The Mason jar on the steel table looks like it’s filled with honey — the contents are syrupy thick and amber in the fluorescent light. The liquid, however, is a much more precious kind of nectar: distillate extracted from cannabis. More specifically, it’s the key ingredient in this kitchen at Acres Cannabis by Curaleaf, a marijuana dispensary in the shadow of the Las Vegas Strip. While the space may bear some resemblance to the back of the house at a restaurant — employees in white coats, rows of baking racks — the main product here wasn’t widely available to the general public until 2017, when recreational marijuana became legal in Nevada.
“We treat them like expensive babies,” formulation supervisor Xavier Jackson says, cradling the jar of distillate, which will be used to produce cannabis gummies. Jackson has a restaurant background, and believes that some sort of culinary education is a must in this kitchen. After graduating from culinary school in 2016, he worked at several restaurants in Las Vegas, including Tao Asian Bistro at the Venetian on the Strip.
“I thought I was making the right move, but it just wasn’t right,” he says of working in bustling Las Vegas restaurants. “I’m a very quiet person, so it’s not my style.”
He ended up in the decidedly more peaceful environment at Acres Cannabis by Curaleaf, where the open-view kitchen looks partially like that of a commercial restaurant and a little bit like a lab, with computers and beakers.
“Everything we do here is just cooking with an extra ingredient,” says formulation lead Dylan Eldridge, who also has a culinary background, including stints at the Bellagio and Sugar Factory. The time spent working in restaurants translates to a focus on the taste of the gummies the kitchen produces — an aspect of edibles that might seem secondary to casual consumers. When talking about the gummies, both Jackson and Eldridge often sound like they’re describing wine or dessert, occasionally pausing to mention notes of pineapple and passionfruit in one type of gummy, or the sweet-spicy mango heat of another. The gummies appear on stacks of baking trays, ice cube-sized squares crusted in sugar. The kitchen team makes 20,000 of them a day.
In addition to the on-site cannabis kitchen, which, much like an open kitchen at a restaurant, offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse for customers, Acres Cannabis by Curaleaf also has a farm located on about 40 acres of land in the Amargosa Valley, 85 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
“The plants love the light,” says Robert Lalli, director of operations for Nevada. “It’s a great property. As far as quality control, we have an advantage since we’re growing the plants.”
In a strange way, it sounds a lot like a farm-to-table restaurant. The produce is grown locally in the Mojave Desert and the edibles are made in a Las Vegas kitchen. In addition to the greenhouse operation, the Amargosa Valley cultivation facility also extracts the oil that eventually becomes the star ingredient in the gummies. The method of using a carbon dioxide extractor is an early influence on how the edibles will ultimately taste.
“It gives us the highest potency available with the least amount of taste,” Eldridge says, referring to the lingering marijuana flavor that edibles are often tinged with. “People don’t try our products and say, ‘Oh my god, it tastes like weed.’ I like that we don’t have to try to mask that with our flavoring.”
While it helps to have an appreciation for flavor, working in a cannabis kitchen also means understanding the regulations that dictate the industry. This requires patience and attention to detail. In the Amargosa Valley, everything is tested on-site and then sent out for additional testing. After this, the cannabis receives a Certificate of Analysis, a document from a third-party lab containing details about potency, product descriptions, and extraction information. Once the cannabis distillate is approved, it goes to the kitchen in Las Vegas. However, the regulation doesn’t end there. During the formulation process (i.e., making the gummies), everything is governed by intense regulation. Recipes have to be submitted to the state for approval; every ingredient is accompanied by an Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety document; equipment has to be approved; homogeneity testing (ensuring that the formulators followed proper standards during production) is required.
“There’s a rule for everything,” Eldridge says. “Everything you see has been state approved, from the verbiage and placement on the packaging to the coloring. Everything is very scrutinized.”
This is why Eldridge’s and Jackson’s jobs, while requiring the skills from their culinary background, also involve measurements that go beyond cups of flour and tablespoons of olive oil.
“Every morning I come in, get all our equipment turned on, get the cannabis oil to room temperature, and then go to the computer and get our math started,” Eldridge says. “Coming from restaurants, I thought I knew. Yeah, we log temperatures. But it is a lot more to make sure everything is compliant from A to Z. A lot more pre-calculations. Every single milligram is tracked here.”
In Las Vegas, where lighting up a joint in a casino is forbidden, edibles are a popular solution. The national edible market, which is expected to hit $4.1 billion by 2022, reflects this trend. As of 2021,16 states have adult-use marijuana legalization laws, with Virginia being the most recent to vote in favor of legalization. Traveling through Las Vegas past billboards promising cannabis near the Strip and 24-hour marijuana drive-thrus, it’s easy to forget that other states don’t advertise weed so openly.
“That’s why we have the open-view kitchen,” Lalli says. “When you have people from out of state, somewhere like Tennessee or one of those states that doesn’t have cannabis yet, people love it. They take photos. It’s great to let people see the actual products.”
Seeing the actual products can make it easier for those who may not have tried edibles before. Lalli advises novices to ask questions and start with half of the recommended dose to see how it affects them.
At Acres Cannabis by Curaleaf, gummies are available in 5-milligram pieces called nano gummies, or 10-milligram pieces that can be cut in half. The nano gummies, which are fast-acting, are ideal for beginners, because, in Eldridge’s words, “you know a little bit more right away what you’re going to be dealing with.
“I’ve always told people, you can elevate it by taking more later,” he says. “But you can’t take it back.”
On a quiet Friday afternoon in the kitchen, music plays overhead. Sour blue flavoring swirls in a beaker. Gelatin is mixed. It’s been a good day — the kitchen is on track to make its usual 20,000 gummies. The product is mixed, warmed, transferred to a machine, piped out. There is talk of new products down the line.
“This is what I love to do,” Jackson says. “I know that tomorrow this product that I made today is helping someone with anxiety, pain, or just to get through their day. For me, that’s amazing.”