As the culinary and cannabis industries increasingly intertwine, one local chef and retailer have joined forces in a smart — and unprecedented — staffing strategy for a dispensary.
Made official last month, Emily Oyer traded her title of executive chef at Jimmy’s An American Bar and Restaurant for a post as cannasseur at Dalwhinnie Farms, a luxury cannabis company based in Ridgway with a fancy, standard-setting flagship store in downtown Aspen.
The timing of her transition was fortuitous. During the debut season of Food Network’s “Chopped 420,” Oyer won her episode and after the series was appropriately released on Discovery+ on April 20 (the ceremonious national holiday for cannabis), the chef’s star immediately rose.
Juggling a grueling schedule in the kitchen of Jimmy Yeager’s beloved Aspen institution amid the pandemic, Oyer began to field requests for private cannabis dinners from Chicago to Los Angeles and was faced with a career-changing choice. Hearing early rumblings of Jimmy’s recently announced closure, Oyer decided to go all in on cannabis.
“The universe was trying to say something to me. I didn’t want to be a part of the restaurant industry anymore — I wanted to be in the cannabis industry and the private cheffing industry,” Oyer told me during a recent interview. “I love (Dalwhinnie’s) product and I love what they stand for. (Their flower) is organic and you can feel the difference in your lungs. You can taste the difference. I am a very organic person … I am organically me. And they completely support me.”
During our chat, Oyer, 29, described herself as “super gay” with “tattoos all over” and an “energy that’s all rainbows and butterflies” when it comes to her special event persona — one that shines through the screen on “Chopped 420,” too.
“We hired Emily based on her true passion for the plant and the opportunity to grow with each other and navigate new opportunities together,” shared Dalwhinnie Farms general manager Alexandra DeSousa.
As a Dalwhinnie cannasseur (the women-owned company’s superior term for “budtender”), Oyer works behind the counter helping customers navigate the cannabis shopping experience — lending years of her own consumption expertise to help guide product recommendations. She’ll also wear a chef’s coat representing the Dalwhinnie brand for cannabis cooking collaborations: she recently recorded a YouTube show with LGBTQ+ icon and “Chopped 420” judge Jay Jackson aka Laganja Estranja; she will also team up with Kitchen Toke’s Red Belly Honey at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen this fall.
Her first cannabis experience was with her older brother at age 14, then revisited it as a college student at James Madison University, where she confessed, “I smoked more weed than opened a book. It was just about getting really high.”
A Virginia Beach native, she opted to graduate from the Culinary Institute of Virginia instead and, as she got older, developed a more serious relationship with cannabis after realizing her anti-depressant medication was making her more depressed.
“That’s not a side effect I’ve had (with cannabis),” Oyer added. “I feel like my daily life is so clouded and I’m constantly thinking too much. Smoking cannabis just helps me get my thoughts together and focus on what is important in the current moment instead of everything all at once.”
Oyer got her start in 2013 as a prep cook and was quickly promoted to sous chef at her hometown Cheesecake Factory, where she assures “every single sauce on their menu is completely handmade except for the ketchup and the mustard!” Later she served as the head banquet chef at the Historic Cavalier Hotel & Beach Club for two years.
After going through a divorce in 2019, Oyer needed a change and — although she vacationed in Aspen frequently with her anti-cannabis ex-wife — chose it as her new home.
“Cannabis is legal (here), which was obviously a big thing for me,” Oyer explained. “I was born and raised at the beach and I wanted something different. I feel the same type of calmness in the mountains as I do in front of the ocean.”
Searching job listings from afar, she got a gig as a sous chef at Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro that December and was on a plane within a week. Three months later, COVID closures hit and she was unemployed in a new city. When restrictions lifted, she landed at Jimmy’s, where she led the kitchen for one unique pandemic year.
In February, she got a life- changing opportunity when a Food Network casting producer slid into her DMs on Instagram. After a Zoom audition, she was swiftly flown to Palm Springs for a grueling four-day shoot under strict COVID safety protocols (contestants consuming cannabis on set was also prohibited). Admittedly embellishing her cannabis cooking skills in order to land a spot, Oyer was crowned a “Chopped 420” champion and brought home a $10,000 cash prize.
“I made things (on the show) like a vinaigrette out of a brown sugar Pop-Tart and spray cheese!” Oyer laughed. “As soon as I got off that phone call, I started reading. I started doing research, doing math, doing equations. Now, I’m a pro. I’m good to go, but I definitely was the greenest in the group. I’m still in a state of shock that I won.”
The show itself — a cannabis- friendly offshoot of Food Network’s long-running, seminal franchise “Chopped” — is hosted by comedian Ron Fuchs with four chefs per episode battling it out through appetizer, main course and dessert rounds using picnic baskets filled with challenging food items. As the name suggests, “Chopped 420” explores CBD and THC as a basket element chosen from “the cannabis pantry.”
While we’ve already seen series like “Bong Appétit,” “Cooked with Cannabis” and “Cooking on High” come and go, it’s Food Network’s first exploration into cannabis (albeit only available for viewing via Discovery+). A second season has yet to be announced.
“Honestly, my main goal is to become a household name,” Oyer pledged. “I want to be able to go anywhere to anyone’s house and give them a great experience. Alcohol sometimes takes away from those moments — it causes you to forget. I’ve had so many people tell me that they’ve eaten the best meal they’ve ever had with me, but they’re so drunk the next day I’ll see someone post, ‘I don’t even remember what happened last night.’ And I’m like, ‘Damn, how discouraging.’”
In what has been a whirlwind of a year as a newcomer to Aspen, Oyer promises she is here to stay and that moving to the high country is the best decision she’s ever made. She not only has sparked a new career chapter, where she will also expand her cannabis company Elevated Eats by Emily LLC, but also has found a new love.
Oyer added, “My partner now — I just gave her a ring actually, she’s my fiancé — is the coolest human ever. She doesn’t smoke, but she will happily pack my bong after a long day.”
Katie Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @bykatieshapiro.