Payton Curry is using the cannabis for more than a high. He wants to deliver its nourishment and nutrition to people in new ways. Thomas Hawthorne, The Republic | azcentral.com
He’s a long-time pot smoker. But Payton Curry is also a chef. And he sees the plant as more than something that just delivers a high.
“When I see this plant, as a cook, I see it as the vegetable that it is,” Curry said.
Curry views cannabis plants — both marijuana, the type that gets you high, and hemp, the type that doesn’t — as he does any other nourishing plant. And he aims, through the edibles he makes, to deliver that nutrition to people.
Curry spent his career as a hard-charging, publicity-hungry and inventive chef. The restaurants he opened in the Phoenix area beginning in 2008 earned him critical acclaim. He also had an eye for stunts: For Easter at one restaurant, he offered an all-rabbit menu.
He bounced from kitchen to kitchen, each move chronicled by food writers. Until 2013. Without a restaurant of his own, he became a consultant. His profile faded.
In 2016, he started his newest venture: Flourish. It aimed to serve cannabis-infused foods that hewed to the traditions of his other culinary ventures.
It also traded on a hobby Curry had cultivated throughout his career as a chef. He had always dabbled in cooking with marijuana, but not just as a novel way to get high. He thought people felt better after ingesting what the plant offered, just as he believed that nutrition-dense and natural foods made people feel healthier.
Curry thinks there are better ways to take cannabis than the candies or dessert items that currently dominate the edible industry. Some, he said, are little more than Gummi Bears or the like with cannabis oil sprayed over them.
Curry makes sweet items — his most popular is a brownie — but his are sweetened not with industrial granulated sugar but with organic dates harvested locally. His red velvet cake is colored naturally by beets. His carrot cake is made with freshly harvested carrots, including the green tops.
His brownie also has 120 calories, about 80 percent fewer than others he has seen.
“I don’t want you to commit a third of your (daily) caloric uptake to a brownie,” he said.
The benefits of fresh ingredients
On a chilly morning in January, Curry was at a farm near South Mountain picking bitter oranges that he would turn into marijuana-infused marmalade. Curry would drive his ingredients about three hours away to his kitchen in Bellemont, west of Flagstaff in northern Arizona.
Curry started his kitchen there because it was at an already-licensed spot that had cleared its way through the thicket of regulations surrounding marijuana in Arizona. He was also readying a new kitchen in the Phoenix metro area.
As he picked the oranges, Curry said he wouldn’t have to add much sugar or gelatin to the marmalade because the oranges, picked right off the tree, were so flavorful and hearty.
“That’s the benefit of fresh,” he said. “It’s just ready for us.”
Curry has been around kitchens for most of his life. He started his culinary career in Minnesota, becoming the chef at a French restaurant called Chardonnay.
He moved to Martini House in Napa Valley and Quince in San Francisco, where he learned from chef Michael Tusk, who would become his mentor. Tusk himself was trained by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. She originated the notion of using the freshest farm ingredients.
Curry said customers at those restaurants would come to him saying they had lost weight and felt better overall after eating his food.
“They were learning how important it is to have nutrient-dense food,” he said.
As he worked in those kitchens, Curry also began holding a series of underground dinners where he served dishes infused with oils made from marijuana.
Some early attendees were college athletes, who told Curry they felt muscle soreness go away after eating his cannabis-laced food. Years later, he would read research that found a scientific basis for this feeling. But at the time, science aside, Curry simply knew that people felt better after eating food made with marijuana. Not just high, but better.
‘The munchies saved my life’
Curry moved to Scottsdale in 2008 to run the kitchen at Digestif.
He made a splash with unique ingredients served in unexpected ways. He made his own charcuterie. He made his own pasta. He served a salad with a side of something called “mushroom tea.”
It was an Old World approach that was novel in the Phoenix area at the time, said Pavle Milic, who was the matre’d of Digestif. Milic said he encouraged the owner of the restaurant, Peter Kasperski, to take a chance on Curry, whom Milic had met while living in the wine country of Napa Valley.
Milic, who now co-owns FnB in Scottsdale, said Curry has always tried to cook using traditional methods with the best ingredients.
“One common thread is trying to utilize things that are freshly extracted from the earth,” Milic said. “He emphasized both freshness and provenance.”
The restaurant impressed the Arizona Republic’s dining critic at the time, Howard Seftel, who awarded it four out of five stars. “Unlike many other young chefs, Payton Curry isn’t trying to show off how flashy and uselessly clever he is. He prefers to impress us with quality ingredients and skillful technique,” Seftel wrote.
But Digestif didn’t last long. Curry moved from there to Caffe Boa’s locations in Tempe and Mesa. It was there that he orchestrated the stunt of presenting a rabbit-heavy menu on Easter.
That gimmick, Curry said, was an inventive way of serving people nutrient-rich food, a way of telling them: Eat this; you’ll feel better.
“Rabbit is the finest protein for the human body to eat,” he said. “It’s the leanest and most efficient protein for us to eat.”
Curry left Boa and moved to the nine-seat trailer that housed Welcome Diner in the Garfield neighborhood of Phoenix. He said he was looking to open his own restaurant, but never did.
Throughout his culinary career, Curry drank heavily. He told himself he did so to unwind after long shifts in the kitchen. Or to get to sleep. Or to socialize. After a while, he didn’t do so to relax after shifts, to get to sleep or any reason he could find.
“My culinary career swallowed me up into jugs of vodka,” he said.
In January 2011, Curry was stopped in Yavapai County. His blood-alcohol level was measured as 0.44 percent. He was charged with extreme DUI.
Curry described how days after his arrest, he was shaking from alcohol withdrawal and could not keep food down. He placed some cannabis extract on his gums and started feeling better. He also became hungry.
“The munchies saved my life,” he said.
The incident had two repercussions for Curry. The first was that he stopped drinking. Curry said that he is a much happier and more fully aware person once he stopped diminishing his senses with alcohol.
He also cemented his instinct that cannabis had health benefits that extended beyond the high.
Feed people, make them feel better
There is growing research in medical journals about the endocannabinoid system, a set of receptors in the nervous system that react to the cannabis plant.
A 2006 study by the National Institutes of Health documented use of cannabis as a medicine as far back as 3,000 years ago. In 1937, according to the study, amid growing concerns about its recreational use, it was banned as a medicine in the United States.
Curry had a loose network of people who would come to him, not looking to get high but to relieve lingering symptoms. The people he would see were increasingly older and younger than the core group.
Curry recalled a 9-month-old who had severe seizures that stymied her worried parents. Curry concocted a non-psychoactive extract, using marijuana the parents had procured, that helped the child.
“When I saw the sparkle in this child’s eye at 9 months old, it changed the way I looked at this plant,” Curry said.
As his adopted home state legalized medical marijuana, Curry decided to try marrying his pot hobby with his chef’s training. It was another way to feed people and make them feel better.
“To me, as a cook, it’s the same as a tomato plant,” he said. “It’s a cannabis plant.”
But some of the products he wanted to make did not fit squarely within regulations. Curry wanted to make products that didn’t contain THC, something neither governments nor most marijuana advocates understood.
“People thought I was … nuts,” he said, injecting a profanity into the phrase. “They still do.”
Some government regulators asked him why he would sell a product that doesn’t get people high. Curry said, “And I say, if it doesn’t get them high, why do you care if I sell it?”
Curry has company in wanting to sell non-psychoactive cannabis products. Ads, billboards and banners outside stores tout the wonders of CBD oil, the extract derived from the hemp plant.
Products that contain THC, the ingredient in marijuana that supplies the high, are still tightly regulated, and, under federal guidelines, technically illegal.
‘Willy Wonka of cannabis’
Curry’s CBD products are sold directly to consumers from his Flourish kitchen website.
The products containing THC are stocked at Harvest, an Arizona-based chain of dispensaries that promises consumers high-end product that is lab-tested, pesticide-free and safe.
Harvest in March announced it would take over an Illinois-based cannabis company in a deal that, at $850 million, was called the largest in the industry. The resulting company would be among the largest retail operators in the nation.
At a 33,000-square-foot grow house in Camp Verde, Harvest grows the cannabis Curry uses and distills the product to his specifications.
The result is an oil that is added sparingly to the food. It is like adding truffle oil to a dish, except the cannabis oil cannot be tasted, only felt.
Curry has studied how best to add the ingredient so it completely emulsifies through the product. He treats the product as medicine and wants to ensure a proper consistent dosage.
Part of that quality control is knowing how the marijuana is grown.
Curry, during a tour of the grow facility, marveled at the precision and care taken with the plants.
Walking through the facility, Curry said, “You can tell this is about more than just growing pot.”
If this were just about growing pot to get high, the place would look like a jungle of plants, he said.
Instead, the more than 440 plants are placed on trays that are mounted on rollers, eliminating jostling as they are moved throughout the facility.
Each manicured and trellised plant is tagged with its varietal name and its expected harvest date. Among the 24 varietals: Bruce Banner, Green Crush, Platinum, Girl Scout, Boss Hogg, Nom Nom.
“It puts a smile on my face to be here,” Curry said. “I knew I was walking into the Willy Wonka of cannabis.”
There’s more to the plant than buds
Curry walked into a room where employees seated along a series of tables handled small stalks of marijuana. They used pruning shears to trim off the fan leaves and their hands to take out the small flowers that contain the psycho-active ingredient THC.
“This is like the prep kitchen in any Michelin-starred restaurant,” he said.
The fan leaves of the plant, the three large leaves in a triangular formation, have become the symbol of marijuana, but that leaf contains no THC.
Under state regulation, those leaves are thrown away.
Curry thinks there is a use for them. He has juiced the leaves, producing a drink that won’t get users high, but one that, he claims, will make them feel better. He legally can’t sell the juice. He has given it away on a patient-to-patient basis.
At the facility, he took a plant that had been harvested and turned the black pot over, loosening it. He held the root ball that had been hidden in the bucket.
“I want to squeeze the sugar out of the root ball,” he said.
Curry said that the resulting substance would be sweet. To the tongue, he said, it would be like corn sugar, without the glycemic spike of that sweetener.
But under state law, that root ball must also be thrown away. To Curry, that is a waste. Only 20 percent of the plant is used; the rest is tossed.
As a chef, Curry was used to making delicious products out of potential throw-away items. He featured then-exotic items like bone marrow, that black stuff in the middle of beef bones. He also made his own charcuterie, taking odd bits of meat, including some from around the skull of an animal, and turning it into delectable dishes.
“I want total utilization,” he said of the marijuana plant, “just like a chicken.”
It’s more than brownies
Curry makes the sweet items that are most popular on the edibles market. But he has also been making experimenting with savory items. That includes a French onion dip made by dicing 20 pounds of onions and caramelizing them for four to six hours.
He wants to make an infused vinaigrette for salads. He has also made a marinara sauce, called a Mary-nara sauce, and a Bloody Mary Jane mix.
Since only a little oil is used and imparts barely any taste, Curry said it can be used in nearly any product that can be made shelf-stable.
However, selling savory items means complications about canning, preserving, labeling and refrigeration. Curry’s company issued four voluntary recalls of sauces and mustards because they did not meet the refrigeration requirements of Coconino County, where his kitchen is located. Curry insisted his products were safe and did not make anyone sick.
But those complications are one reason, he said, why edible companies have gravitated toward sugar-based items that don’t need as much fuss before hitting the market.
The industry has been slowly pivoting to savory items, said Andrea Drummer, the food editor for the industry-focused website CannabisMD.com. She recently helped create a cannabis-infused menu at the James NoMad hotel in New York City. It is CBD-only, not THC, so diners are not getting high.
Drummer said she started making butters infused with marijuana; baked goods seemed a natural choice. “Cakes and pastries and the like were the easy go-to,” she said during a phone interview.
But as the market has expanded, she said there are a growing number of chefs experimenting with other foods. That is coupled with a growing market looking for cannabis for health, not necessarily recreation.
“Now, we have permission, if you will, to explore,” she said. “You have a broader audience base of those who haven’t tried it and because the government says its OK they’re interested in trying.”
Drummer said she expected to open a culinary arts program centered on cannabis in Los Angeles soon.
‘It’s a plant. It’s food.’
In Arizona, the Mint dispensary in Tempe has opened a cannabis kitchen, offering pizzas, pastas and burgers served in an on-site cafe. Curry figures that trend will continue.
There is only one place where Curry figures the cannabis oil can’t be used: “Republican dinner tables,” he said.
Curry wishes to open a restaurant again, one that serves carefully portioned-out doses of THC to those legally allowed to partake. He could make the same items with no psychoactive qualities as well, he said.
But, he said, that goal can be realized only with the relaxation of laws.
Curry has had some glimpses of what that dream restaurant would be like. Last year, he held a private dinner at Brat Haus, one of the Scottsdale restaurants he started. Only medical-marijuana card holders could enter. IDs were checked at the door.
Diners enjoyed pretzels dipped into marijuana-infused cheese sauce, sliders topped with infused tomato jam, a baked potato soup that was “fully loaded” and a pasta carbonara with infused cream sauce.
To passersby, it looked like any outdoor dinner. There was no way to know that a good number of the people eating the food were also getting high.
It was like someone walking by Brat Haus or Caffe Boa or Digestif would have no idea how intoxicated people were getting inside.
But marijuana still carries a stigma that makes the idea of people ingesting the drug out in the open unnerving.
“That’s the scary thing,” he said. “People see you can medicate anytime.”
To Curry, the cannabis dinner at Brat Haus was the culmination of what he had spent his career doing: making food that made people feel better once they ate it.
“Yes,” he said about marijuana, “it’s a plant. It’s food.”
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