I grew up predominantly in the Bay Area, but I’m a mix of Canadian and American. I lived in Edmonton from when I was five until right before high school. My dad was a CFL player and even though I was born in California after his football career, we ended up going back up there. It’s nice to have roots in Canada just because it’s such an open and welcoming country.

When I was very, very little I would tell my mom I wanted to be a potion maker. I didn’t know what that meant, but I was fascinated by the kitchen. I loved this idea of putting ingredients together and then coming up with something completely different. The idea of manipulating matter—it had a little bit of magic to it.

VanessaLavorato 0424

I really got into cooking and slow food when I was at UC Berkeley. I lived right around the corner from Chez Panisse. It was a big house with five roommates, and one of them was Alice Waters’ assistant. So I became friends with that whole group through my roommate and through the next assistant in line, Varun Mehra, who became a really, really close friend of mine.

Whenever they would do events and things like that, I would volunteer. I was happy just to wash dishes. One time I was at an event and Alice saw me and was like, “You work hard. I like that. You’re not afraid to get your hands dirty.” Because Alice is very much about being practical. She’s also very against being uncomfortable when you need to get a job done. One time I wore heels and she said, “What shoes are you wearing? You can’t wear those.” Chez Panisse was my whole community while I was in school. It was a pretty tight-knit group.

I was an Art History and Italian double major. I don’t really know what you do with those degrees, but I think what university taught me was that if I could finish—if I could get my degree—I could accomplish anything. But I didn’t know what wanted to do. I thought maybe fashion, maybe design. Maybe write about food? But I didn’t think I was an exceptional writer—it’s good to know what your skills are.

VanessaLavorato 0261

The flavor wasn’t good. There was no dosage. It would just say, like, “XXX” or “Extreme”—basically that it was going to get you really, really, really high.

VanessaLavorato 0269

At the time, people were getting their medical cannabis cards. They’d go to dispensaries and bring back these edibles in Saran wrap with stickers on them. This was 2009 or 2010, so there really weren’t any regulations on the industry then. The flavor wasn’t good. There was no dosage. It would just say, like, “XXX” or “Extreme”—basically that it was going to get you really, really, really high. And it would. But it wasn’t the enjoyable experience that I thought it could be. The industry was lacking a beautiful product.

Having grown up eating a ton of chocolate, whether at See’s Candy—where I worked in high school—or at Laura Secord in Canada, I knew that there was a really special element about getting a box of chocolates. I also knew that chocolates had a long shelf life because sugar is a great preservative. But I didn’t get the idea to to get into the cannabis industry until my senior year.

I had all sorts of business ideas. I’d have a new one every day for my friend Varun, and he’d always be like, “No, I don’t think so.” But one time we were on BART and I said, “You know, I think I want to make high-end edibles,” and he was like, “Yeah, you should do that.”

The thing about ideas is that you can come up with a lot of them, but you still have to do it. So I just started doing it. I started testing recipes and playing with caramel. At one point I thought I was going to do truffles but the shelf life is not so great. I talked to different pastry chefs and all sorts of people from the community. I’d ask Liz from Tartine Bakery, “What’s your technique for caramel?” That’s what was nice about the Bay Area: so many chefs were happy to share their knowledge. It becomes a tricky thing with recipes because you don’t want to give away your intellectual property, but they were willing to share their tips and their secrets for how to get to where you’re going. Liz told me to put some lemon into my caramel when I first started to help it from crystallizing. And I still do that with my recipe today. Having that culinary community around me really made it so that I could R&D what would eventually become Marigold Sweets. It’s definitely been a long, interesting journey. A lot of excitement, a lot of hurdles.

VanessaLavorato 0130

When I first moved to L.A., it was pretty daunting. I don’t really drive so it didn’t really seem like the right city, but I found a way around it. I worked in a clothing store—Mohawk General Store—and started writing for Time Out L.A. I’d do their roundups. I’d write, like, the “Top 10 Dim Sum Restaurants” and for a week straight I’d eat at every dim sum place I could find. I was eating at three or four different places a day, just getting meat sweats from eating all that food. But it was a lot of fun. So I was writing, and then I was making the chocolate on the side.

In 2013, I did Alice’s Rome Sustainable Food Project, where you go learn the local dishes from Rome and you cook with all local ingredients from farmers within the community. It’s what Slow Food is all about. We cooked for Carlo Petrini, we cooked for a cardinal. I’m not Catholic, but that was pretty cool. I’d never really worked in a professional kitchen, so it was a great learning environment. Alice was very encouraging and we got to romp around Rome together, which was really fun.

VanessaLavorato Kitchen

Bong Appetit happened because Jessica Koslow from Sqirl was asked to be on the show but couldn’t do it. She knew about my chocolates so she told the showrunner, Ari Fishman, and he reached out to me. He said they were looking for someone to come on and make chocolate, but when we talked on the phone and I told him my experience, he said, “Well, maybe it would be great for you to food style, as well,” because they hadn’t figured out the format yet.

So I did the first episode. It was a little awkward for me because I’d never been on camera before. But the production was just so nice and they made me feel so comfortable that I got into a groove. They asked me to keep doing more episodes and just like that, I became a co-host.

I thought this was a great way to combine food with cannabis. People can relate to food, to delicious cooking. It’s a catalyst for changing the stigma. The way to someone’s heart is through their stomach, so it’s a little like a Trojan horse, except positive. The show is a great way to get into people’s homes so they become more comfortable with cannabis and don’t just see it as a drug.

VanessaLavorato 0230

My mom sat me down and she said, “I know what you’re putting in your chocolate.”

VanessaLavorato 0303

My parents are very conservative. I went to Catholic school my whole life. I think if they had a choice, I would have chosen a very straight and narrow path, but that’s not who I am, and I think they love me anyway. Someone in my family told them, I don’t know who. My mom sat me down and she said, “I know what you’re putting in your chocolate.” And I said, “Well, mom, I’m not going to apologize for what I do. I’ve had so many people tell me how my chocolate has helped them sleep, helped them with pain, helped them not take Xanax or other medication in order to feel like they can relax at home. I’m not going to apologize for that. I make a beautiful product and I’m proud of what I do. If I were working for a pharmaceutical company, selling Adderall to kids or trying to push that onto doctors, you would be fine with it because it’s legal. But you’re not okay with this because the government has told you that it’s not legal.”

Over the years they’ve definitely changed their opinion about cannabis and, to be honest with you, the cooking show has done that. That’s why I think it’s so important to have this kind of content on television and to have it on our newsstands, because the more that people are exposed to it, the more they’ll change their minds. And when they go to vote, they will change their vote.

My dad’s favorite episode was when we had some ex-NFL players come on. He played in the CFL for about a decade and has like five Grey Cup Rings, but also had like five concussions. He had a lot of injuries. And what would they give him? Percodan. Opiates.

Now he knows that was bad. I think he saw a lot of his friends get addicted. And I think he could really understand that cannabis is an alternative to what players are being given—and have been given in the past—to deal with the pain. That episode resonated with him and I think it made him realize that cannabis can be used as a medicine in a way that relates to his life.

VanessaLavorato 0076

For the new cookbook, Bong Appetit: Mastering the Art of Cooking with Weed, the Munchies team really pulled from the show. They wanted to offer a variety of cooking experiences, so they had a lot of chefs from the show contribute recipes. But they also just drew from their community and were like, “Hey, you can put weed in anything. Let’s have some really incredible recipes, weed or not.” Like Cara Nicoletti did a sausage. But then they had Elise McDonough come in and say, “Okay, but here’s how you infuse coconut oil” or “Here’s how you infuse butter.”

I like when a cookbook has a set of instructions at the beginning for how to make your base ingredients. Like the Tartine bakery cookbook will have a recipe for pie dough, but then there are six different pies that you can put that pie dough in. So you can use Elise’s coconut oil infusion in several different recipes throughout the book. You can set up your own pot pantry and then use the cookbook to infuse different meals from these incredible chefs.

A lot of home cooks are doing things that make me think, “Wow, I don’t have the time or energy to do that.”

When I went through the cookbook, I was looking at the different recipes and thinking to myself, “Okay, well, if I were cooking with the chef in the kitchen on the show, what would I do to step it up a little bit? What would I do to just make it that much more Bong Appetit?” So there are also these “pro tips” in there that are in my voice about what I would do in different situations.

You don’t have to be a professional chef to make the recipes. Some of them are a little bit more challenging, but I think that’s really good. A lot of home cooks are doing things that make me think, “Wow, I don’t have the time or energy to do that.” But that’s their passion—that’s how they let go at night or after a long day or on the weekend. They want to cook themselves something that is really special. This is an opportunity for them to learn how to do that with cannabis.

VanessaLavorato 0289

I get asked a lot about weed and where to eat, but the one thing I wish people asked me about more is fashion. I was working in a clothing store, Modern Appealing Clothing in San Francisco, when I first had the idea for Marigold Sweets. M.A.C. was very influential in how I thought about my packaging and who my clientele would be. They carried designers like Margiela and Jil Sander—when Raf Simons was at Jil Sander—and in thinking about who would want these edibles, I realized it was definitely the people who shop there. Whereas I couldn’t really talk to my parents about it, because they were so conservative, the owners of the store always encouraged me to do something different. They’re like family.

I like clothing to tell a story, to let you know how I'm feeling that day. So for Bong Appetit’s Latin American episode, I wore a tiered Super Yaya dress with a lot of movement to it. Or for the Italian American episode, I wore red rhinestone track pants that felt very Italian American. I want my clothes to be fun. I want to feel excited to wear them.

VanessaLavorato Roof

In the past, because I was cooking on the show, I was really practical with my clothing. But now, as a judge, I can show more of my personal style. I partnered with a store called Nonna in Highland Park on most of my outfits for this season. A lot of designers won’t work with me because I’m in the cannabis space, but Olivia, the owner, has been so sweet and really supportive. I’m excited to be able to say to people, “Hey, if you liked the clothes that I’m wearing in the show, they all come from Nonna.”

I’ve thought about maybe doing a line of super easy t-shirts for Marigold, but not much more than that. Fashion is really a difficult industry to be in, though cannabis is equally difficult, if not more so. I’d rather support small designers. Designing my packaging is enough for me—making sure it looks beautiful and chic while still meeting all the requirements is a trip.

VanessaLavorato 0040

Vanessa Lavorato photographed by Brian Guido at her home in Los Angeles. This Conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies.