Chef Nikki Steward is one of the most sought-after chefs in the world of weed. As a culinary artist, she has created infused dinners for Dave Chappelle, Snoop Dogg, Migos, and many other luminaries. She founded The High End Affair to curate elevated gastronomical experiences for industry leaders, entertainers, athletes and celebrities, where she brings everyone together with her particular combination of cannabis, culinary delights, and great conversation.
Gentleman Toker caught up with Chef Nikki at the National Cannabis Festival to chat about how she got her start as a cannabis chef, her love of science and plant medicine, the healing magic of mushrooms, and what her plans are for the future (stay tuned — they’re big)!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
GT: Thanks for talking with us! First, what can you tell us about a High End Affair event?
Nikki: The High End Affair has always been something that I wanted to feel very inclusive, but exclusive, in the sense where we give you an opportunity to come into a safe space where you can just be yourself and consume. Of course, we don't allow phones at the event, meaning we don't allow people to film. We want everyone to be comfortable, consume and be in the moment — hang out with friends and just, like, eat good-ass food for real. And meet new people! We have some really cool people that attend these events, and they're usually people that you didn't know that you needed in your life. [laughs] I get a lot of stories like, “Hey, I found my investor… I found my distributor… I found my lab.” Or, “Hey, I got to smoke a blunt with the Senator.” That has all happened at The High End Affair.
As a chef, you’re an artist who uses food as your medium. What mediums are you enjoying right now? What are you playing with in terms of food, techniques and flavors?
I'm really heavy into the Asian aesthetic of food. I like to explore a lot of flavor layering. Oftentimes Asian cuisine is so inventive when it comes to delivery methods of food — it's a lot more like science and molecular gastronomy. I'm really into cool science shit. You know, people see chefs making foam and they’re like, “that looks like spit.” I'm like, yeah, it does kind of look like spit, but it's foam [laughs]. And I’m also into things that look like one thing and taste like another. That's kind of my own quiet practice; I'm trying to R&D delivery systems and methods to bring you flavors that look completely different.
We talk a lot about how to find good weed, and how strains aren't necessarily the most important factor when you’re judging cannabis. With that in mind, are there any particular smells or terpenes that you look for when you're deciding what to infuse your meals with?
When it comes to adding heavy terp profile cannabis to food, I'm kind of split. Sometimes there's a need for it because you already have aromatics in the food. And then there are other times where I don't want something super dank ruining the softness of a flavor. I choose which products I'm going to use depending on what I'm making. There are times where I use nano bioavailability products, which means that there's hardly any terp profile, it's very smooth and clean.
Say for instance, I'll make a soup that’s got flavors like lemongrass, which is kind of soft, but it's really exact. And then it also maybe has flavors like ginger, different types of chilis, citrus notes, cilantro… maybe you put a splash of coconut milk in there that mellows everything out. So what do you choose? Do you want something a little bit higher on the terp profile because you have all these citrusy notes? I say, yes, I would like a little punch at the back of my palate.
But if I'm making something soft like meringue — I wouldn't want you to taste a high terp profile meringue. It would ruin the flavor. I would use something really soft, like an isolate or nano product to bring it to where it will still melt in your mouth.
People call themselves cannabis chefs all the time; if you take the word cannabis away, are you a chef? That’s always a thing I remind myself: I'm a chef first, and then I add cannabis.
It sounds like a delicate balancing act.
It is. It's really like a dance, like a little salsa in the kitchen [laughs]. I have to think about it all the time: what makes sense? I want you to remember after the fact that there was weed in there. Not like back in the day when you’d get a brownie and you'd be like, “This shit is intense, but I'm gonna get through it cause I wanna be high that bad.” I don't want you to feel like that when you're eating. I want you to be like, “That was good as fuck.” And with the nano, I’ve got 15 minutes for your onset. Right around that 15 minute mark, you'll start feeling a bit more elevated.
Can you tell us a little bit more about how you use infusions, nanotechnology and so on?
Nano works because it's a time management game for me when I'm in the kitchen. I have to make sure the courses are coming out accordingly, and I've given your body enough time to start to metabolize that. With nano, it bypasses your liver and goes straight to your bloodstream, which is a great thing because I can get your onset faster. So while you're enjoying your conversation, you'll have that moment where you're like, boom, I'm in it. Like, my little high kicked in — we all know what that feels like. And that’s a good space for me because I can get you higher, faster. I can also have a little bit more time with you to give you an experience and mellow you out towards the end, because I need for you to get out the door and get home safely.
I’m kind of maneuvering your body chemistry. And nano allows me the flexibility to do that. I still use distillates, and RSO. A lot of these things still make sense to me. The only thing that I don't use is butter and oil, because my measurements have to be exact when it comes to dosing. With nano and distillates, some of the isolates, I'm able to dose a bit more exact. I have a background in pharmacy, so that’s very important for me.
One of the biggest things I’ve noticed with legalization is how enthusiastic people are to start making edibles and launch their own cannabis edibles brands. What do you think is the most effective way for them to market themselves?
Man, that's interesting. As somebody that started from the bottom, I had so many people telling me “this is not a good idea” and I was like, “yeah, it's a good idea.” I had to kind of figure out how to market myself strategically, without giving up all the sauce and all the game [laughs]. Of course, social media is a big deal. I feel like I give just enough — I have so many things I never post, but that's very intentional because I want you to come see me, you know, I want you to energetically come see me.
I always tell people to remind yourself why you're here, because a lot of people come here to make money. I didn't come here to make money. Money just happens because I happen to also be good at my job. I came here to make sure that cannabis was integrated into everyone's life seamlessly, as a right for you to heal yourself and heal your body and just… be one. The moments that I get super frustrated, I remind myself why I'm here, so when I start pushing out marketing and content, it literally feels like me, you know?
I came up with The High End Affair right after I did a 250 person dinner party for Snoop. And I was like, I gotta figure this out. And my partner, Josh and I, he came up with the name, and I didn't ask anybody's actual opinion. I just said, they're gonna love this. I think that sometimes the problem is with other people in marketing, and chefs… it's okay to admire each other, but still be original, and breathe your own energy into your food, into your marketing and your content. That's it. I mean, it sounds like I'm giving some sort of magical, spiritual conquest. But I have some really good business people in my life, and I listen to people who are more successful than me. I have mentors; you gotta have a mentor. I don't care how old you are. I feel like you could be 50 years old and have a mentor, and be a mentor. I'm a mentor to some, but I also have a mentor and that's important too. You gotta ask people who are smarter than you, what did you do?
I understand that you are somewhat of an ambassador for psychedelics. Could you tell us about that?
Yes. I love drugs.
[laughing] Can I quote you on that?
You can quote me on that [laughs]. Oh man. I have such interesting drug conversations. I'm a super psychonaut, especially when it comes to mushrooms. I've tried most things in the classification of psychedelics — LSD, MDMA. I do a lot of plant medicine ceremonies — bufo alvarius, 5-MeO-DMT, kambo, hapé, ayahuasca. But I don't use any of those in food. It's mainly like, what can we do with mushrooms right now? Because clearly we know mushrooms are moving faster than cannabis, and everybody's on it. It's gonna get convoluted very early. Big box brands, multi-state operators are already formulating products.
I sit in this space where I'm kind of like a gatekeeper of the culture and science. I've been asked to develop a lot of products for moods and experiences, because that's a huge thing in mushrooms — like where do you wanna be at: Micro? Macro? I'm a macro girl; I take 10 or 12 grams.
Cooking with psychoactive mushrooms gets a little tricky because unlike cannabis, you can't heat psilocybin up to 400 or 500 degrees. You have to be really delicate and sensitive, and so incorporating them into food is a very fine line.
I'm an olfactory person — I smell really well. The first hit of freshly dried mushrooms, they’re pungent, and if I get too much of it, I can feel my stomach be like, alright, you might wanna back it up. [laughs] So you want your stomach situated. I like to partner mushrooms with umami flavors like coconut aminos. Or taking lemon tek, and moving it to a culinary side — maybe do citrus with soy sauce, or some umami type of flavoring. And I'm always gonna suggest tea. I'm also down to add mushrooms to a fruit smoothie with some sort of nut milk. There's different ways to do it. I'm very loyal to mushrooms as a medicine. I don't think that it's something that should be completely covered in terrible chocolate — half the time with mushroom chocolates, they're not using quality chocolate.
I'm not a recreational user of mushrooms. I'm a functional mental health user — it’s necessary for my creativity, my wellness. That is what kind of psychedelic consumer I am. I take mushrooms to be in a space in nature, and just be one with myself. And we take mushrooms as a family — I just got my mom on mushrooms.
I’ve got a question about cannabis lounges; New York State is going to have lounges, and they're expanding in California. Have you thought about setting up your own lounge?
More than likely, at some point. I definitely know if I did that, there would be a line out the door for sure. Maybe in a couple years. Right now, I'm a very transient energy person. I like to move around and see different things. That's why I like psychedelics, because I can go to other worlds and other places that I can't go just by looking at this regular world.
What can we expect from Chef Nikki in the near future?
I’ll have products launching in the third or fourth quarter of this year, coming out in Colorado first, and then we'll roll out into other states. I'm writing a book right now that’s so much fun; I never saw myself writing a book, but here I am. And we're going to cool places this year — we're going to our first large international event in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the Delicious International Food & Music Festival. We're back on the road; we're gonna have our first big High End Affair in Detroit. That's my spot. I love the Midwest. We'll be in Detroit doing events with Calvin Johnson; he has a brand, Primitiv, that he founded with his old lineman, Rob Sims, and they have some really dope shit coming out.
Megatron’s coming out with cannabis?!
He's already vertically integrated in Michigan with Primitiv. And, you know, he just got into the Hall of Fame last year. We did a social equity event with Calvin in Detroit last year. That's our guy.
Well, I'm definitely gonna look forward to everything you’re working on. Thank you so much, this has been a lot of fun.
You’re welcome. It has been fun… it was a good talk.