Detroit Chef Gigi Diaz Wants to Put Pot on Every Table

Image credit: Chef Gigi Diaz

Chef Gigi Diaz has a vision for what weed can be for the Motor City. Diaz, owner of Cannabis Concepts, is a leader in a budding industry made possible by marijuana legalization in Michigan. Her vision transcends stereotypical ideas of hand-rolled joints and edibles exchanged in Tupperware containers. She expresses it through the products she creates, a wide array of offerings that incorporate hemp, THC, and CBD into everything from food to skin products.

Diaz, who goes by the name Chef Gigi, sees the coming weed-based economy having similar economic and job stimulation effects as Detroit’s auto industry.

“Someone had to make the tires, somebody had to make the windshield wipers, someone had to make the engine,” she says. “There are so many other offspring jobs that will happen from [the cannabis industry]. Marketing, accounting, lawyers, packaging, things that don’t have to do with necessarily growing the plant. What I want people of color to think about is the other businesses that are going to happen from this business.”

Diaz describes herself as a Detroit transplant and a Caribbean-born chef. As the daughter of restaurateurs, she spent her childhood shucking corn and making tamales with her mother in Flint, Michigan and mofongo with plantains at her father’s restaurant in Vieques, a small island off the eastern coast of the island of Puerto Rico. Diaz often found herself shadowing her father, learning about Caribbean culture and the business of food. Her mother exposed Gigi to her Mexican culture and cuisine.

This mix of experiences heavily influences the flavors and dishes of Diaz’s cannabis-infused cuisine. The distinct piquancy of her food along with its vibrant multicultural roots earned her the title of 2017 High Times Cannabis Cup Top Chef.

It’s “like receiving an Oscar for weed,” Diaz says. Her winning dish: shrimp nachos in a pepper sauce. “It was like a Caribbean-style nacho. It wasn’t your typical nachos,” she says. “The shrimp was made in a cannabis-infused Caribbean-style pepper sauce.”

For culinary inspiration Diaz draws on a range of cuisines found in Detroit, from Middle Eastern to West African. “People are always look for something new, something different, and something tasty,” she says. “People love when I do my jerk chicken tacos because I don’t do it in traditional corn or a flour [tortilla], I do it in a pita. A lot of people love pita in Detroit. We are talking about the Middle Eastern influence now.”

Diaz takes the pita and chicken breast and assembles them along with Mexican-style toppings like pico de gallo and Middle Eastern tzatziki sauce. “I notice people make jerk chicken tacos other places, but they don’t make it with the Middle Eastern ingredients,” she notes.

Most Detroit chefs don’t use cannabis in their food. But to Diaz it makes perfect sense. “You don’t have to smoke, you don’t have to dab. There’s a lot of things you don’t have to do, but you do have to eat,” she says. “It’s an essential part of life. So I wanted to incorporate it in something people do every day so that they could do it and not necessarily have to think about it [and say] ‘Oh my god look at what I’m doing.'”

Her initial interest in cannabis began when she learned about the medicinal affects the flower has on the body. Her food is based on her understanding of the health benefits of cannabis and the different forms it takes.

THC — short for Tetrahydrocannabinol — is the cannabinoid that produces the “high” experience. It can have relaxing effects or leave you paranoid, dizzy, or anxious depending on how the compound interacts with the brain. CBD (cannabidiol) on the other hand is non-psychoactive, meaning CBD strains tend to deliver a clear-headed and relaxing effect without the mind-altering properties associated with THC. Hemp, also known as industrial hemp, has no effects when consumed, however, its seeds and leaves are rich in vitamin E, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron and zinc.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Michigan since 2008. In 2016 the state legislature expanded the law to include the licensing and regulation of medical marijuana businesses. Two years later, in 2018, Michigan voters approved a referendum legalizing recreational marijuana.

Despite the vote marijuana-based businesses like Cannabis Concepts are limited in who they can sell to. The state is still in the process of developing guidelines for the sale of recreational pot. Currently the only way to legally buy weed in Michigan is for medical purposes. On top of that the cost of state marijuana licensing can run into tens of thousands of dollars.

The lack of rules for recreational sales leaves Diaz and other cannabis entrepreneurs in a gray area. According to attorney Matthew Abel of the Detroit Cannabis Council cannabis chefs like Diaz can host parties and dinners where attendees pay an entrance fee and can serve cannabis and cannabis-infused products at no additional charge. Private clients might invite a chef who works with cannabis to their home or venue and provides them with a supply of their own homegrown cannabis to infuse in the prepared cuisine. These are just some of the ways cannabis chefs can operate while Michigan irons out the legalities of recreational cannabis purchasing growing and selling.

“Now they are talking about micro licenses for people who want to grow under 150 plants,” says Diaz. “Everyday they are introducing something new that will change the landscape of how we operate in the cannabis industry. It’s crazy how fast this is growing.”

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation, The Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The J.M. Kaplan Fund, an anonymous donor and readers like you.

Food, Borders and Belonging explores food in Detroit from the perspective of immigrants and African-Americans. Inspired by the Feet in 2 Worlds Food Journalism Fellowship at WDET, this series of stories looks at the role food plays in the transformation of city neighborhoods and in defining identities.