Originally from New Jersey, 24-year-old Dave Hadley moved to Colorado to pursue his culinary dreams and experience life in both the cannabis and restaurant worlds. He’s an advocate for cannabis legalization, as well as a talented chef constantly creating delicious dishes. In addition to serving as sous chef at Denver restaurant The Preservery, Hadley helped found a side business called Craft Concentrates through which he created cannabis-infused edibles lines before turning his attention back to The Preservery. He continues to create bespoke cannabis-infused meals for friends and events in his spare time. His recent victory on the popular Food Network show Chopped marked the first time a cannabis chef was featured on the show.
We had the opportunity to talk with Hadley about his recent experience on Chopped, where he sees cannabis’s place in the culinary arts, and the inspiration that goes into his flavorful food. Here’s what he had to say.
Leafly: How or where do you pull inspiration for the dishes you create?
David Hadley: The inspiration I pull for my dishes is from my mother’s Indian background. No one in my area has experience in Southern Indian flavor — most people associate with Northern Indian food when they think of the usual Indian plates — and that’s not popular here in Denver. My dad is from St. Vincent [in the Caribbean] and my mom is from Kerala [in Southern India] so I have two ethnic parts where I get my food inspiration from, and I try to produce that for people out here. I make it pretty home-style but fancy looking at the same time.
What’s nice about Denver is that it gives young people the opportunity to really do something they feel they could pursue. I moved to Denver four years ago — almost five years — and it’s been nothing but what I thought it would be. It’s gotten me to a point where now I’m able to produce something I’m proud of — like homey food that my mom would make for me, that I can now make for the public.
Since you became a chef, what have been your most memorable moments when cooking?
Actually, my most memorable moment in cooking is from when I was a kid. My grandma used to live with me and she came straight from India. She had this thing where she would fry a whole fish in the house and my mom and dad would get so upset at her because it would just smell up the whole house.
I just remember having her ideas and learning how to cook with her — that has to be my most memorable moment cooking before becoming a chef.
But as a chef now, doing the whole Chopped experience and having that as a fun thing to look back on is particularly memorable. Especially right now, because I’m looking forward to doing a lot of other things and that was just a fun start to my career. I think the experience really helps in building something else, and also shows young people — like people my age — that we can do something about what we believe in. I think that’s where my mind’s at, whether its teaching kids how to cook or doing what I do with marijuana.
Can you tell us a little bit about your experience in the edibles world and the edibles company you used to work for?
I was working for a company called Craft Concentrates out here in Colorado. Me and a bunch of my friends started this company. We went through everything legally, even pulling in certain equipment or standards that I had never even heard of in order to get the company running.
When I broke from the restaurant industry for about a year I kind of helped out my friends in building this company from the bottom. There were about thirteen of us that started and now there are over 90 employees that work two different grows. One is located down in Pueblo, CO and the other is in Denver. We also have a facility that does our own hash extraction.
While I was helping develop this company, I also helped create some edible lines that are no longer on the market. I eventually left the company to open up my own actual restaurant and had to let go of the edibles lines. I still have connections with cannabis infusion — I still do fine dining [events] where people pay for medicated meals, but I no longer work within Craft Concentrates.
However, I am looking forward to talking to a couple of people looking to have cannabis chefs participate in cannabis tours, classes, or catering companies. But for right now, I’m just doing what I do best and that’s cook real food that’s not medicated while also educating people on how that could be a possible culinary path.
Are there certain strains you prefer to cook with when creating your edibles or infused meals?
There’s definitely certain terpene profiles I’m associating myself with, like linalool and all those peppery, woodsy terpenes. We use those in Colorado or extract them separately. Also, I have a Lifesaver strain here that I use a lot of, as well as LA Confidential (my absolute favorite strain to cook with and smoke with) and Super Lemon Haze which are two strains that have great terpene profiles. The other one I use is HP-13 [a mix of Hash Plant and G-13] just because it produces the ugliest nugs ever, but it has some of the most pungent, hard-hitting flavor.
Any changes you’re looking forward to seeing for cannabis in 2017? Or cannabis in the culinary world?
In Colorado, cannabis is fun, easy, and accessible. There’s certain companies out here doing it real for edible game. Shum-Met Bars are now legal out here and they do some pretty good edibles, also Incredibles does some nice edibles that are in stores, but I’ve always been a fan of just doing it myself.
I also have a close friend who helped me do the edibles in the beginning at Craft Concentrates, and now he’s on his own doing a catering company. He makes rice crispy treats and simple things people like — you can find him on Instagram @thedankchef, but what I do is totally different and I think it’s taking it to the next level. There’s a chef named Hosea Rosenberg that has done this before and he’s been on Top Chef. He does a lot of weed dinners out in Denver and now he’s associated with it since he has that background.
I was able to be a part of [cannabis] and learn some things and use it in everyday food or parties. I’m able to do infused dishes ranging from my own Indian-inspired cuisine [to] ice creams and salsas. There’s also a company called Simply Pure, and they’ve been out in Denver for the longest time. The owner’s name is Scott Durrah … He does restaurant work and also owns the dispensary — he’s a first name lookout for weed chefs. He’s someone I always looked up to as a personality kind of guy, one of those people I had looked up to when I was younger. Being involved in the restaurant scene where you’re getting judged by big foodie publications and being involved in the whole weed thing on a different platform has been awesome. It’s cool being a part of both scenes.
Was there any controversy over your appearing as a professional cannabis chef on Chopped?
I honestly wouldn’t consider myself a professional cannabis chef; but, I would say I am a professional chef that uses cannabis to teach people, and I use it in an educational way. Like, what the benefits are and how they can be infused in not only a straight “infusion” way, but also looking at terpenes to help enhance the food and [provide] different smells.
Food is all about your senses, and I think what weed does is either play with them or [enhance them]. So food is what makes [cannabis] fun recreationally or even medically. Food is so important and goes hand-in-hand when it comes to the marijuana scene in general.
What did your family think about your appearance on Chopped and you representing the cannabis world?
My mom and dad are real cool with it — they still have their days, but it is what it is. It’s not for everybody, and people just need to be educated. I think that is what I got out of it. My little cousin saw some nugs on TV and my aunt probably had to say something to him; but, at the end of the day it happened and it was a positive experience.
I’m sure there was some negativity online and people commenting on how I’m just a stoner or smoke weed all day or even that I only won because I’m the first person on the Food Network to get on Chopped as an infused chef. But I’m still working hard to advocate for it and have a positive influence on both sides of the restaurant and weed industries.
What is your favorite edible on the market right now?
Can I say two? The edible I have with me right now, in my house, is Shum-Met Bars. I have two banana pudding Shum-Met bars. Incredibles is really good too! I’ve always respected their ideas because they do it right. No matter what, this weed industry is so topsy-turvy and doing it the right way is the best way. Incredibles has always done it the right way. Those are the people I support who have great products.
Do you think your experience with edibles and learning about terpene profiles helped you win your episode of Chopped?
Chopped was more of an instinct game. I think working with marijuana helps just because I know the use of it, but working with weed in particular didn’t really help me win. I think being part of an ethnic family and having ethnic ingredients that people haven’t really seen before is what got me to win. Honestly, I don’t think it had much to do with me and the weed – they tried to play that up as me being lazy or just a stoner. I believe that my food was bomb without the dishes having that ingredient.
I want to tell people that you can use marijuana while also being somebody at the end of the day … [somebody] like myself can talk to younger people that are looking into the industry to develop their ideas or be a point of reference.
At the end of the day I’m not here to say, “Hey fuck you, I did it, I made something.” Instead, I’m trying to show people that they don’t know how much money Denver makes off weed and how much it helps education in schools because of the taxes pulled from recreational marijuana … that’s what I went on Chopped for. Not to show people, “Hey I can cook and do it with weed,” but to have the conversation and make it come to the forefront.
Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.