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Vanessa Lavorato’s Cookin’ with Grass

March 26, 2018
by Glen Martin

At Cal, Vanessa Lavorato, owner of Marigold Sweets and cohost of the TV show Bong Appétit, was like many another college undergraduate: She had a fondness for both cannabis and chocolate. But her appreciation was from an amateur’s perspective.

She hadn’t considered either substance as the foundation for a career until she chatted one day with Charles Muscatine, the renowned Berkeley Chaucer scholar. Muscatine was fired from his tutor’s position at the University in the 1950s for refusing to sign the McCarthy-era loyalty oath, only to be reinstated following a precedent-setting court case.

I realized that the Slow Food ethos had never been applied to cannabis edibles. You go into the dispensaries and they either have brownies and cookies that go stale quickly, or hard candies.

“It was my last year at Berkeley, and I was cooking and running errands for him,” recalls Lavorato. (Muscatine died from lung disease in 2010, the year Lavorato graduated.) “He was a renegade, a special man, and he had a huge influence on me. I’d studied art history and Italian history, but I had no real idea of what I should do next. So I asked him if I should go to grad school. He looked at me, and then said I wasn’t really cut out for academia but that I’d be able to make and sell anything I wanted. And that’s what he advised me to do. Make something, then sell it.”

Muscatine’s advice seemed sound, and Lavorato quickly determined that anything she’d make and sell would have to be edible. She’d become involved in the Slow Food movement in college, and had launched numerous pop-up eateries with Danny Bowien, the cofounder of Mission Chinese Food and Mission Burger in San Francisco. She had secured an internship in Rome at Alice Waters’s Sustainable Food Project, ultimately becoming friends with Waters, her daughter Fanny Singer, and other members of the broader Chez Panisse coterie.

“I’m not a chef, but I am a good cook,” says Lavorato, “and as I thought about it, I realized that the Slow Food ethos had never been applied to cannabis edibles. You go into the dispensaries and they either have brownies and cookies that go stale quickly, or hard candies. And more often than not they’re unappetizing—they just don’t taste good. So I thought there was a niche there that I could fill. I talked to Varun Mehra, who’s a very dear friend [and Waters’s assistant], and he was really supportive. He convinced me to pursue it.”

Typically with edibles, the goal has been to make them as strong as possible. But my research told me that isn’t necessarily what people want.

Lavorato ultimately decided that high-end chocolate candies were the perfect vehicle for edible cannabis. She had worked at See’s Candies as a teenager and knew something about the chocolatier’s craft. She also knew that sugar is an excellent food preservative, and that the high sugar content in chocolates assures a relatively long shelf life—critical for the dispensary and retail pot trade, where edibles may sit around for a while before they’re sold. So she bootstrapped her idea, working in a San Francisco clothing store while she experimented with chocolate and cannabis in her off-hours. In time, Marigold Sweets was born.

“It wasn’t easy,” Lavorato recalls. “Making chocolate candies is demanding, and it becomes even more complex when you add cannabis to the process. You have to jump through a lot of hoops. I basically had to teach myself how to do it.”

Lavorato doesn’t use just any old shake or leftover buds for her chocolates. Consistency in both taste and dosage is critical, so she relies on high-grade distillates—namely, cannabis oil.

“I use whatever is purest to ensure dose consistency,” she says. “In California, the target is 10 milligrams of THC per edible. Typically with edibles, the goal has been to make them as strong as possible. But my research told me that isn’t necessarily what people want. They’re looking for something lighter, and they prize consistency.”

Lavorato says that eating cannabis produces a far different effect than smoking it does. When you fire up a bong or joint, psychoactive chemical compounds pass the blood–brain barrier directly and almost immediately. The effects can vary depending on the strain of pot and the amount of smoke that is inhaled. But when cannabis is eaten, the primary euphoria-inducing molecule—Delta 9 THC—is converted to a different form.

“You lose many of the attributes expressed by different strains, and the effect can be stronger, takes longer to hit you, and lasts longer,” Lavorato observes. “That’s why edibles have caused problems for some people. They eat a dose, don’t feel anything after 30 minutes, eat more, and maybe eat even more 30 minutes later. So they may get too high, and it can be unpleasant.

Lavorato (right) and guests cook up cannabis cuisine on Bong Appetit / Viceland

“That’s why we take so many pains with dose consistency, and do everything we can to educate people about proper consumption. If for some reason you do eat too much, you shouldn’t panic. You won’t die from eating too much cannabis. You need to sit back, relax, and resign yourself to being uncomfortable for a few hours. Eating some good food always helps.”

Lavorato sells four proprietary candies: fleur de sel, peanut crème, a vegan coconut caramel, and cinnamon toffee. All are organic and handmade, and all are exquisite examples of the confectioner’s art, so pleasing to the eye that you may not want to eat them (although you very likely will, of course). Cinnamon toffee is her personal favorite, but she maintains a sentimental fondness for the fleur de sel because it was her first product and she learned the basic chops by perfecting it. (“Over the years, you see your caramel evolving.”) She also takes a particular pride in her coconut caramel, in that vegan high-end cannabis confections are rare.

Lovarato will never compete with her old employer, See’s, but she is scaling up production, partnering with a licensed edible cannabis manufacturer in Salinas. California’s licensing requirements for legal cannabis products are complicated under 2016’s Adult Use of Marijuana Act, and she found the prospect of acquiring the necessary certifications and outfitting a site for expanded production daunting. It made far more sense, she says, to simply partner with people who already had the requisite licenses and commercial food-production facilities so that she can concentrate on the thing that makes her happiest: making chocolates.

“I’m based in Los Angeles right now, but I’m really looking forward to moving my operations north,” she says. “I was born in Hollister, so I have friends and family in the area, and I’m excited about providing some jobs and being part of part of the Salinas community.”

As a Democrat, I actually hope Sessions pushes hard [on trying to recriminalize marijuana]. I think it’ll move a lot of free-market Republicans to the Democratic Party.

Unlike some of her peers in the cannabis trade, Lavorato isn’t deeply worried by the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to rescind Obama-era guidelines that deprioritized federal pot prosecutions. As she sees it, there are two types of Republican: “the bigots, and the don’t-touch-my-money kind,” and many of the latter variety already are heavily invested in the cannabis industry.

“They believe in state governance of cannabis, and they approve of the jobs and tax revenues it creates. I actually hope [U.S. Attorney General Jeff] Sessions pushes hard [on trying to recriminalize marijuana]—not as a business person, but as a Democrat. I think it’ll move a lot of free-market Republicans to the Democratic Party.”

Lavorato doesn’t spend all her time immured in industrial kitchens. As alluded to earlier, she’s also a TV star—cohost of the Viceland series Bong Appétit, a cooking show aimed at the young, hip, cannabis-enthused foodie. She’s contributing to a Bong Appétit cookbook, and she has used the show to feature women chefs she admires. That’s partly due to a commitment to feminism, but it’s also because she prefers cooking with women for practical and aesthetic reasons. “Women are just cleaner in the kitchen,” she says.

There’s no doubt about it: Lavorato is highly telegenic. She’s charismatic. And she establishes good chemistry with cohosts and guests alike as she adroitly communicates fascinating information on preparing cannabis-infused goodies that both taste good and gently transport the consumer to other, happier realms.

“But in the end, I mainly consider media a means for educating people on the culinary qualities of cannabis and a chance to showcase Marigold chocolates,” she says. “I have no desire to be a TV host forever. The main thing I’m concerned about is maintaining the artisanal quality of my chocolates. I see Marigold as a heritage brand, and I’m determined to protect its authenticity.”

Lavorato says Cal was an important, if somewhat indirect, motivation in her career. Although she didn’t apply her expertise in art and Italian history to the making of chocolates, “graduating from Berkeley gave me a sense that if I wanted to achieve something, I could. And the support I received from the larger community was just as important. If you’re studying, working, and living in Berkeley, you’re encouraged to take a different path, to do what inspires you.”

And as for her own predilections: Does she consume what she makes?

“Oh God, yes,” she laughs. “I eat a lot of chocolate. I love it, but I really have to stop. My grandmother has diabetes.” 

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