At Chef Manny Mendoza’s Herbal Notes, education is on the menu…along with shatter-crisp buttermilk curry fried chicken, pupusas califas, and an earthy chocolate mole de platano strewn with lavender buds and sesame brittle.

People didn’t just leave full, they left with a new understanding of food and cannabis as medicine.

With his series of infused pop-up dinner parties, Mendoza hopes to give diners the tools they need to begin healing themselves through an interactive conversation around needs and resources. For him, the best place to have that discussion is around a dinner table.

“I approach this from a holistic, community, plant-based perspective,” Mendoza says. “Food is medicine, cannabis is medicine, the two should come together and be used in a way where it’s a lifestyle change. Not a diet, not a fad or trend; it’s a holistic lifestyle change for general wellness.”

Summertime Chi High

(Courtesy of Grizel Preciado)

At a recent dinner series in Chicago, diners wandered through a hidden alleyway to find a secluded backyard full of fairy lights and foliage. The tables were decorated with cacti, candles, and serapes; the sounds of a burbling waterfall mingled with the DJ mixing the perfect house-party playlist.

Herbal Notes’ mixology partner for the evening, Big Mich, greeted diners with a “Medicated Michelada” which included a rim of CBD-infused chile sal, aerosolized bitters, essential oils, and CBD tincture.

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Utilizing extracts for precise dosing, Chef Mendoza presented a 20mg CBD:5mg THC dinner with dishes aimed to elevate the conversation surrounding cannabis. After seven courses and plenty of rousing conversation around the dinner table, people didn’t just leave full, they left with a new understanding of food and cannabis as medicine.

Lil Mano from the 2600 Block

Mendoza was raised in a single-parent household in Pilsen, a vibrant Latinx neighborhood in the lower west side of Chicago. “My mom worked really late, so somebody had to cook. That’s how I started cooking,” he says. He began playing with ingredients, figuring out how to satisfy his older brother and sister with his first kitchen experiments.

“When I’m talking about cannabis, it’s always people focused. It’s always community focused.”

Manny Mendoza, Cannabis Chef

While he was a creative kid, sometimes his wild streak got the best of him. He struggled in school until he discovered Gallery 37, a city-funded arts program that offered free culinary arts training to teenagers.

He credits that early intervention not only for guiding him on a path toward the Culinary Institute of America, but for setting the intentions of his career. After seeing gang violence, poverty, and suicide blight his community first hand, he resolved to use cannabis as a tool to heal the same populations that have been affected by criminalization.

“The drug war was a giant, multibillion-dollar divestment away from communities,” he explains. “That’s why, when I’m talking about cannabis, it’s always people focused. It’s always community focused.”

Equalizing Access

(Courtesy of Grizel Preciado)

Mendoza is well aware of the barriers those on the South and West sides of Chicago face when getting certified for Illinois’ Medical Cannabis Patient Registry Program. There’s a lack of education around the availability of the card, the price of application, and valid fears around fingerprinting fueled by racial profiling, hyper-surveillance, and police misconduct that they experience in their day-to-day lives.

As a cannabis advocate, Mendoza calls on the government to use tax revenue to revitalize communities devastated by the mass incarceration of the drug war. He wants to see the use of workshops and job fairs specifically for those formerly incarcerated on drug offenses.