Chef Q&A with John MacNeil: “The sky’s the limit right now”

Interview by Gregory Furgala 

John MacNeil doesn’t sell edible cannabis products; he can’t. While cannabis was legalized in Canada last October, the federal government held off on legalizing edible cannabis as well, saying it still needed to develop adequate regulations. Despite the hurdle, MacNeil has found his niche in his start-up, reTreat Edibles, which sells baking mixes formulated to accommodate the addition of cannabis that, like wine grapes, is produced in a countless number of strains with varying flavour profiles.

MacNeil trained at the Culinary Institute of Canada, put in stints at Michelin-rated restaurants in Europe, spent a decade at Teatro, one of Calgary’s culinary institutions, opened the Black Pig Bistro and is now executive chef at the Beltliner restaurant. Along with his growing license, few chefs are better-prepared to take advantage of Canada’s newest ingredient than MacNeil.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CRFN: Tell me about your cooking background.

John MacNeil: My culinary career started in my small hometown of New Waterford, Nova Scotia. My father used to take me to the farmers’ market every Saturday or Sunday morning. We’d go and look at the vegetables, and I got to learn about quality and taste. I found it easy and wasn’t super academic in high school, so I enrolled in the culinary arts program at the Culinary Institute of Canada. It was a two-year program, and when I got there, it was just amazing. I love food and I love people, so it was a great match.

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After that, I did a six-month internship in Banff and worked with a Swiss chef, Thomas Newcomb. I went back to school and afterward went to Calgary. I thought it was great—it’s kind of a big city but with a small-town feel. A year later, I went to Switzerland for a year-and-a-half and worked at some Michelin-rated restaurants. I did a lot of pastries, garde manger and vegetable prep, and I got a much greater understanding of what terroir is and how food can really taste. I also worked in France, Germany and Spain.

I came back to Calgary and found myself at Teatro where I worked for ten years before leaving to open up Black Pig Bistro with my wife Allison, who’s also a chef. After that we sold to our business partners, went to Montreal, came back to Calgary and started reTreat Edibles.

I’m also the executive chef at the Beltliner. It’s a breakfast, brunch, lunch, kind-of-busy restaurant.

CRFN: How did you get into cannabis?

JM: I’ve always enjoyed cannabis and thought it was a really cool space. It felt different. And anything that’s really new or different, and that people aren’t really exploring, I tend to go in that direction. There’s always something to learn, and when I came at it as a chef, I had a new ingredient to use. It makes everything so much more special.

CRFN: And how did reTreat Edibles start?

JM: reTreat started as an MBA project. We had to come up with a business in an industry, and cannabis legalization was coming. At that time, we didn’t know edibles were going to be postponed until 2019, so we came up with a brownie mix that the user would add their own infused oil from their providers, and can be enjoyed by people with dairy and gluten allergies and dietary restrictions. We wanted to hit all points.

CRFN: How has your culinary background informed your approach to cannabis?

JM: With cannabis, the genetics of each strain are different, and when the plant is cured and finished, you end up with all these wonderful aromas. Some of them have a pine flavour naturally found in herbs like rosemary. So, say, Delahaze, is a dominant cannabis strain and it’s quite piney, would pair well with a rosemary-sea salt-chocolate chip cookie.

CRFN: What’re some of your favourite strains?

JM: Delahaze for sure, for its piney terpene. Something like the Mango strain has a bitter cocoa taste to it. So, mixing this with reTreat’s Coconut Midnight Brownie pairs well because you have sweetness from the coconut and brown sugar molasses that helps tame that bitterness. It’s almost like having European 65-70 per cent chocolate.

CRFN: You also have a growing license how has that helped you work with product?

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JM: It’s really broadened what I thought good cannabis could be. When you go from seed to finished product, you have a greater understanding of what it took to get it to the plate. It’s very similar to doing farm-to-table, or ocean-to-table, or anything like that.

If you have a small grow or a couple plants, you can really broaden what you can do with the cannabis plant, rather than just being focused on the sensimilla-style growing of the plant [a style of growing that maximizes cannabis plants’ THC content]. You can end up with some seeds, grind them, and put them into your bread. The stalks can be dried and cured; I’ve put those into vinegars before. You wouldn’t get any THC basically from those — there’s not much to the stalk — but you end up with a soft, roasted, hay-like vinegar when you’re done. So there are many different options than just looking at the flower bud itself.

CRFN: So when you’re growing cannabis you’re growing the female plant, but you can end up with male plants, and you can use the seeds and stalks for culinary purposes.

JM: Yeah, that’s if you end up with a male. People typically don’t want that. They want to grow in the style of sensimilla, which is grown without the male’s presence. That’s why the buds get so heavy and sticky, because the trichomes — they’re trying to catch any open pollen that’s out there. They do that, and that when they’re going to turn into a seed, or if the plant is stressed, it can also turn it into a hermaphrodite. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park says, “Life will find a way,” and it often does.

CRFN: There must be some trial-and-error, so what’re you currently trying?

JM: There are a couple products that we’re working on right now. Some are on the sweet side, some are on the savoury side. On the savoury side, we’re working on different dips, and different sauces, and we’re working on some other mixes, too, but I can’t get into great detail.

CRFN: Is there anything you were hoping would work, but wouldn’t?

JM: A couple baked products that didn’t really turn out that well — things that could’ve been but weren’t — but for the most part, it’s repetitive trial and error. Making the recipe one time, trying it a second time, and tweaking, and tweaking, and tweaking. The mixes we have now, we’ve tried those hundreds of times.

CRFN: You see cannabis baked good, cannabis candies, cannabis drinks — how can we expect restaurants to use cannabis in their day-to-day cooking when the time comes?

JM: I think it would almost be like going to a bar. It comes down to whether someone has ingested too much cannabis before coming to dinner, or if they’ve ingested alcohol, which affects how THC enters your body. I think private dinners, and places that people feel very safe when they’re experimenting — I think that could be really something. But, the sky’s the limit right now.

CRFN: So, what’s your favourite dish, and if cannabis isn’t involved already, how would you adapt it?

JM: I like chicken liver parfait mixed with cannabis oil, but it really depends on how you want to feel. If you want to feel happy, maybe a strain with carolotholene, so it has something like black pepper to it. Something like that would be great with chicken liver parfait, or on a beef carpaccio. They’re clean, clear flavours. Girl Scout Cookie is one of my favourite strains. It’s high on that black pepper note.

CRFN: Outside of reTreat , what’s next?

JM: Every day presents new opportunities and challenges. But I think cannabis-infused dinners are going to be something that’ll happen in the city and across Canada. If you have the framework in place, and the right certifications, as well as the right venue — that could really be something special. You could do some avant garde cooking and some really cool presentations, like using soy lecithin for the Delta-9 clouds, so it would be really airy — something like that.

CRFN: So applying a lot of molecular gastronomy principles to it.

JM: Yeah, presenting the ingredients in a different way. That’s what cooking is, right?