Written by Jeff Klingman
Chicago’s top pastry chef, Mindy Segal, is perhaps the most acclaimed culinary talent currently making cannabis edibles in the United States. Her hit restaurant HotChocolate has been a local favorite since opening in 2005. She’s been seen on the Food Network, and profiled in the New York Times. Segal won the James Beard Foundation award for “Outstanding Pastry Chef” in 2012, her fifth nomination from an organization as prestigious in the chef world as the Oscars is to the film industry. Her best-selling cookbook, Cookie Love, was released in 2015.
Later that year, Segal partnered with Illinois’ largest cannabis cultivator, Cresco Labs, to create the country’s first lines of chef-driven cannabis edibles. There’s Mindy’s Artisanal Edibles, which features gourmet varieties like dark chocolate almond toffee infused with THC and CBD, and also Mindy’s Kitchen, offering sativa, indica, and hybrid gummies, hard candies, and fruit chews in gourmet flavors like peach-apricot, iced tea lemonade, and mandarin orange. They’re stocked in dispensaries across states like California, Massachusetts, and in Nevada, where her creations currently lead the state in edible sales.
For Segal, a move into marijuana wasn’t some great leap from the mission that propelled her to become a pastry chef in the first place. “When we first launched, people were asking me why we did this, and I said It’s just an extension of what I do in my restaurants,” she explains. “I am providing happiness for people. Relief, comfort, acknowledgement, whatever. I’m just doing the same thing, the same exact thing. Just adding another ingredient.” She sees her expanding edible business as a vital new chapter in her already illustrious career. “I like the future. I like it a lot,” says Segal. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, but now I’m rejuvenated.”
Now, thanks to the just-passed Illinois measure that legalizes adult-use marijuana as of January 1st, 2020, Segal gets to expand past that states’s medical market to sell her creations all across the city she’s long called home. “I’m very excited to reach a wider audience in a market that already knows me and knows my brand,” says Segal. “I’m hoping that I’m going to be a hometown hero.”
We talked with Segal about getting into the canna-cuisine, the industrial processes inherent in mass-producing high-quality edibles, and the culinary potential of cannabis as a flavor.
Had you cooked with pot personally before you got into the edible business?
Of course I did. I’m a pastry chef, I dabbled! When it became medicinally legal in Illinois, I was approached by a couple people. I never really entertained the idea until my lawyer told me about it, really said “This is something you should get into.” I think it fits my personality well.
Is the process of developing a cannabis edible line at all different from how you might handle things if you were putting out a typical line of sweets?
I think that all companies are different. If I had a candy company, or a Hot Chocolate distribution company, I would produce it under one roof so I could control the quality. We have pretty standard recipes, everything is pretty mass-produced now for the edible company. But we don’t really put anything on shelves that we don’t feel is quality-riven. That’s a pretty basic core value of the company. It’s no different from my regular company.
Is the testing for flavor done without the cannabis present to start?
Yes. I write the recipe, the chef at [Cresco] then works it and adds the psychoactive ingredient, and then we test it in the lab. We have to do in-house testing. I have my medical marijuana card, so I can blind taste them any time I want. No one knows that I’m eating them to make sure! My staff doesn’t know I’m trying them randomly.
What products tend to do best in the edible market?
Gummies are the number one selling edible. Period. People like them. They’re fast-acting, they’re easy to digest, they’re approachable. You can eat a chocolate bar too, though. I think my chocolates are the best things I do. I love gummies, but I would rather have a hard sweet or a cookie. That’s me, personally.
But if you are trying to start an edible company, and you don’t make gummies…you are eventually going to make gummies.
Do you personally like the taste of cannabis as a cooking ingredient?
I do. If it’s done right it’s delicious. If it’s done bad, it’s bad. I think people like [the taste], I think people like know that they’re not eating something off the shelf. It’s an identifying marker.
Mindy’s Artisan Edibles, which I would say is the premium brand, is made with a clear concentrate, tasteless and odorless. The brittles and the baked goods are [made that way]. But then I have the Mindy’s Kitchen line, which is the gummies, and the fruit chews, which are all made with winterized oil which had added terpenes that contribute to your flavor profile.
Do different cannabis strains carry different flavors? Is there a specific strain that tastes the best?
It’s not so much the strain as it is the terpene profile. You have anywhere from a hoppy grapefruit flavor profile, to a pine, a lemon. It depends on what you are pairing with.
Right now in my other world, my cooking world, I’m really into tea and extracting tea flavor and adding it to things, making tea sugars. You get pretty much the same flavor profile I would get from using terpenes. I kind of like to use that comparison.
When you’re making a food that has a specific physical or mental effect on someone, do you give any consideration to which taste should or could match that effect, or is it a completely separate consideration?
That is such an obscure question.
I mean, is it almost like a cocktail, where the strength of liquor might go hand and hand with its taste?
You are way overthinking it. (laughs) As a chef, my job is to make anything that I make, anything that I do taste great. I’m going to approach using cannabis and all the different strains and terpenes, I’m going to use that to the best of my knowledge and my craft and my experience to create delicious food. I’m always going to approach it like a chef. Always. I think that’s what makes my brand unique. We approach everything with food first, flavor first.
I’ve been in the lab, and I’ve watched the guys make butters and oils, wax. And I’m always like, wouldn’t it be cool if we laminated croissant dough? Or made brioche that was laminated with canna-butter? Or make a tart crust? But I can only do it as my little brain allows me too. (laughs)
Anecdotally, have you heard a lot of curiosity from other chefs about cooking with cannabis?
I’ve kind of been in my own world, trying to focus on our expansions and our company. I’m sure there were a lot of chefs waiting for it to become legal, and I think they’re going to come out of the woodwork in the next couple of months. A lot of companies are going to seek to partner with chefs, just like Cresco partnered with me. It was a series of conversations, it didn’t happen overnight. It was a long courting. But I feel like I made the right decision for sure.
What the law and the regulations are going to allow? We’ll see. I think in the next couple years, and the next 5 years for sure, we’re going to see what this thing can really do, and also, what kind of revenue it can bring.
How big of a benefit has it been to have a company like Cresco dealing with the differing compliance rules for you, as you expand into newly legal markets?
I’m creative. I’m not minutiae. In the beginning, I was literally making all the chocolates and my partner was packaging, folding foil with the chocolate. So we were there from the beginning, but now I’m creative. I’m here to be a spokesperson for my brand. [As new markets open up] I’m going to travel, I’m going to talk, I’m going to be an advocate, as I have in the last four years.
Nothing is going to change.
Except you potentially could reach a lot more people?
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