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Pairing Made Perfect

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The clanking of dishes. The terpene-drenched aroma of herbs and savory cuisine. The sweet, dank waft of smoke billowing throughout the air. The laughter. Cultivating Spirits, a three-course cannabis dinner pairing, is about the overall combined experience.

Celebrating its 10th year in operation, Cultivating Spirits provides three-course dinners complete with carefully matched cannabis pairings—the first of its kind to offer such services to the general public in the U.S. The journey began many years ago, and founder Philip Wolf now wears multiple hats as an active mover and shaker in the cannabis industry. He also co-founded the Cannabis Wedding Expo, and launched the recent venture CashoM, a cannabis masterclass program designed for consumers.

Cultivating Spirits events bring together three different strains with three different courses of gourmet dishes that are specifically selected to work in harmony together. Since the process involves smoking rather than infusing the food, guests can choose whether or not they want to participate in the cannabis portion. The team helps diners navigate through the flavorful notes of both the flower and the food, and more importantly, how they will enhance each other. Past dinners include items like chef Joseph L. Paire III’s spot prawn bisque with green garlic chili oil, paired with Cherry AK, and a crème brulée dessert by chef Tye Idleman, paired with Bazookies.

Since launching Cultivating Spirits, Wolf and his team have curated experiential dining events and provided educated guidance for over 4,000 people. The concept was born from recognizing a glaring need for a better experience that incorporates both fine cuisine and cannabis. Ten years ago, and still to this day, there is no blueprint for running a cannabis pairing event.

“Essentially, I started wanting to create wine-style experiences,” says Wolf. “This was in December of 2013 and it was really deep-seated in my mind.”

Wolf founded a medical marijuana dispensary in Colorado Springs—Colorado Cannabis Caregivers—in 2009 during Colorado’s medical era. Once Colorado voters approved adult-use in November 2012, that’s really when things began to change. Wolf noticed a rising interest in consumers enjoying edibles as the marketplace began to open up.

When designing Cultivating Spirits, instead of infusing dishes with cannabis, Wolf decided to pair cannabis smoking courses like wine.

“This was a period when we [began hosting events involving] smoking and that allowed for the legalities to be easier to operate with more, from a regulatory standpoint, doing it that way as opposed to doing infusions,” Wolf says, speaking of the early days of Cultivating Spirits and noting that if he was infusing foods with cannabis, it would be regulated entirely differently. “Ultimately, at that point, we’re selling cannabis, and we can’t sell cannabis. And there’s also a lot more, there’s obviously more variables [when businesses operate] in that way.”

Cultivating Spirits, depending on the state, partners with nearby cannabis retailers like Colorado-based High Country Healing—the flagship store they work with today. When they host dinner pairings in California, it’s entirely different and the businesses are not typically vertically integrated. In California, they’re hosting events for brands, so Wolf works with smaller farms as much as possible there. In 2018, Cultivating Spirits moved into Las Vegas.

Upgrading Experiences with Terpenes

Wolf wanted to create a new way to fine-tune his dining experiences by way of choosing terpenes to have specific effects and interact with the flavors.

“That’s what I realized was missing,” he says. “At that point, I created the cannabis pairing protocol. And what that is, is [pairing] terpene profiles of cannabis with flavor profiles [of food] to harmonize the flavors. So opposed to a wine where you want to cut that flavor in their mouth, what we were really doing was enhancing and harmonizing flavors.”

Then Wolf discovered that terpenes actually steer the type of mood that cannabis consumers are going to experience, and that’s what creates the feeling. Myrcene is believed to have sedative properties. Limonene is believed energize the mind like espresso.

“Once I realized that, I started studying,” he says. “And that is when I fully dedicated myself to cannabis at that point, because I realized that on the platform of fine dining, that I could teach people how they can identify what type of high they’re going to have, before they even consume.”

He says he wanted people, “to consume something that’s going to enhance their experience and not take away from it while enjoying the culinary arts. Indulging while also being able to not only break bread, with their friends and family at the dinner table, but also through the sharing of smoking.”

One of the perks of pairings versus infusions is the faster onset (depending on how cannabis is infused).

“To me, it was the most brilliant way to present this plant because it gave people a tool that they can use to consciously consume cannabis, as well as it really made for a night of unification and pleasure,” Wolf says. “And so that’s when we really started taking off with these dinners, and once we fully committed to that. And so since then, we’ve done over four hundred events.”

Wolf explained that most of the Cultivating Spirits dinners seat between eight to 14 people. People usually book private events for celebratory experiences like a bachelor-bachelorette party, graduation, wedding, or birthday party. The company also hosts ticketed events held at different locations such as the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, California. 

On January 21, 2015, Wolf organized an invite-only private cannabis dinner on the opening night of X Games Aspen. The event was city approved and became one of the first cannabis consumption events ever authorized by a municipality.

“That night we did a 56-person dinner with five courses,” Wolf says.

Since then, the concept has expanded and been refined. Now Wolf seeks to move away from the limitations of comparing cannabis pairings with wine events. This is why he has mostly retired the word “sommelier” from his vocabulary in recent years. Cannabis can be so much more than just wine culture, he says.

Educating Dinner Guests

Wolf explains that in general, his patrons are not quite so worried about getting busted by police, as he operates in mature markets in California, Colorado, and Nevada. Instead, they’re more worried about getting too high. Or even worse, being judged for deciding to get high.

“We get a lot of discerning questions from people making sure that they weren’t going to get themselves in trouble. But a lot of them are not worried about getting themselves in legal trouble. It was more like people worried about their photos. And honestly, it was about societal judgments against them from friends, family, neighbors or their job. I felt like that was more of a fear [of getting judged].”

But guess what? Another perk of doing pairings versus infusions is the fact that diners can bring along a friend that doesn’t smoke as the food is separated from the cannabis.

“I would say typically, on average, about 10% of the people on our dinners don’t consume,” Wolf says.

Wolf explains that at the beginning of each dinner, he tells diners that they don’t need to keep smoking after they’re already high.

“It’s important for me, as the steward and server of this plant, to make people understand that this isn’t about mass consumption,” he says. “This is actually about tuning into your body, mind, and soul, and consuming something that’s in alignment with those three areas of yourself, for you to enjoy the best experience around.”

One of his favorite chefs to work with is Jessica Catalano.

“She’s incredible,” he says. “She totally believes in what we have done. And she’s the one who really first opened me up to terpenes over a decade ago, and ultimately has allowed me to land where I’m at today.”

Catalano used to teach the Cooking with Cannabis class and the Sensational Private Dinners class at Cultivating Spirits. He’s also worked with Chris Sayegh, aka The Herbal Chef, and celebrity chefs who wanted to experiment with cannabis infusions such as Hosea Rosenberg, Bravo TV’s Top Chef Season 5 winner in 2009.

Throughout all of the dinners, the concept is a focused intention.

“It’s really communion with yourself. What is the why to consuming? What is the purpose? That’s something that I really try to teach people, let’s be intentional,” Wolf says. “Why are we consuming right now? And to me that’s gonna allow for the best experience possible when you are consuming cannabis.”

This article was originally published in the May 2024 issue of High Times Magazine.





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