Shaun O'Neale

Planning to bring edibles to the next party? You better step up your game.

A tray of weed brownies are just not going to cut it anymore.

Try a roasted garlic and mushroom risotto made with cannabis oil infused butter…

The fusion of cannabis and foodie culture has taken another step, and Shaun O’Neale is one of the chefs on the cutting edge of that food revolution. But the celebrity chef is cautious about how this might develop.

“It’s too early to tell. It will be an uphill battle,” he muses about the future of cannabis-infused food. “The biggest thing is letting the government know what’s in that cannabis. It’s so hard to know. To do a restaurant, it will be tough because you have to know the precise amount of everything that’s in there.”

O’Neale burst onto the culinary scene after winning the seventh season of Masterchef, the FOX network’s reality cooking contest featuring celebrity chef and judge Gordon Ramsay. Since then, he’s emerged as a go-to chef for cannabis infused cuisine, demonstrating his techniques at countless industry events. O’Neale will be demonstrating that risotto dish at this year’s O’Cannabiz Conference and Expo at the International Centre in Toronto. The demo will be from noon to one pm – lunch time – on April 24, Day 2 of the conference.

O’Neale is quick to point out the challenges to infusion cooking. First, infused fats like oil and butter have a relatively low smoking point – the point at which the fat starts to burn and loses its shimmer. It’s also when the THC begins to burn off.

“When smoking a joint, the fire is activating that THC,” O’Neale explained. “You have to bring it to a point where you will activate the THC without burning it off. When I’m using infused oil or butter, I do it around 240 degrees which is the point where the heat activates the THC. At 260, the THC starts burning off.”

To control that, O’Neale recommends using a sous vide technique of sealing the dish in a vacuum sealed bag, then immersing it in a water bath heated to a specific temperature. That provides pinpoint control to the temperature of the dish.

“Whatever fat I’m using, I’m trying to get it to about 10 mg per tablespoon,” he explained, speaking of the THC content. “Some of that’s going to burn off, so it will probably land at 7 mg per tablespoon. But it’s still a guesstimate.”

O’Neale doesn’t see a future with cannabis restaurants dotting every street; there are just too many variables and impediments. Controlling the THC level to the satisfaction of the regulatory bodies is but one of the obstacles. Another major problem will be cost of buying the signature ingredient from the dispensaries. And there are logistical problems associated with the customers.

“You have to screen your guests,” he points out. “I don’t want people going on social media and ranting about how sick they got. We screen people so we know they’ve had at least a casual experience with cannabis in the past. Edibles affect the body in a whole different way than smoking it, too.”

Among the precautions O’Neale urges is for people to not drink alcohol when eating infused food. All these issues suggest to him that cooking with cannabis will remain a niche culinary experience.

“If you live in a big city, and can find your niche, you might be successful with catering and private parties,” he mused. “Honestly I’d never ever try to open a restaurant. Whenever I do it, it’s a kind of underground supper club idea. It’s who’s in the know.”

Now the author of his own cookbook, “My Modern American Table”, the 37-year-old former DJ thinks the cookbook market could be a boom for chefs with experience in this fusion. But even that comes with a caution:

“If I’m writing a cookbook, the first 100 pages are going to be about science,” he said. “You really have to give them the math. It’s so complex with cannabis and terpenes and active THC… You have to find the right mix.”

O’Neale said he’s excited to bring his demonstration to the Toronto audience, and to help spread the word about the many uses of cannabis products.

“People are starting to realize the benefits of the plant,” he explained. “Opening the door in one aspect has helped us re-evaluate the plant.”