EVEN preschool teachers unwind with a round of drinks now and then. But in professional kitchens, where the hours are long, the pace intense and the goal is to deliver pleasure, the need to blow off steam has long involved substances that are mind-altering and, often enough, illegal.
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“Everybody smokes dope after work,” said Anthony Bourdain, the author and chef who made his name chronicling drugs and debauchery in professional kitchens. “People you would never imagine.”
So while it should not come as a surprise that some chefs get high, it’s less often noted that drug use in the kitchen can change the experience in the dining room.
In the 1980s, cocaine helped fuel the frenetic open kitchens and boisterous dining rooms that were the incubators of celebrity chef culture. Today, a small but influential band of cooks says both their chin-dripping, carbohydrate-heavy food and the accessible, feel-good mood in their dining rooms are influenced by the kind of herb that can get people arrested.
Call it haute stoner cuisine.
“There has been an entire strata of restaurants created by chefs to feed other chefs,” Mr. Bourdain said. “These are restaurants created specially for the tastes of the slightly stoned, slightly drunk chef after work.”
As examples of places serving that kind of food, he offered some of David Chang’s restaurants; Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal, with its poutine of foie gras; Crif Dogs in the East Village, which makes a deep-fried cheese steak hot dog; and, in fact, the entire genre of mutant-hot-dog stands.
To be sure, substance abuse and addiction are concerns in the restaurant industry, and any restaurant where an employee or owner is caught with illegal drugs could lose its liquor license.
It is also hard to imagine any ambitious kitchen could function safely during dinner rush if the staff were impaired.
And despite what Mr. Bourdain said, a great many cooks get along just fine with no chemical assistance at all.
Nevertheless, a handful of chefs are unabashedly open about marijuana’s role in their creative and recreational lives and its effect on their restaurants.
The chefs and restaurateurs Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo said most of their projects — going to Sicily to import olive oil to sell at their two Frankies Spuntino restaurants; the concept for their Brooklyn restaurant Prime Meats; even a new restaurant planned for Portland, Ore. — were conceived with the creative help of marijuana.
Roy Choi, who owns the fleet of Kogi Korean taco trucks in Los Angeles, likens the culinary culture that has grown up around marijuana to the one that rose up around the Grateful Dead years ago. Then, people who attended the band’s shows got high and shared live music. Now, people get high and share delicious, inventive and accessible food.
“It’s good music, maybe a little weed and really good times and great food that makes you feel good,” he said.
“We’re not like Cypress Hill,” Mr. Choi said, referring to a rap group known for being outspoken advocates of pot use. “It’s not like a campaign to make food out of hemp, but it is a culture. It’s a vibe we have.”
Mr. Choi, who recently opened his first restaurant, Chego!, said he uses marijuana to keep his creativity up and to squeeze in quick breaks in the midst of 17-hour workdays.
“In the middle of a busy day, I’ll smoke,” he said. “Then I’ll go to the record store and hang out and clear my mind or pop into a matinee movie and then come back to the streets.”
Getting in touch with the haute stoner food aesthetic, though, does not necessarily mean looking at life through a haze of smoke.
The cereal milk soft-serve ice cream at Momofuku Milk Bar in Manhattan is a perfect example. A dessert based on the slightly sweet flavor of milk at the bottom of a cereal bowl particularly appeals to someone who knows both high-quality food and the cannabis-induced pleasure of a munchie session built from a late-night run to the 7-Eleven.
Christina Tosi, the pastry chef of David Chang’s empire, said she was stone-cold sober when she invented it. She was in the basement of Mr. Chang’s Ssam Bar late at night, trying to save a failed experiment in fried apple pies.
“I promise you there was no marijuana involved,” she said. “It would have made the stress of it more bearable if it was.”
Mr. Chang said drugs will always be part of kitchen culture, but that marijuana alone did not explain the changes in the culinary landscape that his restaurants represent.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “But it certainly wasn’t calculated. We wanted to serve great food at an affordable price. That’s it.”
Patty Scull, who lives in the East Village, recently spent part of an evening at Momofuku Milk Bar spooning up cinnamon-bun cereal milk soft-serve with chocolate fudge topping.
“It’s so random that it’s something you would eat if you were totally baked,” she said. (For the record, she said she wasn’t.)
Ms. Tosi defines haute stoner cuisine as the kind of food that tastes good in the altered state marijuana brings.
“You like to eat stuff with texture and that is really deep in flavors,” said Ms. Tosi, who acknowledged the stoner appeal of her creations. “You want the ultimate sensory experience.”
Even for people who don’t use illegal drugs, the deep flavors and sensory appeal of dishes like the breakfast burrito pizza at Roberta’s in Bushwick, Brooklyn, have an undeniable appeal. They plug directly into the reptilian portion of our brains, the side that wants what it wants and wants it now — and also a big bowl of it, please.
“I always call it the Big Mac effect,” said the chef Vinny Dotolo, who owns Animal in Los Angeles with Jon Shook. Mr. Shook’s version of the French-Canadian dish poutine, built from Cheddar cheese and French fries covered in oxtail gravy, might be considered for the haute stoner food hall of fame.
The McDonald’s sandwich is familiar and offers a range of tastes, Mr. Dotolo said. There are savory elements from the cheese and beef, sweetness from the sauce, tartness from the pickle and crunch from the lettuce, all surrounded by soft white bread.
“It’s that thing where you’re trying to hit all the senses,” he said.
If you are still skeptical, check out a Web-based show called “Munchies” (www.vbs.tv/watch/munchies), which follows chefs as they party and eat late into the night, then head back to their kitchens to cook. Billows of smoke and doobie references abound. Although the show can be cagey about who is doing the smoking, featured chefs have included the men from Animal, Mr. Chang and the Franks — Mr. Falcinelli and Mr. Castronovo.
Joanne Weir, a San Francisco cooking teacher and television personality who went to Woodstock at age 15, said that there is a difference between this period in stoner cuisine and the cooking of the hippie movement. “It’s people’s pursuit of the best ingredients,” she said.
Chefs who smoke say that includes the marijuana itself.
“The quality of marijuana you’re getting, just like the quality of booze you’re getting and the quality of food you’re getting, is better,” Mr. Falcinelli said.
Although marijuana has long been a part of restaurant culture, its current prominence results, he said, from “a triple coincidence.”
More states are legalizing marijuana or offering medical marijuana plans, so there is more and better pot in circulation, Mr. Falcinelli and other chefs said. At the same time, diners are wild about high-end snacking: witness the rise of food carts and the elevation of humble dishes like pizza, hamburgers and pork buns.
The chefs of the haute stoner cuisine movement are just as obsessive about their marijuana as they are about olive oil, wine or coffee.
“It’s like getting the best cheese,” Mr. Falcinelli said. “I have like four or five different types of marijuana in my refrigerator right now.”
The sensibility extends to the latest wave of coffee culture. Coffee geeks are as infatuated with their Pacas varietal beans from Central America as pot users are with their sticky sinsemilla from Humboldt County in California.
Duane Sorenson, the founder of the coffee roaster Stumptown, said that fat buds of marijuana often end up in the tip jar at his shops.
“It goes hand in hand with a cup of coffee,” he said. “It’s called wake and bake. Grab a cup of Joe and get on with it.”
Yet this is not the ’70s stoner culture of a thousand basement rec rooms, with chefs sprawled on the floor saying, “Dude, where’s my entree?” Some of the haute stoners claim that marijuana gives them an intense focus.
“We smoke quote-unquote the working man’s weed,” Mr. Falcinelli said. Mr. Castronovo added: “I’m not spacey at all. It gives me energy.”
Much of the food of the haute stoner movement is well crafted and well executed by chefs with traditional culinary training who are trying to create something both countercultural and sophisticated, said Gail Simmons, special project director of Food & Wine magazine.
“You need to have some thought and some skill to make these dishes,” she said. “It’s not just, ‘I’m twirling around at a Dead concert and I stumbled upon this cool dish.’ ”
Mr. Bourdain said Mr. Chang is a case in point.
“His sensibility is that he makes high-end stoner food in one respect but I feel sorry for anyone who shows up stoned for their shift at Momofuku,” he said. “He’d kill them.”
Mr. Chang’s establishments, Mr. Bourdain said, typify the stripping away of pretense that defines the haute stoner restaurant. Tables are bare, plates and napkins might be luxe but plain. Food comes flying from the kitchen when it’s done, courses be damned.
“If you’re stoned in a restaurant, you don’t want to deal with six layers of tableware,” Mr. Bourdain said.
Diners like the democratization of food that is part of haute stoner cuisine, as well. Rick Darge, 27, who lives in an area he calls “Beverly Hills adjacent,” seeks out Mr. Choi’s roaming taco trucks about once a week, using Twitter or the Web.
The search is part of the appeal, as is finding a piece of curb to sit while he eats. He feels more involved in the experience.
“We don’t have to go into an establishment, or be a certain way inside,” he said. “It’s more organic than that.”
Haute stoner cuisine is a way to reach a generation that was raised on Sprite and Funyuns and who never thought fancy restaurant food was for them, Mr. Choi said.
“We’ve shattered who is getting good food now,” he said. “It’s this silent message to everyone, to the every-day dude. It’s like come here, here’s a cuisine for you that will fill you up from the inside and make you feel whole and good. Weed is just a portal.”
Ron Siegel, who runs the Michelin-starred dining room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, said he’s grown past his partying days. But even he is having a little fun with haute stoner cuisine.
To serve slow-cooked quail eggs and caviar, he places them atop plastic film that tightly covers a white porcelain serving bowl. Then he fills the vessel with smoke from grated Japanese cedar packed into the bowl of a fan-driven bong he buys in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The smoke escapes when the diner lifts a small spoon covering a hole in the plastic.
He calls it the Lincecum, after Tim Lincecum, the star pitcher for the San Francisco Giants who was arrested last fall after police found marijuana and a pipe in his car.
Like other chefs who have been around long enough to see a few trends come and go, Mr. Siegel thinks stoner food is really another version of comfort food. After particularly high-flying cultural periods or national tragedies, people retreat to dishes that are soothing and familiar, he said.
Or it could be that after an era of intensely designed or pretentious food, a retreat to simplicity follows, said Ken Friedman, the man behind the Spotted Pig and a self-described “well-known stoner.”
He doesn’t characterize the food at the Pig or at the Breslin as stoner food as much as simple food. But he is a businessman who recognizes a good trend when he sees one. He designed his bar and snack emporium, the Rusty Knot, to have a ’70s feel, with comfortable couches, black-light posters and snacks that are easily consumed with one hand.
“The Rusty Knot is the most stoner of all my places,” he said. “It’s kind of like the basement we all had when we grew up where we first smoked pot.”
By KIM SEVERSON
May 18, 2010