A Tableside Education With Cannabis Chef Holden Jagger
Photo: Rachel Burkons of Altered Plates
The CBD industry through the eyes of a trained chef is an interesting vantage point, coming from a place where nourishing people using healthy natural ingredients is a primary concern. For that reason, head chef and founder of Altered Plates Holden Jagger believes that elevating education around the plant should be an imminent priority for the CBD and cannabis industries. Because as he puts it, the plant can “feed us, clothe us, shelter us, propel us, heal us, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and rehabilitate our over-fertilized, over-tilled, and exhausted planet.“
CBD has always been part of the program at Altered Plates, the Los Angeles-based catering company run by chef Holden Jagger and his sister Rachel Burkons. The pair got their start as a medical co-operative, but changing regulations required them to stay on their toes to remain compliant, and their catered cannabis events gained enough traction to keep them busy. Always at the heart of business was to use the pairing of cooking and cannabis as an educational experience for the uninitiated and connoisseurs alike, which is why Altered Plates was just asked to run an event this Month at one of the most prestigious culinary institutions in the game, the James Beard Foundation.
Upon learning that Holden and Rachel would be in New York City for the James Beard event “An Exploration of Terpenes,” we reached out and were lucky enough to secure the pair and their crew to cater the opening of the Standard Dose Wellness Experience, where guests dined on a CBD-infused menu of hors d'oeuvres and beverages while exploring all the details of the immersive meditation space.
In an effort to better understand and support the work of others working in the CBD space, we spoke to Holden about the importance of destigmatizing cannabis, prioritizing education, and the abundant future in store for those researching the cross-industry applications of hemp and cannabis.
Why did you choose to work with cannabis?
HJ: As a chef, I think it is important to look at cannabis as an agricultural product. It is an important part of our history, and has long been a part of our food system; I consider it a lost pillar of agriculture. Cannabis also has so many culinary touchstones from flavors to pair-ability that it only makes sense to frame in culinary terms. Despite these factors, cannabis has also been used as a tool to disenfranchise whole populations of people, so we honestly can’t talk about cannabis enough if we want things to change in this world.
How do you educate complete beginners to cannabis?
HJ: Terpenes are a great place to start. Terpenes are the aromatic molecules responsible for flavor and aromas in cannabis, but these compounds are also in a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and botanicals. At Altered Plates, long before we talk about effects, we educate our guests about the flavor of cannabis through its taste and aromas. Relating cannabis to food and flavor is an amazing place to disarm hesitant consumers or novices. From there, CBD and other non-innebriative cannabinoids are perfect follow up to flavor because they abate peoples’ fears of “getting high.” As people begin to feel more comfortable around cannabinoid use, we can move into the infused space, where education about dosage and effect is essential to the guest enjoyment.
What are the biggest obstacles to overcoming the learning curve?
HJ: Stigma. There have been more than 80 years of purposeful miseducation and misinformation about cannabis, fear, poor science, social prejudice and bad optics — these are some of the many obstructions we are encountering on our path to normalizing cannabis. Unfortunately this prohibition movement has also resulted in the incarceration of countless human beings. However, I believe we have many advantages in our fight: Armed with science, a quest for restorative justice, and the knowledge about how this plant can and will help us address issues in our world, I am certain we will change the hearts and minds and effect real change.
Tell me about treating cannabis crops like vintages of wine.
HJ: In California, there is a heritage of cultivating sungrown, full-terms cannabis with heirloom genetics bred to perform well in their specific environment, ranging from climate, geographic position, and microbial soil compositions. These factors indicate terroir, just as they do in wine. Each season, has a story just like vintages of wine that tell the stories of the vine in a year, capturing it in a bottle, With cannabis, these same stories of the journey of a seed in a year can be captured in a jar.
You often talk about the power of terpenes. Why do you love them? What are you most excited about when it comes to terpenes?
HJ: Terpenes are responsible for the flavors and aromas of foods and plants. They influence how we experience the world, like a form of aromatherapy. Cannabis may be making terpenes widely relevant enough to talk about at large, but they are in fact crucially important to all organic life. They should be something we celebrate, discuss, and study, both for their culinary applications and their function in our bodies and minds.
What did you take away from working under [American celebrity chef] Tom Colicchio, and how does that influence what you create today?
HJ: Working in Tom Colicchio’s Craft restaurant in Los Angeles had one of the greatest impacts on me as a cook in the early part of my career. There, I had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest talent in Los Angeles during a very special place in time. There, I learned the importance of quality of product, respecting the people who were behind these foods and understanding what principles they stood behind. Working in places like craft teaches cooks that everything we do has an impact on the world around us, and in order to educate our guest, we must ourselves be educated not just in our techniques as chefs but also in our knowledge of how food is grown or raised.
What do you mean by “tableside” activism and why is it important?
HJ: Tableside activism goes beyond cannabis — honestly it’s a simple disruption of the old adage of what not to bring up at the dinner table. Bringing political, environmental, and social issues to food service is no new concept. In my several years within the cannabis hospitality space, every dinner or event we participate in has some level of activist messaging; it becomes unavoidable when you’re talking about and working with a plant as regulated as cannabis. That is why Altered Plates embraces it. We are still knee-deep in the “war on drugs,” and although recreational and medicinal cannabis is legal throughout much of the United States, the plant is still a Federally scheduled substance, held to greater scrutiny than even methamphetamine and cocaine. So in that way, every cannabis event we do has an element of activism that occurs naturally over fine food, good people, and great conversation.
How long have you been working with CBD in particular?
HJ: I’ve been using CBD products for the length of my culinary cannabis career. One of the first events Altered Plates ever did was with CBD company the Stanley Brothers, and I had to speak after Paige Figi spoke. Paige is a cannabis activist whose daughter Charlotte, after whom Charlotte’s Web is named, suffered from Dravet’s Syndrome. CBD literally saved this little girl’s life. Paige’s speech was so moving that I was completely choked up that I could barely form words after listening to the story about a mother who was simply just trying to save her daughter’s life. It was impactful.
How did legalization change things for you? What are the main issues you face?
HJ: Legalization was a challenge for our company. We were originally a company registered with the state as a medical cannabis cooperative, and we were fully compliant under state law. The transition was challenging, but we have weathered the storm. However, as laws continue to change and evolve, so does our quest to remain compliant. We are currently working on opening one of the City of West Hollywood’s eight on-site consumption lounges; as the laws change at both the state and municipal level, we will seek new ways to maintain compliance.
How do these frequently changing restrictions affected things late? For example, didn’t the James Beard event this year needed to be reimagined at a late stage.
HJ: At the end of the day I’m actually pretty happy with how the chips landed with the James Beard event [An Exploration of Terpenes, May 15, 2019]. First off, If I had gotten the opportunity to even just wash dishes there for a night for a night I’d have taken it in heartbeat; having anything to do with the Foundation is an honor. But to be able to showcase terpenes there in that hallowed ground was a true highlight of my career. We also got the chance to work with Hudson Hemp to bring three varieties of high-CBD hemp flower to the tables of the James Beard House. Using these varieties as aromatic pairings, with the additional benefit of the visual and tactile connections that one gains when using a flower rather than a wine as a food pairing.
What do you want to see in the industry? What are you excited about?
HJ: Cannabis can feed us, clothe us, shelter us, propel us, heal us, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and help clean and heal our over fertilized over-tilled and exhausted planet.
Below, a selection of the ingredients used in the hors d'oeuvres developed by Altered Plates for the launch party of the Standard Dose Wellness Experience.