There are few higher honors for a chef than being able to cook inside of The James Beard House. For decades many chefs have aspired to gain entry into this beacon of culinary culture. This past May, the Beard House debuted a new opportunity for up-and-coming chefs to have their chance in the spotlight. Together with Capital One and the Food Education Fund, they debuted the Beard House Fellows program which revitalized the potential of the historic space by transforming it into a space for training and professional development for talented emerging chefs! Honeysuckle was lucky enough to join one of the members of their inaugural class of fellows, Chef Theodore Coleman.

Coleman is a graduate of Food and Finance High School, an NYC school responsible for preparing the next generation of culinary artists to enter the competitive industry with ease. After graduating in 2010, he attended college to study film, with the hopes of one-day producing a food documentary. However, his reality as a teen father led him to abandon that path to start working in the culinary industry in a more hands-on way in order to support his growing family. Following his beginnings as a grill trainer at Shake Shack, he has since spent time working in higher-end dining beginning with a stint at North End Grill under the tutelage of late Chef Floyd Cardoz. Under Cardoz, he was able to blossom and learn to source fresh ingredients while tending to the restaurant’s rooftop garden. He managed to climb the ranks of the industry from lead line cook to a head chef position at Good Thanks Cafe. Currently, he is at the cusp of debuting his exclusive supper club through his company Late Reservations.

Seafood Saltimboca w/ LemonHaze Brown CannaButter by Chef Theo (C) Theara Coleman

Theo was on the precipice of continuing to take the culinary world by the horns when the pandemic suddenly put a halt to his plans. Finding himself unemployed with a family to provide for and nothing but time on his hands, he seized the opportunity to throw himself into researching cannabis-infused dining.

Now with the support of the James Beard fellowship, Coleman is establishing himself as a standout in the growing community of fine dining chefs dabbling in cannabis infusion. What began with a fascination with the chemistry of the plant, has evolved into a bevy of dishes made with locally sourced fresh ingredients and intentionally selected cannabis infusions.

Theo welcomed the Honeysuckle team into the James Beard House to taste test his infused offerings while chatting about the future of cannabis in the culinary industry. While discussing the steps in making his infused fall-centric pasta with pumpkin puree, warm Moroccan spices, and lemon haze-infused olive oil, Coleman shared some of his insights on the future potential of cannabis-infused high-end dining.

Chef Theo at the 2021 James Beard Awards in Chicago (C) Theara Coleman

HONEYSUCKLE: How did you start experimenting with infusing cannabis into your menu?

CHEF THEO: So I started growing about two summers ago, right before the pandemic and I grew three plants: two laughing Buddhas and one lemon haze. I kind of already had a green thumb from my time at North End Grill. We had a rooftop garden there, and that’s where I got my culinary start. I was able to learn how to care for plants and other agricultural things.

During the pandemic, I needed something to do at home so I started growing weed because I smoke a lot. I started to look at it differently because people tend to look down on it, but at the end of the day, it’s a plant, bro. When I found out my dad had cancer, I had just started cooking and we weren’t on the best terms. I messed up a lot in high school, but as he got sicker I felt like I could help him; so I started trying to convince him to eat edibles, and that’s what pushed me more into my research. I’ve always been a big science nerd, and this has biology and chemistry, and it encompasses all of my interests.

What kind of customers does your work appeal to?

For a lot of people, marijuana could be like a mental health release or treatment for pain. I have clients that are athletes, who work out often and I can make them infused shakes afterward, to help release the tension in their bodies. I have older clients that have things like dementia and cannabis helps them feel present. For them, it is a reprieve. I also have clients in their mid-30’s who are looking to have fun and socialize in an environment that doesn’t involve alcohol or harder drugs. Especially in my industry where doing hard drugs and drinking is extremely common, people are looking for a healthier social option.

Tri-Peppercorn Tomahawk Steak w/ Bone Marrow CannaButter & Whipped Truffle Mash by Chef Theo (C) Theara Coleman

Do you see a lot of movement from others in your industry towards incorporating cannabis infusions?

A lot of chefs are moving into that industry becoming budtenders because the work is similar and it's a passion industry where you get to use your hands and be connected to the products and the customer through all stages. I feel there's a little bit more opportunity for equity right now because it's kind of like we're in a gold rush. Kind of like the early internet days, where anything can go. If you can come up with a product and you push hard enough, you can make it happen. But anyone can reach for the low-hanging fruit and make brownies or candy. That stuff is cool but we can actually change the narrative of how we look at this plant, as well as how we look at food.

Food is a very social thing. It's something that we all do all across the world. We all enjoy food. And it can be the same thing for weed! It’s hard to imagine a world with those two things that go so well together, don’t work, and aren’t viable.

Passion Fruit Dulce de Leche Cannabis Bon Bons by Chef Theo (C) Theara Coleman

I think this is a great option for chefs, especially people of color like myself, to find a lane into the legal cannabis market. I also believe that knowing how to measure milligrams and knowing how each weed strain can affect you differently is going to be the differentiator and that's what's going to make or break the people coming into the industry.

When I started my company Late Reservations, I was trying to translate the exclusivity model of high-end dining to cannabis, while also making space to include more people who look like me, and are interested in luxury too. There aren’t too many customers or chefs that look like me and, I wanted to change that so that we all feel included.

Oxtail Wontons w/ Yuzu Kosho Dipping Sauce by Chef Theo (C) Tree Coleman

What’s up next for you? What are your personal goals for infused dining?

I just finished my fall menu and I’ve got my supper club debuting soon. I’m trying to build a client list, maybe reach out to some influencers and invite them to the opening. It would be multiple courses and include a gift bag with my infused chocolate line, so I can give them a taste of my full range as a chef. Eventually, I want to start reaching out to local farmers and kind of make it like a farm-to-table thing. It can be a weed farm and I adopt a plant from when they grow it and then everybody's involved and gets a piece of that plant.

I got a couple of cool, artsy ideas of how to approach this thing because it's an open space. I gave myself this name after watching Dune, Spice Lord because all of my food has some kind of spice in it. I like finding new flavors like black limes and incorporating them into things like desserts. I’m just going to keep searching and discovering new flavors. They’re like new colors, and this is the way I like to express myself.

Disclaimer: Theodore Coleman has a personal relationship with the writer.