Cooking with Cannabis—and Michael J. Cirino

By Anna del Gaizo on August 7, 2017

Cannabis-infused dinners are all the rage these days, but Michael J. Cirino, founder of A Razor, A Shiny Knife, an acclaimed entertainment company that focuses on inspired, even surreal culinary events, has been cooking with cannabis for more than a decade. “Cooking with Cannabis” is also the name of his highly scientific, Brooklyn-based class, where you will learn how to decarboxylate the plant and infuse it into herbed tallow, a.k.a. beef fat, as well as make your own cannabis bitters. (You also won’t cook with any actual cannabis in the class since, as Cirino is careful to stress, it’s illegal in New York. But you will get some high-quality, infusion-free steak at the end.) His take is “make it delicious first, get high second.” All his recipes are based on flowers, in order to have a connection to the plant. He recommends pairing cannabis with truffles, tarragon and thyme; think earthy and herbal flavors. “Our goal is not to make money off cannabis sales,” he explains, “but to open the conversation around it.” 

But Cirino does much more than turn infused meals into respectable gourmet affairs. He’s also known for serving a luxuriant six-course meal on a moving L train, ordering a pie from every single pizza place in New York City for the ultimate pizza party, combining dining and acupuncture, initiating waiter service by a drone and creating a life-size Monopoly board for a foundation gala in Panama, to name a few of his visions come to life. We talked with Michael about the infused food movement, his culinary history and revolutionary vision.

How did you get into cooking initially?

I cooked from a very young age. I was always in the kitchen because I come from a large Italian family, and we socialized around the kitchen. We didn't go over to my grandparents' houses and eat dinner. We went over to cook dinner, and it was a very distinguished thing. It seems simple or trivial, but making something with people is actually a very important part of my life. I really enjoy socializing around creation instead of just consumption, and it was born in my grandparents' kitchens.

When I went to university, I really enjoyed working in restaurants. I also studied wine very intensely and became an expert in the U.S. and Europe, the New World. I focused a lot of energy on bartending, mixology, distillation processes and also on really high-end service. The service part is interesting because a lot of what I think about is this idea of ritualistic service and creation. I graduated, stopped waiting tables and did some other boring stuff in the world.

Sometime around 2006, I was hanging out at my friend's and we were making dinner together, and I realized how much I had missed the process of cooking together on a regular basis with people. I started inviting people over to my home to make dinner together on a weekly basis. It started off as just a simple social event. Monday morning, I would invite people over, we would pick some recipes, and on Saturday or Sunday, we would get together and cook some food, and then enjoy both the cooking and then the eating.

How did cannabis come into the equation?

I had an engineering background, so I started studying the science of food, and I became really specialized, excelling in molecular gastronomy, that whole movement. It was right around this point, 2006 or so, when I started remembering the lack of ritual and integration cannabis had in fine dining and beverages.

Initially, I approached cannabis like wine or cocktails, and then I realized that the real synergy, the real metaphor, so to speak, is actually coffee. Coffee is a mind-altering drug. It has a lot of consumption rituals, a lot of creation rituals, and both of those rituals are designed to help you dose yourself with caffeine and know how much you should give yourself.

When you move consuming cannabis from smoking to eating, that idea of how much you're consuming becomes very important. In smoking, you can easily smoke more or smoke less and balance yourself out, but with eating, it takes so long that you need to know what is happening before you commit so you can feel comfortable with it. I started focusing a lot of time and energy on what that would require to do and how I would have fun with that and how I would make it interesting and beautiful and delicious.

Where would you like to see the general direction of infused cooking go from where it is now?

For me, there are a couple different spaces for culinary cannabis. Over the next couple years, I think the safest and best way to apply it in a culinary sense is as a finishing ingredient. That means something that's added after you've prepared food, so you can very precisely dose yourself or other people you’re making food for.

There’s a really strong desire to want to cook with it like it's a regular ingredient, like it's an herb or a spice, but cannabis is very potent, and it's hard to do that well in traditional cooking at the current levels of potency. My major focus is approaching it as something precious you add at the end for effect and for flavor, similar to truffle oils or bitters when you're making cocktails.

That's a good way to look at it. It’s wise advice for people who want to start experimenting with cooking with cannabis.

I would say one of the trickiest things is overdosing, and so many people who come to my classes or talk to me have had a bad experience with edibles because whoever made the edibles had no idea how to dose them. Or they purchased something from a legal dispensary and didn't know what their dose should be. The medical community creates products designed for patients instead of for casual users—even in Washington and Colorado, where it's supposed to be more geared towards that casual experience.

I've definitely had a couple not fun experiences with edibles when I essentially ended up comatose, which isn’t my idea of a good time.

Yes, and you're comfortable using cannabis. Imagine if that happened to my mom or my dad or somebody who's just experimenting with it for the first time. I enjoy wine a significant amount, but when I sit down to drink, I know there's a smaller serving size than a magnum. I know I don't have to drink a whole magnum of champagne every time, but cannabis—because of prohibition and because the people using it wanted to put so much THC in such a small package—that kind of conversation broke a little bit in the current environment. I think it’s really important for us moving forward to rebalance that.

Like you say in your class, it's easy to gauge something that's fluid or liquid, but THC is so much more scientific, in a way. It's hard to judge what you're really dealing with.

We're talking about something that's invisible, not something you can hold in your hand. An invisible-sized dosage is enough to make you uncomfortable, so you have to then have faith and trust in the purveyors and the people preparing these things.

Who's someone in the food or cannabis industry you admire or think is doing something worthwhile?

I really enjoy the people behind Kiva chocolates. I know they have a really high quality threshold and they're really thoughtful. From a traditional culinary point of view, in the beginning of my career I took a lot of inspiration from culinary scientists and molecular gastronomists, like Wylie Dufresne of wd~50, Ferran Adrià, Alex and Aki from Ideas in Food, and Francisco Migoya and Nathan Myhrvold from Modernist Cuisine, that really crazy $600 cookbook that came out a little while ago. Also, a real big fan of David Arnold from Booker and Dax. Those are all guys that exploded in my mind back in the day and helped craft my direction. Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy is pretty awesome. I love Dominique Crenn from Atelier Crenn in San Francisco. She really has taken a lot of the food stuff to a whole other level, so there's some inspiration there.

Do you have a favorite restaurant in New York or elsewhere?

I will tell you my favorite restaurant in New York is a place called Tangra on Queens Boulevard in Sunnyside. It is an Indian-Chinese restaurant, so it's Chinese food cooked with Indian spices, and then mixed up with some Americanized-ness in there. I love it because it's really unique food, really unique spices, things you're just not used to eating, but it's also really a beautiful place.

If I have a guest in from out of town, one of the best parts about Queens and the culinary scene there is that it's so culturally diverse because they’re so many different cultures that live there. You can really have amazing experiences with trying different flavors from all over the world in very small neighborhoods. That's my preference for eating.

What would be your ideal infused dinner?

I really like the idea of having pasta, steak and then a small salad before a chocolate dessert because that's usually how I do eat—more of a European-style meal with some light greens after heavier dishes. The pasta would have a truffle cream sauce, and the steak would probably be topped with a compound butter. The duck confit would be cooked with the cannabis. Since I make extracts and oils, we have the ability to use cannabis that's had its THC depleted for cooking, which is one of the things I highly recommend if you're looking to incorporate the flavor more into your food, not just the effects. You can make a tincture, and then use the cannabis that you used to make the tincture to cook your duck confit with or vice versa.

What else are you working on or have coming up?

With A Razor, A Shiny Knife, we produce experiences and multimedia projects. The real breadth of things we do are these unique experiences that are very complicated and thoughtfully engineered. I like to say I make impossible problems and solve them in interesting, entertaining ways. That's really exemplified by the dinner party we served on the L train. There was no reason to serve a fancy meal on the L train, other than it was difficult and we wanted a challenge. We set about making it as hard on us as possible by serving hot and cold food, making tables, bringing in beautiful china and silverware and flowers, and having wait staff and all that kind of stuff.

We do a lot with technology, as well. We’re doing a lot of work in virtual and augmented reality, trying to figure out how to make those things interesting because right now there's a lot of tech, but the tech doesn't really have very much story to it yet. Our goal is to try to use it in a powerfully evocative way, and not just because we can, if that makes sense.

I imagine we're going to be launching a series of cannabis experiences in Colorado and Washington and maybe Oregon. That’ll be more of an experience in design and adventures, outdoors, indoors, luxury, all that kind of stuff. We want to be able to take advantage of those places and explore them in a thoughtful way. 

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