When it comes to cooking with cannabis, Chef Nikki Steward is the woman you want.
As a sought-after culinary entertainment figure, Chef Nikki (her preferred honorific) has toured with DJ Khaled and been tapped to curate dinners for the likes of Dave Chappelle, Snoop Dogg, and Migos. What sets her apart is a niche approach to whole and healthy foods – an understanding Chef Nikki has built upon while studying under acclaimed executive chefs from across the globe.
Chef Nikki is also the creator of The High-End Affair, which bills itself as “is a touring cannabis culinary entertainment brand that brings together the cannabis industry influencers for an evening of food and networking.” During those experiences, Chef Nikki is not only chief cook but master storyteller as well, sharing anecdotes from her life and context for the evening’s cuisine.
As cannabis-infused food continues to expand its market and appeal, we reached out to Chef Nikki to get the story on her career while also sharing a selection of recipes she’s created in partnership with Weedmaps tailored for the winter season.
When did you first discover an interest in cooking with cannabis?
As a child, I always gravitated towards science. I have always been intrigued with the brain as the control center for the body and my mother made sure I had every opportunity to explore my interest. She would research and cart me around to pre-med and science summer programs at universities throughout Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Georgia.
My first year as a student at the Ohio State University, I decided to visit my academic advisor and discuss a pre-med curriculum to become a neurosurgeon and she jokingly told me that I wouldn’t be a neurosurgeon until I was 35. At that very moment, I decided to switch paths because I was eager to start my professional career sooner rather than later. I asked the counselor for my options and she suggested pharmaceutical sciences.
After interning and taking a job at a local pharmacy, I quickly realized the retail pharmaceutical industry was not gratifying to me. From there, I took a break and focused on being a mother and rediscovered my passion for cooking. I started developing recipes and hosting dinner parties.
At some point, one of my guests suggested that I take cooking more seriously which led me to start a catering business, Good Stewards Catering, in 2008. Being a “good steward” to your body, soul and community was what I had in mind when I developed my catering brand. I began traveling around the country to study and meet chefs that could mentor me. I immersed myself in the kitchen as that was the best way for me to learn. I started on the line in area restaurants in Columbus and learned every process in the kitchen.
I got into cooking with cannabis because I was inspired by the idea of preparing “healing foods” and creating “elevated” experiences. I decided to explore combining what I learned in pharmaceutical sciences with my passion for culinary arts. I wanted to balance flavors with ingredients that promote wellness.
As a self-taught food scientist, it took a lot of trial and error. I consulted with doctors, scientists, growers, and processors in the field to come up with the formulations that resulted in balanced products and exciting new recipes. In 2017, I was invited to cater my first cannabis-infused dinner for 250 people. It was for rapper Snoop Dogg and his Merry Jane cannabis brand. Needless to say, that dinner party elevated my culinary cannabis career.
What are some general pieces of advice you’d give to anyone who’s interested in cooking with cannabis?
My advice and best practices to cannabis chefs?
Safety is [a] high priority! It’s important to understand safety measures for consumers as it relates to cannabis consumption. Chefs and cooks must learn to properly measure and quantify the proper per person doses when preparing meals. This will ensure your guests have a good and safe experience.
Understand the science; master the art. Just as there are culinary schools, there are also cannabis schools. I highly recommend classes at both. Chefs must understand the endocannabinoid system — the network of cell receptors and molecules responsible for sending messages throughout the body — and the impact of cannabis on that system. When this system functions optimally, our body is better supported in its ability to heal itself.
Expand/elevate your basic culinary knowledge. Good chefs don’t necessarily make good cannabis chefs and vice-versa. Expanding the way you think about food and food with cannabis creates a world of new opportunities.
Find good (re)sources. Get the most accurate information and find the best suppliers.
In your experience, have you found cooking with cannabis to be an activity that tends to help individuals who may not be familiar with the plant feel more comfortable with it?
Cooking with cannabis gives plant-based cooking a whole new meaning! Many people are familiar with cannabis-infused baked goods but incorporating cannabis into savory dishes is becoming increasingly popular, especially for medicinal use. I like to describe cannabis in food as a supplement versus as an ingredient. And, similar to dietary supplements, it comes in various forms including water-soluble isolates, live rosin, distillate, and concentrates. If you are new to cannabis and want to have a non-smoking or non-combustible experience, then cooking with cannabis offers an amazing alternative. I have a few recipes in collaboration with Weedmaps.com [scroll to the bottom for recipes!] and regard the website as the “go-to” resource for all things cannabis. Whether you decide to cook with CBD, THC or both, you may not taste it, but you’ll feel it!
My guess is that most consumers who have eaten cannabis are used to things that are sweet or perhaps salty. With that said, do you feel recipes for complex, savory cannabis dishes offer the potential to bring out different elements of the plant from, say, a pre-packaged brownie?
Absolutely! While most people are familiar with weed “brownies” or other cannabis-infused baked goods, pairing terpene profiles with savory foods completely elevates the culinary experience. Removing the chlorophyll taste helps to maintain the true flavor of the food, while isolating terpenes from the flower allows you to be creative with the essence of the plant.
You’ve worked with some incredible folks and earned a world-class reputation. As a woman of color and someone who is obviously passionate about the future and potential of cannabis in our kitchens, what needs to happen to ensure this industry doesn’t become a flash-in-the-pan or something unrecognizable from its roots?
The human consumption of cannabis can be traced back to our earliest indigenous ancestors and even then, it was used for medicinal, religious, and recreational purposes. The prohibition and criminalization of cannabis led to racially-motivated public policy that disproportionately affected people of color. As the country, and the world moves closer to legalization and normalization, I’m hoping that folks who have been historically targeted by law enforcement for possessing, consuming, or selling cannabis don’t get shut out of the billion-dollar industry. From growers to dispensaries, social equity must be a part of the business plan of every player in the industry.