Chef Dave Hadley has embarked on a remarkable culinary journey, spanning various continents and accolades, including prestigious stints at Michelin-starred restaurants and triumphs on Food Network challenges. His latest venture, the "Samosa Shop," a delightful Indian street-food pop-up, has become a beloved fixture at Denver's bustling farmers' markets.
In addition to his culinary endeavors, Hadley has diligently cultivated a distinctive passion over the past eight years, unapologetically challenging the reservations of both food critics and societal conventions. His unbridled enthusiasm for cannabis knows no bounds, and he's unafraid to engage in open conversations about it, even with his parents.
He elaborates that just last week, his parents encouraged him to organize the two facets of his life. They believe that many within the culinary realm, particularly those associated with esteemed honors like the James Beard Award, might not wholeheartedly embrace the association with cannabis. However, it's been instrumental in establishing a reputation in this emerging industry, and there's genuine merit behind it.
Hadley's culinary origins harken back to his New Jersey upbringing, where he gleaned traditional Indian culinary wisdom under the guidance of his grandmother. His culinary education culminated in graduation from the renowned Culinary Institute of America. This marked the beginning of an impressive culinary odyssey that has taken him from the kitchens of Aspen and Thailand before ultimately finding his place in Denver.
However, his involvement in the cannabis sector is equally noteworthy. In 2015, he ventured into the world of cannabis by joining a cannabis extraction company and later provided expert consultation to edible brands seeking a chef's touch.
After clinching victory in the Food Network's Chopped competition in 2017, alongside globe-trotting culinary adventures and the relaunch of the Samosa Shop, Hadley is now poised to unite his two passionate worlds.
While numerous alcohol brands have readily sponsored chefs, the cannabis market has yet to witness a similar trend due to a prevailing lack of precedent. As the current perception surrounding cannabis remains marred by negativity and distaste, Chef Hadley argues that we have yet to strike a balance between live eating and drinking experiences and the strict hospitality rules, including dedicated cannabis smoking sections.
Remarkably, despite Colorado's pioneering status as the first state to legalize recreational cannabis use in late 2012, the establishment of a licensed cannabis hospitality sector has been sluggish. State-level provisions for social consumption licenses for businesses accommodating cannabis consumption didn't materialize until 2019.
At most, ten mobile lounges and similar establishments operate across the state with such hospitality licenses. Chef Dave Hadley's food stands refrain from mentioning or incorporating cannabis, but he relishes participating in events that combine his culinary expertise with cannabis.
Hadley, alongside a select group of fellow Denver chefs and business proprietors, aspires to break free from the constraints of a limited number of officially sanctioned venues determined by local authorities. They seek special-event permits, but there lies a significant hurdle: Colorado needs such a license at the state and local levels.
According to the 2019 cannabis hospitality law, local governments must approve cannabis hospitality businesses to operate within their jurisdictions. However, the law permits only venues and mobile lounges without provisions for special events. So far, Denver and Adams County are the sole local governments that have opted in and granted permission for businesses to open their doors.
At the same time, city councils in Aurora and Boulder, after careful deliberation, have rejected the idea. In Denver, an earlier program had allowed venues to apply for event permits for cannabis use, but this initiative saw only a handful of events before its conclusion in 2021.
"Why haven't we progressed to the point where we can comfortably combine cannabis with food pairings in a regular, aesthetically pleasing restaurant? We haven't reached that stage yet, but why not?" questions Hadley. "We can implement safety measures, much like we do with alcohol, such as cutoff times and ensuring secure transportation."
As per Denver's licensing department, any cannabis-friendly event that involves ticket sales or commercial activities must occur at a licensed venue or include one of Denver's three recently licensed mobile lounges. Since 2022, Denver has approved a hotel and three cannabis lounges for pot hospitality licenses.
However, all four establishment owners must navigate the complexities of renovation, ventilation, and community planning requirements before obtaining official licenses. Denver's sole operational pot lounge, known as The Coffee Joint, operated under the city's former ordinance and exclusively permits the vaporizing and consumption of edibles.
In the past, several business owners and event organizers have contended that their cannabis events are private rather than public affairs, evidenced by pre-approved guest lists and ID checks at the entrance to ensure that no one under 21 gains access. However, this argument has always encouraged the city to enforce its regulations when it deems such action necessary, occasionally resulting in citations issued to venue owners.
Hadley has teamed up with cannabis event organizer Stephen Woolf in a concerted effort to persuade local and state governments to establish cannabis event permits. These permits would enable pop-up events and gatherings to incorporate cannabis usage under rules akin to those at licensed hospitality venues, with provisions for age restrictions and limitations on advertisements.
Woolf, the brains behind the Groovy Gravy events that bring together local chefs, artists, and cannabis brands for themed dinners, sees these events as a means to support small businesses and educate newer cannabis consumers.
Collaboration is key. The top chefs and cannabis enthusiasts don't want to be tethered to a select few lounges. It's not that we don't wish to collaborate with them or host events there, but we aspire to foster a more open market," Woolf emphasizes. "And if we're holding a private event, not open to just anyone on the street, then it should be regulated as such."
The Denver Department of Excise & Licenses recently dispatched letters to venue owners and event organizers. These letters contained warnings and inquiries regarding social cannabis use. Among the recipients was a cannabis club approved for a hospitality license.
However, in August, it faced a criminal citation for hosting a cannabis-friendly event without the requisite license. This club, Tetra Lounge, received social consumption approval in March 2022. But, it is still meeting local building and planning requirements before obtaining the official license, according to Excise & Licenses.
Woolf acknowledges that the recent enforcement actions in Denver didn't significantly impact him. But he now senses a restriction on his creative freedom in the city.