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The marijuana edibles business in Illinois is no cakewalk—just ask Mindy Segal

Hot Chocolate's famed pastry chef is slated to roll out her first cannabis-infused treats this month. But the career move hasn't been easy, even for a James Beard Award winner.



Mindy Segal stands before four small piles of chocolate brittle in the lobby of Greenhouse Medical Cannabis Dispensary, in north-suburban Deerfield. One of 31 licensed marijuana dispensaries in Illinois, Greenhouse is situated near the rear of a sprawling but otherwise unremarkable one-story industrial building wedged between Lake Cook Road and the Edens Spur. The place isn't easy to find even with a GPS, but a few of the dispensary's patients have stopped by this March afternoon to chat with the celebrated pastry chef behind Mindy's Hot Chocolate and sample her candy on their way in or out of the restricted showroom in the back of the lobby, where state-approved marijuana trafficking occurs. If all goes according to plan, within a month or two the brittle would be dosed with ten milligrams of THC and sold at dispensaries across the state. For now, she was just giving them a taste of what a James Beard Award winner could accomplish in the frequently skunky universe of marijuana edibles.

Earlier in the day at Greenhouse's Mokena dispensary southwest of the city, Segal had talked with a man who had Stage III colorectal cancer, now in remission, who had replaced all his pain meds with cannabis. She also spoke to patients with Tourette's syndrome, Crohn's disease, fibromyalgia, and multiple sclerosis, all qualifying conditions approved for treatment under the state's Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act, which went into effect at the start of 2014. One middle-aged woman who suffers from fibromyalgia points out to Segal that the candied grapefruit in the white-chocolate brittle with pistachios might cause negative interactions for patients taking antidepressants.

"I did not know that," Segal says. "Duly noted." The encounter underscored the fact that Segal's partnership with Cresco Labs, Illinois's largest cannabis cultivator, with three growing facilities across the state and an office in a River North loft, is still in the developmental phase despite the goal of rolling out her first edibles statewide in April. That Segal wasn't legally allowed to test the medicated recipes herself in Illinois didn't help. And because she doesn't possess a medical cannabis card herself—back pain and migraines, which the 48-year-old suffers, aren't among the state's 39 approved conditions—she wouldn't be permitted to try them once she's cleared to get in the kitchen and start cooking.

To get around these restrictions, in mid-February Segal traveled to Denver, where medical and recreational use of marijuana is legal. In a private kitchen, she experimented with toffee-and-smoked-almond brittle and peanut butter-peanut brittle, applying a low dosage (two to 2.5 milligrams) of THC-infused oil to her recipes.

"I got high," she says. "But then we went out for dinner and I ate and had a drink and it kind of mellowed out."

A selection of Segal's edibles - JENNIFER OLSON PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Jennifer Olson Photography
  • A selection of Segal's edibles

Segal's infamous intensity apparently has also mellowed. The chef's scarlet hair is still ablaze, her arms covered in ink. But she exudes calm since delegating kitchen work at Hot Chocolate to her staff and teaming up with Cresco. She's played around with marijuana edibles for recreational purposes in the past, usually by sauteing the plant's flowers in butter. Certainly that method can result in baked goods that have potent, if unpredictable, psychoactive effects. The downside is that the butter carries with it the unmistakable odor and flavor of the plant. In Segal's work with Cresco, the focus is on taste—specifically the absence of the pungent essence of cannabis.

Celebrity-branded marijuana products have already entered the market, the Leafs by Snoop label being one prominent and slickly marketed example. Wiz Khalifa is releasing his own line of regulated pot products on April 20 (aka 4/20 or National Weed Day), and Waka Flocka Flame is planning to put out a variety of vegan weed treats. But until now no name-brand chef has put her imprimatur on anything in the wild world of edibles. Cresco hopes to get Segal's brittles and granola in dispensaries across the country, hopscotching complicated and varying laws by partnering with manufacturers already established in the 23 states that along with the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana use, or even by setting up their own localized operations.

Segal had already been working on rolling out a line of branded—but not medicated—brittles and granolas when she was first contacted last summer by David Ellis, Cresco's executive vice president for operations, who formerly co-owned an aquaponics farm inside the Plant in Back of the Yards.

"I thought, 'These guys are going to take me to the next level,' " Segal says. "This all started because I started thinking Why am I in this industry? Why am I in the food industry and the restaurant industry to begin with? Why am I a chef? I look at this whole thing as I'm a chef because I like making people happy."

  • Jennifer Olson Photography
  • Peanut brittle

The viability of adapting Segal's pastry recipes to the medical marijuana market was never in question. "I can make anything," she says. "The recipes were already there." For the chef, the key to developing the edibles has been getting precise dosages of cannabinoids into the brittles and granola without patients tasting or smelling them.

The two prevalent cannabinoids in the "first generation" of Segal's edibles will primarily be tetrahydrocannabinol, aka THC—the component that produces the characteristic euphoric high and alleviates nausea and pain—and cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive substance that can relieve seizures and anxiety.

Cresco has three main cultivation centers in Illinois, where the company grows and processes marijuana. The largest facility, in Joliet, is capable of producing up to 200 pounds of usable marijuana flower (aka bud) per month, according to Cresco CEO Charlie Bachtell. That's where Segal's kitchen is, though as of mid-March she still hadn't been cleared by the state to go inside.

Segal won't be working with buds, however. Cresco has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in pharmaceutical-grade extraction equipment, which will distill the medicine she applies to her edibles into an odorless, tasteless, honey-blond-colored oil. The company employs what's known as a closed-loop extraction process, using solvents like butane or agents like CO2 to separate the plant from its trichomes, small resin glands that manufacture cannabinoids and terpenes, the chemicals that give marijuana its pungent aroma, said to have their own therapeutic benefits. Closed-loop extraction leaves negligible amounts of residual solvent behind, which is important to patients with serious medical problems in the market for all-natural products.

Segal's edibles will not have terpenes, at least not at first.

"The primary driver is having products that do not taste like cannabis," says Bachtell, who added that he doesn't partake himself. "I don't know anybody that really likes the taste of cannabis."

For her part, Segal dreamed of leaving in the myrcene, a common terpene in cannabis, in her white-chocolate brittle, because she thinks its hoppiness would've complemented the grapefruit in the recipe. That was until her encounter with the woman at Greenhouse, after which she decided to substitute candied orange.

A variety of chocolate brittle and granola - JENNIFER OLSON PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Jennifer Olson Photography
  • A variety of chocolate brittle and granola

That sort of precisely directed chemical profile may happen with successive generations of edibles, Bachtell says. The company has the ability to target specific conditions with extracted cannabis, much in the way that Cresco's line of flower products, divided among indica, sativa, and hybrid strains, are good for relaxation, activity, or somewhere in the middle, respectively.

Another key for Cresco is consistency, adding to each product just the right number of milligrams of cannabinoids per unit to achieve what the company refers to as "controlled dosage events," meaning each product contains the same levels of cannabinoids for predictable effects.

"Traditionally edibles haven't been that consistent," Bachtell says. "That's because it stems from people doing it at home—sauteing it in butter, adding the butter into the brownie mix. We want to make sure that the piece that you get, whether it is the top piece or the bottom piece in the pack of five, has exactly ten milligrams of THC in it. To get that precise is expensive, it's time-consuming, and it's a new approach to edibles."

Cresco will be using both butane and CO2 extraction for various products, but Segal's edibles will be produced using strictly the latter method. "The conventional wisdom is that CO2 is looked on as more medicinal," Bachtell says. "You're not using a lighter fluid, you're just using pressure." The end product also has the benefit of having a better odor than a solvent-extracted concentrate.

"There's an art to knowing how to get the end product that you want," Bachtell says. "Especially with the techniques that we are using, you really are getting down to the cannabinoid profile. It's less about the strains that we put into it as much as the cannabinoid profile you want to extract from it. So it gives you a little more flexibility to not be tied to what just went into it, but what you want to use and what you don't want to use. You can really isolate specific things." He's open to entertaining the idea of directing successive generations of Segal's edibles toward specific health and environmental conditions. "For example, I like the idea of having a daytime-use product that will have coffee beans in it, and sativa, and cannabinoids that will be more body [high] and less heavy."

  • Jennifer Olson Photography
  • Granola bites

In the meantime Segal has been working out the kinks in her granola recipe.

On a Monday afternoon in early March, Segal, Cresco's Ellis, and Segal's business partner, Carol Griseto, were in the kitchen at Hot Chocolate in Wicker Park, testing unbaked matrices of grains and nuts in preparation for rolling out their first edibles to dispensaries around the state as a sort of pop-up to introduce the product and get feedback. They'd already figured out how to infuse cannabis oil into the brittles—dispersing a uniform dose through the chocolate in the treats would be easy. But the granola bites were another matter. Ellis worried that the cannabis oil wouldn't distribute evenly in the granola bars' liquid binder. Segal wanted to solve the problem by adding a layer of medicated caramel.

Later, Segal and her collaborators sat at a table in the restaurant's dining room to brainstorm.

"I kind of equate this whole thing to opening up a restaurant," Segal said. "You think you know a lot, and then you open up a restaurant and you realize how little you do know. And I think it's the same thing with this. I know how to make brittle. I know how to make toffee. I know how to make granola. I've been playing around with edibles on the recreational side my entire adult life. But to get in here, to do this as a business, it's completely different for me. I'm learning how to work with ten people. I never had to work with ten people before. Either telling me what to do, telling me what they think about what I'm doing, or asking me questions."

"The next step," Ellis said, "is getting it into the kitchen in Joliet so we can start making it and sending it off to our lab for analysis so we can be sure it is actually where it should be."

"And once into the kitchen, I can't taste it anymore," Segal continued. "Unless I get a medical marijuana card. And unless they approve more conditions, I won't get one."

"Even then you couldn't," Ellis said, hunched over his laptop.

"Yeah, but I can bring it home."

"Uh, not true. You'd have to purchase it."

Segal was incredulous. "I'd have to buy it. You fucking believe this bullshit? Well, unless I do it illegally."

"Which you won't be."

"I'm not going to. I would if it was just Mindy Segal, but I am not going to jeopardize Cresco's reputation."

"Yeah, so the answer to that is 'correct.' "

"Is that the dumbest thing you ever heard of?" Segal said.

"Listen," Ellis said. "To be fair, it's going to change. It's a matter of time."

Segal nodded and turned her attention back to the recipes. The April deadline was quickly approaching, and she needed them to be perfect. v

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