High Time for a Change: Despite Legal Hurdles, Cannabis Chef Unika Noiel’s Strives to Bring Unique Cooking Style to Seattle

by Jake Uitti

Seattle chef Unika Noiel is the city’s expert on cannabis-infused cooking — especially when it comes to savory soul food. However, she faces a problem. Seattle officials have recently prohibited her from cooking meals for people for-profit, threatening her with fines and even jail time.

Chef Unika Noiel in the kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Unika Noiel)

Yet, there is an increasing demand for Unika’s infused expertise. Don’t believe us? Watch this quick video that about 3 million other people have seen from Buzzfeed featuring her smiling face. Or watch this video she recently did with DOPE Magazine and the cast of the movie, Super Troopers 2. Given this conundrum, we wanted to catch up with Unika to see what she’s been up to lately, how discouraged she might feel and to see what she thinks the future might hold for her and her business. 

How did you come to the world of edibles?

It all started with a lollipop. That was my first edible experience. It opened up my curiosity to cannabis. Then I started to experiment and do some research. I found out more about the medicinal properties and became increasingly interested. As I started cooking with it, I started to think about various health conditions like diabetes and how most edibles are sweet. So I figured out how to infuse things that weren’t necessarily sweet. And it took off from there. 

On social media, you’ve talked about the benefit of THC and CBD, medicinally. Does using them feel medicinal for you?

It does. I was a medical marijuana patient for years prior to the initiation of I-502. I believe it helps provide a lot of relief.

What has your experience been like cooking infused meals for folks in Seattle?

It’s been a great experience. I’ve had the pleasure of serving cannabis-infused soul food dinners for people in the community and it was always a great time. People are constantly asking me when we’ll be able to do it again.

You’ve recently worked with Buzzfeed and DOPE Magazine showcasing your infused cooking. What have those experiences taught you?

There are very few black people in the room in those sorts of situations. The DOPE Magazine event was amazing and there were a lot of very influential people there, but it’s also just not a very diverse situation – especially the higher up you go. And so the whole experience has taught me that even when I don’t want to look at it, I’m a black woman in an industry that’s not created for people like me. And it’s very difficult to get in and get any positionality there. 

Since we’re on the subject – the issue of race is very much embedded in the cannabis industry, whether we want to talk about it or not. Is there anything else you’d like to say on the subject?

The business is not created for minorities to thrive within. I started working in the medicinal system and there was a lot of diversity there, with the people that had medicinal pot shops. I would go around and try to sell edibles at different places and talk to people. But once the state got ahold of it and started doing a lottery and charging money for applications, all of that diversity went away. It was very obvious very quickly as soon as the rules were established regarding who was going to be successful in the industry in Washington. It wasn’t talked about too loudly, but I’ve had this conversation with numerous people. We knew we weren’t going to be included or be able to “play” just like all these “white folks” who maybe didn’t have the knowledge or experience we had but had the money and the connections that we don’t. And that’s kind of the same old story. It really sucks. And it’s so weird, weed or cannabis – you’re not supposed to say marijuana anymore – was something people, and especially black people, have been demonized for and have been known as users of for a long time. So it’s just weird. And it’s frustrating with the whole thing that’s gone on with me and my soul food dinners. Some people have said that me not being able to [cook my dinners for profit] is not right and if I wasn’t a black woman, it probably wouldn’t be going the way it is. That may be true. But it definitely does feel like they’re trying to make an example of me. 

You’ve observed chefs in other states who are allowed to host and cook cannabis-infused dinners for profit. Yet this is currently illegal in Seattle. Without getting yourself into trouble, what do you want to say about your experience with this problem? 

At the end of the day, I have – and I’m trying to choose my words very carefully here – I have been told that as a business owner – with my business Luvn Kitchn being the entity I’ve preciously done cannabis-infused dinners under – Luvn Kitchn cannot do cannabis-infused dinners in the city of Seattle until my business obtains a valid cannabis business license. But no such license exists, so it is impossible for me to correct the problem. And this is coming from the City of Seattle’s Department of Finance. The Department wants me to have a City of Seattle cannabis business license and one does not exists, because no provision exists at the state level for any edible food that isn’t a 10 MG dosage and prepackaged and sold in a 502 recreational store. And none of the licenses they have allowed for the production of anything like cannabis-infused fried chicken. 

That sounds extraordinarily frustrating.

It is. It’s enormously frustrating. Especially when in the settlement agreement that I went to my attorney’s office to sign, they still had wording in there that said, “Until Luvn Kitchn obtains a valid business license…” My attorney called them and said, “Just so you know, you might want to change that because it doesn’t exist.”

If you could wave a wand and have the city change its policies, what would you implement?

The first thing I would do is tell the Department of Finance and Administrative Services to stop citing people in situations where there is nothing for them to correct. Yes, this cannabis-infused dinner situation is a grey area. Everybody agrees on that. The laws have not spoken to it at all. So I would ask them to stop penalizing people because there is no clear law – rather, we should be working on a solution. I would ask that they figure this out because it’s another branch of the cannabis industry and because it’s growing in other places in the country. The city could be getting additional tourism dollars and tax dollars and all the other benefits that come to a city like Seattle [that has legalized cannabis]. People come here for that and there is a larger audience that we could be serving. We could be making our industry stronger but for whatever reason, I’m being penalized. 

Okay – let me ask a more upbeat question. It’s summertime and that means barbecues. What are some dishes you’d advise readers to look into when cooking their own infused food from the comfort and privacy of their own home? 

Barbecue sauce is always a good one. I think, especially if you’re in a situation where you’re with mixed company – with other people that may have had a limited experience with cannabis – anything you can do to infuse something that’s an add-on to the dish is good so people can dose themselves. Go slowly. Sauces are great. Something on the side or something small – like a dip, maybe. 

Can you share an easy-to-make barbecue recipe – perhaps for barbecue sauce?

I would do a watermelon barbecue sauce (recipe below). Use watermelon juice instead of tomatoes. Add brown sugar, red wine vinegar, garlic and onions. Mix all that together, cook it down and add weed butter or Pearl2O minis. That’s what I would do. 

Are there any new special recipes you’re working on in the Unika lab?

I’ve been posting a lot of recipes using butter lately but I’ve also started working on things for vegan people and people who do Paleo so they have some other options, as well. I’ll be posting a recipe using coconut oil soon on my website. 

What do you hope you’ll be able to do with your infused dinners in the future?

I hope that I’ll be able to do them anywhere within the state of Washington and the city of Seattle in public without having to hide or look over my shoulder or be worried about anything. And that I’ll have other chefs here in the area that are free to do the same. And we can collaborate and build community and have a great time. I hope.

Cannabis Infused Watermelon BBQ Sauce Recipe

Time: approx. 30 minutes Yield: About 1.5 cups sauce. 

For this recipe, you may use fresh watermelon juice or bottled, though I prefer fresh. If you prefer a thicker sauce, use all of the watermelon (minus the seeds) instead of just the juice! 

2 cups watermelon juice (reserve 1/4 cup)

2 tbsp cannabis infused coconut oil or butter

1/2 small yellow onion

2-3 cloves garlic

3/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1 tsp crushed ginger

2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

1/4 tsp Smoked Paprika

1 tsp salt

1/4 cup reserved watermelon juice

1 tbsp cornstarch

Finely mince 1/2 small onion and 2-3 cloves garlic.

In a small saucepan, sauté onions and garlic in 2 tbsp coconut oil until onions are translucent.

Add remaining ingredients, reserving 1/4 cup watermelon juice.

Simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until liquid is reduced by nearly half.

In a small bowl, whisk 1 tbsp cornstarch into 1/4 cup reserved watermelon juice. Add mixture to reduced sauce and stir. Simmer an additional 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Serve and enjoy!

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