Chef Rocio Vargas on creating cannabis cuisine with the community in mind
Rocio Vargas is a private chef, Chicago native, and the owner of PLANDA. Through PLANDA, Rocio offers boutique catering services and creates monthly, underground pop-up restaurants featuring her cannabis cuisine. These pop-ups offer guests multi-sensory dining experiences that are more than a meal; they feature local musical acts, and guests hear from the chef herself and the cannabis producers on the process that went into creating each dish. Rocio told us a bit more about her experience building PLANDA from the ground up.
When did you first know you wanted to be a chef?
I first knew I wanted to become a chef when I was in college during my final semester as a business and accounting major. I was working for the corporate world, and I didn’t quite enjoy it. I switched majors in the middle of my final semester and jumped right into culinary arts. Making a mess in the kitchen sounded more like fun than punching numbers on a spreadsheet.
How did you make the decision to combine your culinary skills with cannabis?
Combining the two came together when my father became sick in 2014. His health had deteriorated from chemo and the twelve prescription pills he had been assigned. I felt that cannabis would be of some help seeing how in California it had been legal, along with doing my research on the benefits this plant had, solidified the decision. I felt my dad would benefit from enjoying his favorite meals — with cannabis. Unfortunately, we never got to that stage. He passed away in August 2015 before I even had a chance to present the idea.
How do you incorporate cannabis into your dishes?
The way in which I incorporate cannabis into my dishes is primarily using a type of fat or infused oil and butter. I use flower form, concentrates, tinctures, RSO and terpenes. Throughout the cooking process, I use some form of the plant. It could be the leaves, it could be only CBD not just THC. It’s in the sauces, dressings, in met; it’s an extra ingredient that you as a consumer get to play with and enjoy.
What’s your favorite dish that you’ve made?
One of the favorite dishes I enjoyed making was this slowed cook beef short rib in ‘mole'. It was truly decadent to say the least. I used various spices, mirepoix, had a nice hard sear on the outside of the short rib, tossing that in the oven and slow cooking it for hours. I shredded it and then tossed that beef into my mothers special ‘mole’ sauce (it’s her recipe). It was truly a labor of love.
What impact do you hope to see from your work, and what’s your vision for PLANDA?
We need to know how to grow our own food and medicine, and I think hispanic and black communities should be the first to benefit from something like this. I hope the impact encourages women chefs to come forth, I hope the impact is positive for all those incarcerated over this healing plant. I want it to create jobs, meal services for those who can’t afford their medicine because cannabis isn’t cheap and getting your medical card to obtain the medicine isn’t cheaper. I want [my work] to help those with mental disorders and veterans. I hope that hosting these dinners and events with PLANDA can be that pathway to inspire more to do the same. ... My vision for PLANDA is to be the company anyone can come to in order to discover anything they may want in the cannabis and culinary world, break everything down to its minimalist form, and deliver it with no bullshit.
What misconceptions do people still have about your work and about cannabis in general?
I don’t know if there are any misconceptions left. If there are, I am so out of touch with it. Working with patients, doctors, veterinarians and advocates gives me the impression that there aren’t any. I am sure there are though.
What’s going on with cannabis cuisine around the world and where do you see the industry headed?
I see cannabis cuisine being a huge industry. People are having cannabis weddings, there’s cannabis florists, canna-catering, the list goes on. … You have food and beverage brands joining when two years ago they were against it. I think the “little guys” like myself and many are carving out the road and others are simply taking advantage of that by jumping right in and running down this path we cleared for them. I love seeing that, we are here to open doors or make them.
Cannabis cuisine and the legal cannabis industry are growing fields at the same time that people are still incarcerated in the US because of cannabis. What’s happening in this industry that can be damaging? How can we be conscious and ethical consumers of cannabis products?
I think that the damaging aspect about this industry is that we have a bunch of people in charge of a lot of peoples’ livelihoods who are more interested in their pockets than the patients themselves. Another damaging aspect is that those same “leaders” are not doing the right thing by delegating and allocating funds to properly serve those who have suffered the most due to arrests and incarceration or to properly serve their community. I need to really feel that this industry cares more about the people consuming and purchasing products to find relief than pushing products that aren’t even regulated or tested.
I think we have to do our research, we have to experiment with the product, and we definitely need to show up to meetings where discussions of legalization are taking place. We need to let our legislators and anyone with a brain know that we want equality in this industry, we want funds to not be abused. We just want a better quality of life, without someone telling us that their way is better, let alone dictating what I can or cannot consume but having no problem with adding lead to our water, adding plastic chemicals to our vegetables. It’s ass backwards and the more people we have saying this out loud, really calling a spade a spade, and speaking up when it’s necessary and even when it’s not — that is powerful.
Interview edited for clarity and brevity.