Meet Manny Mendoza, the culinary cannabis pioneer
The Chicago chef dispenses the inspiration behind his marijuana-infused supper clubs and sparks the debate for equity in this space
Saturday 28 May 2022 By Jacquelyn Lumley
A neon haze fills the air up the staircase into the dining space at Toke Libre. Dinner blends into a DJ set as regulars arrive for the afterparty. The social club has only been open a few months, but owner Manny Mendoza has been cultivating a high vibe through his intimate dinner parties and conversations around equity in cannabis for years.
After graduating from The Culinary Institute of America, Mendoza moved back home to Chicago and worked at Michelin-starred restaurant, Senza, and Owen & Engine. ‘I knew that I wanted to do something with cannabis since culinary school,’ he reflects. Herbal Notes debuted in 2018 as a series of dinner parties where attendees could choose to have their meal infused with varying levels of marijuana. He then expanded the concept into a private dining and events company.
In 2020, Mendoza competed in and won Netflix’s Cooked With Cannabis show. Then, during the pandemic, weed was declared essential – and now a recreational joint is well on its way to becoming as socially acceptable as a glass of wine. So naturally, a dinner party with an award-winning chef infusing cannabis into fine dining is a concept that feels innovative and business savvy. That’s not the point, though – it’s bigger than that for Mendoza, who sees a different side of the coin for those involved in the industry since the beginning, long before the plant was deemed legal.
‘We are trying to move forward a conversation about more inclusion and diversity in the cannabis space,’ he explains. ‘Weed went from illegal to essential in what felt like overnight. The industry is getting a lot bigger, but the percentage of what Black and brown people have in it is getting smaller and smaller. The barrier has been so high. Now that it’s legal, people should be able to fairly and equally open up dispensaries. The percentage of licenses owned by underrepresented groups, or really just equity in general in the cannabis industry is close to zero.’ Mendoza advocates for this as an advisory board member with Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition and keeps the conversation going through his dinners and social club, cultivating awareness through discussion.
‘Cooking with cannabis allows me to have these conversations with people and try to move the needle forward in terms of making this industry really a true reflection of what it’s supposed to be,’ he says. His menu at Toke Libre takes inspiration from Mendoza’s El Salvadoran and Mexican roots, showcasing culinary excellence influenced by the Latin American diaspora and a bar programme that offers only Black and brown-owned wine, beers, and spirits.
In terms of the cannabis dosage, ‘it’s all about guidance,’ he says. ‘Let’s see where this conversation can go, as long as it’s guided. If it’s misguided, then everybody is just going to get super stoned and fall off their chair and then, you know, leave really high. Everything we do is intentional. That’s what sets us apart. You can feel when somebody puts energy into your experience and hits all different kinds of senses. That’s when people are the most receptive. We can give them meaning and intention about why we’re doing the things we’re doing. People let their guard down and start to make real, genuine connections.’
As of today, 18 states in the US have legalised recreational cannabis, with 37 allowing medicinal use. New studies are disputing the so-called ‘gateway drug theory’ and cannabis dispensaries nationwide are being celebrated as valuable revenue generators. Cannabis distribution has jumped from a federal criminal offense punishable by jail time to a respected revenue path, while many still sit in jail for marijuana-related crimes. It’s the same product that’s circulating, just through different hands. Mendoza has been a pioneer in elevating the conversation around cannabis, long before this nationwide rebrand. He cooks and he cooks well, and he’s got a lot to say – now he just wants you to take a seat and listen up.
Dinner reservations for Herbal Notes can be made via Tock. More information about Toke Libre and private events can be found on the website: herbalnotes.co/tokelibre