"Taking a cue from his Kentucky grandmother’s roots, [Holden Jagger] dishes out classic American dishes with a seasonal and modernized twist," wrote Zagat in 2013 when it named Jagger to its inaugural 30 Under 30 list for Los Angeles. The then-Muddy Leek pastry chef also spent time at Curtis Stone's Maude, Tom Colicchio's Craft Steakhouse, the Soho House and Town Hall, but his years in California kitchens are surpassed only by his time as a cannabis cultivator. Jagger started out as a grower first, and this experience is helping him disrupt the cannabis food movement. Through his company Altered Plates, the Los Angeles-based chef focuses less on infusion and more on whole-plant dishes and terpene-driven pairings, and he's literally redefining the cannabis lexicon with more universal food-based references. PRØHBTD met with Jagger at a Venice Beach coffee shop to learn more, and the following is the first installment of a two-part interview.
You typically pair but don't infuse, correct?
I infuse if people want it, for sure, but it's not my passion. I've worked in restaurants since I was 18, and I've made a lot of food, but I want to be in this space for other reasons. We can just do these dinners, but I want to bring something to the table that's more hospitality driven and focused on what it means to infuse cannabis into everyday events, not just a sit-down dinner. At a wine party, everyone's opening different bottles and discussing the taste and flavors, and while that's also true with food, cannabis takes a backseat when you infuse meals. Chefs often make sure you don't taste the cannabis, and they don't want to play around with the flavor of the cannabinoids.
What draws me to this space is the variety of flavors, scents and aromas, just like anyone who is a true aficionado of wine, spirits and beers. Just like it's cool to have your own little craft brewery, I'm a cultivator. I grow other people's seed work, but it's not exciting to me if the story stops at, "I've made an infusion, here it is, let's get high." It doesn't draw the parallels to what I've seen in the hospitality industry with wine and spirits and beer.
It's pretty much the same thing inside every bottle of wine and beer, but then there's that story that might make it worth $40: where it was grown, how it was grown, by whom it was grown, on what genetic stalk it was grown. These stories mean the world to the person who's a connoisseur of wine. I want to talk about those same things with cannabis. I have the vernacular to talk about the flavors because the language of all these things is food, but I also have a strong understanding of what it takes to produce this product in both sungrown and indoor environments. I didn't work outside until I moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco, but I've worked in grow rooms since I was 15.
You started growing before you started cooking?
My parties in high school were not alcohol driven.
What is the best way to communicate your vision to cannabis enthusiasts?
Right now it's around the dinner table. It's a great way to introduce infusion in a safe and responsible fashion. A certain amount of people are like, "I don't want to smoke and eat," but many cannabis users like myself say, "Yeah, I would be more drawn to [smoking and eating] than infusion." I talked with this gentleman who said he likes to do the simplest things, like smoke a joint and drink a Coca-Cola and then a Sprite and taste the flavor difference. I do a lot of that in my meals. Joints get rolled up, put in a test tube, you uncork it, smell it like you would a glass of wine, do a terpene pull and then light the joint and smoke it.
How would you describe a terpene pull?
Tasting the aromas and getting that dry pull off the cannabis without it being smoked. It's unadulterated, like what do these terpenes taste like on my raw palate? So the guests can either do the pull and eat the dish, or maybe eat the dish before doing any of those things. I've also had guests smell the joint, do the terpene pull, eat the dish, smoke it. Each dish creates a different coating of flavors, and that's really why this pairing works. (Interview continues below.)
Sometimes I've paired it with the nectar that gets left on your lips after you've taken a few pulls of a joint. There's a residue flavor. Sometimes an amazing joint tastes like the most ash it can have, and the essence of the flavor is so pure. This happened at the Emerald Exchange when I participated in a blind tasting. The joint that won had that rich flavor all the way through in a way that you can't really get in a bong. There's something about the way the flavors all meld together when you smoke a joint, and that's not as clean as the dining experience a lot of people want, but that's how we taste cannabis.
That's ideally where I want to see this go. Like I said, the language of food is the language of wine is the language of beer is the language of cannabis: It's all the language of flavor. So making these connections to a dish, to a food group, is a good way to help people make an association with the flavors, to taste for them and distinguish them in cannabis.
A fine examination of wine can happen around the dinner table for the right group of connoisseurs, which happens in a completely different way if you introduce the wine to a novice at Silver Lake Wine. You present the information as, "This is what strawberries smell like. Here, smell strawberries. Now smell it in the wine." Drawing the similarities between how you taste elements in the cocktail world and relate them to food is the direction I see for cannabis. At the end of the day, there's going to be a high-end market for award-winning flowers that's outside the realm of what we do at Cannabis Cups, which is a lot of "so and so said they paid x, y, z to buy this award." Also, you're tasting like 80 strains, and 75 of them are OG Kush, so how in the hell are you picking those out? It seems crazy to me.
Beyond food and joint pairings, how do you work cannabis into the dishes without infusions?
I'm a cannabis chef. I don't find that to be a dirty title. I have no problem with that. Cannabis is my focus. I play with the seeds, I play with the roots, I play with the leaves. I've been fermenting the leaves the same way you would a grape leaf and making dolmas and fritters. I also play with the male [plants] because I do pop a lot of seeds. Each male tastes different. Some males have no flavor, some of the pollen doesn't really. Literally just eating the pollen sac before it opens—there are trichomes on the actual thing that produce terpenes on the outside. I'm putting them in salads, salt-curing them, pickling them and doing things like that.
I'm also trying to capture that essence in the pollen flavor. One of my males has a real strong flavor that I'd relate to a classic fuel-driven kush, and it is literally [just like] eating cannabis pot. It's interesting how the flavor hits the palate compared to any other pure cannabis product I've put in my mouth. It's almost like you can taste what the essence of the terpene flavor might be. I know it sounds crazy, but I've done it with enough seeds at this point, and there is a flavor in males that, given the opportunity, you wouldn't be upset to find a little male pollen sac unopened in your salad. I'm trying to find a way to use the whole cannabis plant in a delicious fashion.
You started working outside once you moved to Los Angeles. Do you grow indoors at all anymore?
I am more focused on sun growing cannabis. I don't grow inside anymore, and I don't have many good things to say about it, actually. I see a lot of growers that terrify me. I see a room full of plants that don't get seen, don't get touched and are treated as a commodity. Growing a plant inside a fiberglass cube in a loud space with fans and pumps is not healthy. I can walk you to a compost heap right now that's got boatloads of plants, and I haven't watered them or given them a lick of love, but they're going to exist and grow. If I did that on the ground inside of a grow room and didn't give the seeds attention… it's what I would consider life support. I wouldn't want my kale or broccoli produced in that fashion. A place where we can grow large, outdoor, full-sun cannabis plants is a much more sane and reasonable option for how we want to produce everything.
When I think of my time in grow rooms as a younger man, all I think about is the noise and the sound and how loud they were. I went from that to kitchens, which are devastatingly loud. It's not great for human beings or a healthy place to grow plants. To me, it's wholly inorganic that we have this focus on growing and cultivating inside concrete buildings.
What got you into growing at age 15?
I have ADHD, I guess, especially at that age. Look, it was the thing that worked for me that wasn't going to be a bunch of Adderall. I didn't take those drugs when they suggested I take them, but I didn't do very well in school until I started growing and smoking.
Your parents were okay with this?
I don't think they... I don't even know... They probably knew. Yeah.
What other changes would like to see in the cannabis space?
I've got a whole sense of what it means to be a chef and to participate in the food movement, and really that's what it is. It's not making meals, it's being conscious. I'm not in restaurants because I can't create a space that doesn't have all the waste. I seeso many things that make me ill about how we operate. No one's truly aware of the carbon footprint of dining out. There are chefs that do this principally, but at a certain point, you're throwing food away, and I want to make sure we don't make it more devastating through cannabis. The agro-business side of this bio-accumulator can have a lot of impact on us, and I know we can do this better if we can create a mentality where people see the product grown outside with even less of an impact. Even if you use solar panels on your roof, it's not the same as a plant that's grown outside. It's not going to be as interesting of a product at the end of the day.
That's the direction this story needs to go with how people are involved in the communal care-taking of what we grow. Cannabis is a vegetable. If it's going to require the same amount of attention, resources and inputs from humans, we need to use the same principles to produce our food and products. You drive up and down the coast and see fields and fields of grapes, and all of those grapes are destined for a bottle in some way, shape or form. So much energy, so much manpower, is devoted to people consuming wine, and people consume wine more than ever before.
The more we can make this about people who do it right the better. I can show you a group of farmers who grow cannabis as a cash crop to subsidize organic vegetable products, so they can sell clean produce to their communities. That's something that doesn't exist in any other commercial industry right now. I don't know any wine person who does that. You can use sustainable principles to grow produce side-by-side with cannabis that'll shape the produce and share microbial life.
More roots, more life—it's called the soil food web.
(Part two of this interview will post in the next two weeks.)
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.