new Era Life concentrate-based vaporizers with plant-based recipes that reflect the vivid colors of each Era Life design. To mark that launch, we linked up with Chef Nikki to talk briefly about the new recipes and got into a deeper conversation about cannabis in the culinary space, where to start if you want to begin cooking with cannabis, and the exciting frontier of psilocybin cooking.
So… one of your Era Life recipes is themed around carrots and, more specifically, “carrot bacon.” How does one make carrots taste like bacon?
What I do is an old-school culinary hack, you gotta use liquid smoke, you mix it with tahini, you also add maple syrup and liquid aminos or coconut aminos. The longer you let it set, the more it absorbs the smokey ness of bacon, the sweetness and the saltiness of that flavor.
So get a nice big carrot, when you shave it you’ll see the little lines, almost like bacon, like when you’d fry it. Let it marinate in the mixture and it will pick up all those flavors. It’s a really quick recipe, it takes five minutes of prep, in and out of the oven within 10 and you’ve got crispy carrot bacon strips. It’s kind of mind-blowing to a lot of people.
It’s very different, bacon has been done a lot of times with a lot of different things, even if you’re talking about proteins, turkey, lamb, pork, beef, there are so many options for bacon. But on the vegan side it’s usually seitan, or maybe coconut, I’ve seen mushroom bacon. But the only thing that resembles the actual full length of a bacon strip is a carrot.
You approach your cooking from a whole and healthy foods perspective. How did you fall upon that particular aspect of the culinary world? I know you were studying pharmaceutical sciences at Ohio State, so I imagine what you were learning in that field played into what you wanted to do with food.
Those things represent the ethos of my brand — my last name is Steward and when I think about being a good steward, you’re being a good steward to your body, and a good steward to your community so I want to promote healthy things. When we’re normalizing cannabis we also have to normalize health and wellness and incorporating those two with food and cannabis. To me, they are in natural alignment. As we’re pushing cannabis to be normal in everyone’s life, now I feel like it’s a regular supplement, or an additive to your food. That’s how I settled on that.
You’ve cooked for all sorts of celebrities from athletes to influencers to Chappelle, of course. What is the menu curation process? Is this something you discuss with clients or are they coming for a specific menu by you?
I have this thing personally, I try not to do the same thing every time. Thankfully I do have creative liberties with most of my clients, they trust me in that way. I know the do’s and dont’s and the allergies and stuff, but usually, for instance, yesterday, I did my menu planning for the rest of the week with my team. My sous chefs and I sit down and discuss flavors we would like to see, and new recipes techniques we would like to try. We try to do new stuff all the time. Last week, I have a sponsor in hot sauce called Truff, and we made caviar beads out of the truffle hot sauce. We’re always trying to challenge ourselves and push ourselves to the next level using different types of molecular gastronomy. We’ll try to do something fun or a little bit more scientific to challenge ourselves and my team is always down.
We have really great brainstorming meetings, I usually write the menu and they go through it and add some additional flavor notes and break it down into the prep list and the recipes. My team consists of all women, we have a really good relationship, we all know each other and our ways as far as in the kitchen. We’re making duck bacon this week, and duck prosciutto. With these things, a lot of people think we can just do them the night before, but no, we have to let them cure for five to seven days, a lot of these things take time.
Why was it important for you to create this team of all women, is that making up for the way the food industry has failed women?
100%. 110%. Women in the kitchen are often very overlooked and underserved. In addition to adding the black and brown woman to the kitchen, my mission is to consistently hire and mentor black and brown women and also women in the LGTBQI spectrum because they’re also one of the most underappreciated people in the kitchen. I want to elevate them to a platform where they are seen and help them grow their own personal businesses outside of working with me.
What’s your personal relationship to cannabis? I imagine you approach this from a more holistic and healing perspective.
Yes, very much so, I feel like most people have a teen story but I was a teenager the first time I consumed cannabis. And I thought “This could be my vibe.” In high school people are like “yeah let’s drink our parent’s liquor” but I’m over here wondering if one of my parents had weed. Where is it?! I remember sitting with my friends at the park and that was one of my first experiences with cannabis. But as I studied and learned more about plant medicine, drugs, synthetic drugs, and things like that, understanding wellness and healing, I began to incorporate cannabis more or less as a practice of health and plant medicine.
I always teach people that cannabis is an entheogen and understanding the root word of entheogen of plant medicines, that root word means “of God” and if you think about when you smoke cannabis, you’re getting closer and closer to that level of highness right? I teach people the relationship of cannabis, ancestrally, and historically, and medically and how it was used and how it should never have been put in this position where we’re now trying to legalize it federally because it should never have even gone there, but I do have those conversations with a lot of people because that’s my relationship to cannabis, it’s very spiritual to me honestly.
When did you start experimenting with cannabis as a culinary ingredient?
My first time experimenting with cannabis as a culinary ingredient was in college. I was just trying new things, of course, I did the brownies and the cookies in the beginning. Making my own butter… I’ve probably fucked myself up way too many times. More than I can imagine. Terribly. But when I started to understand dosing and went through the process of learning when I was in school and then stopping in the pharmaceutical space and going into the culinary space I just figured, maybe I can just merge the two?
What’s wrong with really loving food and really loving cannabis and how can we bring them together in a way that isn’t just brownies and cookies? I got turned off by that, why does everything have to be sweet all the time, it’s okay to have savory things, it’s okay if you want just raw nuts, why can’t they be infused?
So I was constantly thinking about ways — this has probably been a 12-year journey for me at least. But my first start was definitely the college brownie experience.
Speaking on dosing, how do you handle something like that? It’s a very sensitive area especially for people who are interested in using cannabis as a culinary ingredient, but we’ve all had those situations where we’ve had an edible you can’t handle and you end up staying in bed shivering all day and it feels like the world’s ending.
Yeah! I started teaching myself breathing techniques to get through that. I really do, I also teach a lot of my diners who feel that they’re a little too elevated the wim hof breathing techniques, because its really mind over matter, because you’re not going to die. That’s the one thing we do know, it’s not going to kill you, but just getting through that headspace and that breath space because a lot of the time when you’re way too high from an edible it’s an immense amount of pressure.
“Can I breathe?” Absolutely you can breathe, you’re just overthinking it!
When you approach something like dosing do you have specific guidelines or is that just too deep of a science to get into?
It’s pretty deep of a science, as far as the mathematical breakdowns, but it is a process by which you have to really train yourself and really understand your actual product and the amount of THC. There are a lot of home devices that you can use to make oils and things like that, you put your ounce of cannabis in there, and your carrier oil and those products are great now because they really break all of those things down for the at-home consumer. But if you are a chef and you are doing these things, the majority of the time I’m doing infusions for 200 to 300 people at a time… I can use everything from distillate to water-soluble rosin, water-soluble isolate, there are just a lot of different types of concentrates I use that create different effects and different results — it gets really tricky!
For someone who is just starting out, and interested in cooking with cannabis, what’s a good place to start? Should people start simple, brownies, cookies, or is there another recipe that you think is even easier?
Well, I’ll tell you what, as a sidebar, the carrot bacon does require oil, so you really could replace that amount of oil with cannabis oil or half and half, there are so many things you can do that you don’t have to start with cookies and brownies. You can take the recipes I write, and add additional things to them and replace those measurements. I do encourage people to go outside the box. Make a vinaigrette, instead of taking that oil and putting it in brownies, or you know, marinate some fish! There are a lot of different options so I just always encourage people to always have their measuring spoons, know how much THC is in your product, as soon as you think you’ve put too much, you probably did.
I mean seriously, I’ve thought “is that too much? Yeah probably, but you’ll figure it out.” It’s part of research and development.
When cooking with cannabis, are you someone who is relying on its natural aromas and flavors or are you looking for something that’s as transparent as possible and it’s more about medication?
There are often times where I lean more towards the seamlessness of flavor when it comes to cannabis, but I also like to bring the terpenes forward on certain dishes so that they match. So maybe we’ll take an atomizer, and incorporate the terpenes in the atomizer, and spritz the dish or we’ll put smoke back into it with the terpenes. Have you ever seen those smoking cocktails at a bar? In that same technique, you can put terpenes into there and it can smoke in the cocktail at the top of the glass so you get the essence of the terpenes at the top.
When I’m doing a lot of citrus, anything with garlic, every now and then I like to leave a little bit of the terpenes at the beginning so you taste it like “hmm?” but then once you digest it you don’t have the after taste of the terpenes.
I’m guessing Dave Chappelle’s favorite cannabis-infused mac and cheese is the recipe you get asked most about, can you share it with us or is that a guarded secret?
Honestly, it’s not a guarded secret. I have a recipe out for a full mac and cheese recipe out on WeedMaps. But it is one of the most often asked things. My DMs are filled with “Can you ship it?” I’ve been asked to deliver mac and cheese everywhere in the world. It’s just one of those things, we like comfort when we’re high anyway, and who doesn’t like mac and cheese? And so boom! But you have to be honest with yourself, you can’t eat three or four bowls, you can’t do it. You’ll blow on your ass before the end of the night. I don’t mind giving out the recipe, for the very reason that I know you can’t make it the same as I do. But I’m going to let you try. But it’s just the way I do it, I think it’s more about the technique than the ingredients.
You’re also interested in psilocybin in cooking. Where do you think we are as a country when it comes to mushroom-infused food? Obviously, edibles are taking off, especially after the pandemic, they’ve really shot up in popularity. Now as more states are decriminalizing mushrooms, how far out — I know you do it for some people as a very personal experience — but how far out are we from that being offered on a wider scale?
I don’t think we’re very far at all. I think we’re within a couple of year window, maybe two to four years, especially federally, it’s moving way faster than cannabis ever moved. The California Senate just pushed it through. The thing is, it’s a very interesting walk with psychedelics in food, especially psilocybin. Mushrooms are a very interesting thing, you can’t cook them all the way through because you lose the properties, you can heat them to 120 degrees a 130 maybe. I’m in a group that talks about a lot of safety and consent with psychedelics and we talk about the new trends in the industry, we’re seeing it in a lot of different places. I’ve been gifted a lot of different things I didn’t even know people were making. Like syrups, gummies, and chocolates, of course, the candy is going to hit the market first, all the sweet things.
But what I’m trying to figure out is, are people going to want to see dispensaries have mushroom products that aren’t sweet? I think it’s coming for sure. You can dry out mushrooms and put them in a trail mix and that could be your little microdose. There are so many things, a lot of companies reach out to me and want to do R&D right now and most of them are cannabis brands. It’s coming, it’s sneaking up on me faster than I thought, it’s like “Oh psychedelics are in the news today? Let’s go!”
As someone who is into the healing aspects of both mushrooms and weed, is this growing popularity something that stresses you out or worries you? Mushrooms are a more intimate and personal experience, freaking out on edible marijuana is one thing, but the effects of mushrooms are so much more profound. Are we moving too fast or is it on people to know what they can handle?
Yeah, I do believe it’s on everyone to figure out where they will settle in that space. I do work with a lot of groups that talk about safety and messaging and we have our eye on different types of psychedelic propaganda, but we’re always trying to teach people to sit with mushrooms. I have no problem with people using mushrooms recreationally, but I’m a person who likes to use them to get into a space to connect with my higher self, we do talk people through journeys, safety, and knowing your numbers as far as your dosing. A lot of people can’t just go and be a macrodoser. You kind of have to start slow in the micro-levels and work your way up. The other thing is a lot of people aren’t considering that it’s important to think about the other medications you’re on.
Cannabis doesn’t typically interfere with a lot of other psychotropics in the way that psychedelics do. So if you have someone that says “yeah I want to take a lot of mushrooms” and they’re on SSRIs or some sort of psychotropics, they’re definitely going to experience some psychosis if they go into a large mushroom trip.
Mushrooms will probably have — and Canada already has mushrooms in dispensaries — but the labeling and the regulation are probably going to be very similar to when you get a prescription to something. Don’t take this with, eliminate this, that kind of thing.
And again even with mushrooms, you’re not going to die! Just let it pass through.
The last year of the pandemic really gave an opportunity for a lot of industries to reset and reflect on themselves, what would you like to see the food world do better?? I know the food industry has failed women of color — feel free to double down on that point if you like to — but what can the food world do better not just for people working in the field but from a consumer standpoint?
I’m gonna start from this angle. My daughter comes to me last week and says “there’s no Michellin award or James Beard category for what you do” and I said, “no there’s not!” And she said, “do you think there will ever be one?” I don’t know, I feel like there should be. I’ve heard rumors that James Beard was going to add a cannabis category because it is a niche thing but it’s a space that is growing and there are a lot of chefs that have converted into that space that are extremely talented. I think for me I focus on telling stories, I talk a lot about the American aesthetic of food as it relates to the African diaspora. I do a lot of food lessons and I encourage people to understand food history. I think for the food world we’re getting close to that and people are starting to understand certain foods that we eat now, fried chicken, potato chips, they’re tracing the source back how these things get into the American aesthetic of food and also giving credit to the African Americans who created those dishes and the reasons why.
I’m always pushing people to understand spices and rice, and where did that come from how did it get there, why do we use it? Don’t shade certain cultures for certain things, I’m constantly having these conversations with my Asian, Latino, Black, and Caribbean chef friends. American really is a melting pot of immigrant food which we call “American food.” So don’t be shady to these immigrants when you’re consuming their food.
As far as the agenda and representing and mentoring black and brown women in the culinary space, I turn down men often, almost daily. I had two requests today, but my heart is never going to change. The woman that work with me, they will never make it to executive chef in most situations, they’ll never own their own restaurant if they aren’t given the opportunity to shine. One of my chefs, she’s from Detroit, she’s 23, she works at a really great restaurant in downtown Detroit. Because she’s been working with me doing stuff with Chappelle, her boss, the executive chef, just offered her a raise and increased responsibility. But it’s because he’s like “oh, either I want to keep you or you’re a goner right now. People are asking about you when they’re coming into the restaurant, Is Noel here, or is she with chef Nikki?”
I think the food world has a lot to grow as far as sources and where things come from and respecting cultures that contributed to that.