The community college that launched a culinary arts program in 1981 to train chefs for the Atlantic City casinos is now preparing to add cooking with cannabis to its menu of course offerings.

But how quickly the plan proceeds depends on when New Jersey legalizes marijuana for recreational use.

“We’ll be ready whenever the opportunity presents itself,” said chef Kelly McClay, dean of the academy of culinary arts at Atlantic Cape Community College. “Some think it will happen in the next six months; others are resistant and don’t think it will happen at all. I think it could be relatively soon.”

Lawmakers have been debating legalization for more than a year, and some have proposed allowing it in a few limited places at first. Atlantic City has been mentioned as a trial location.

The first female executive sous chef to work in an Atlantic City casino, McClay has long been open to innovative ideas. She converted a greenhouse at the Mays Landing campus that was once used by the science department into a place that grows organic herbs and edible flowers.

Chef Kelly McClay, dean of the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College, with students in one of the gardens used in the cooking classes
Courtesy of Atlantic Cape Community College
Chef Kelly McClay, dean of the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College, with students in one of the gardens used in the cooking classes

She welcomes the idea of teaching students how to cook with a new ingredient that is becoming the rage in restaurants in states where it is legal. But the pungent weed won’t be available for students to use in her class unless it’s legalized, or unless the school gets special permission to use marijuana that’s grown for medical use at the state’s six dispensaries.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association is partnering with the college to launch courses this spring that would teach the history of pot from ancient times and an overview of the plant. The association plans to bring in guest lecturers and help the college develop certification programs and internships that could help students land jobs in the emerging cannabis industry.

The college’s “unique ability to offer traditional classroom and online instruction as well as hands-on applications through their culinary program is especially exciting," said Scott Rudder, president of the association. “We look forward to beginning this collaboration with them.”

Scott Rudder, president of New Jersey CannaBusiness Association.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Scott Rudder, president of New Jersey CannaBusiness Association.

Last fall, Stockton University began offering a degree with a minor in cannabis and holds classes that delve into the history of cannabis, the laws that regulate it, and medical marijuana. Atlantic Cape Community College was the first community college in the state to jump on the topic, but Union County College is now making plans to offer cannabis classes as well.

Atlantic Cape, which has campuses in Atlantic City, Mays Landing, and Cape May Courthouse, is exploring holding lectures and creating courses to educate students about cannabis, said Josette Katz, vice president of academic affairs. In April, the college hopes to offer a non-credit course, both on campus and online, that would give students “a background on the entire industry, legalization and the law, the cooking and growing of cannabis, and the dispensaries and all the jobs that would become available,” she said.

Katz said school officials want to gauge the demand before deciding whether to offer cannabis as a certificate program or as a minor or major at the two-year college. And, if the culinary academy includes cannabis cooking in its curriculum, “it would be more than brownies,” she said, laughing.

Josette Katz, vice president of academic affairs at Atlantic Cape Community College.
Courtesy of Atlantic Cape Community College
Josette Katz, vice president of academic affairs at Atlantic Cape Community College.

Katz and McClay recently toured the Curaleaf medical-marijuana dispensary in Bellmawr to get a peek at the bustling cannabis cultivation center and sales operation.

“It was so interesting, very professional and an extremely well-run operation,” Katz said. “I was astounded. They said they have over 100 people working there.”

Curaleaf dispensary associate Deja Mack assists a customer in the Curaleaf dispensary in Bellmawr, N.J.
--- Elizabeth Robertson / File Photograph
Curaleaf dispensary associate Deja Mack assists a customer in the Curaleaf dispensary in Bellmawr, N.J.

McClay also came away impressed with what she saw, especially in the cultivation center. “You think of growing, and greenhouses, and farms, but this was very sterile," she said. "There were eight different grow rooms and rack after rack of shelving, and they move on a track in the ceiling so that people can get between them, and there are hundreds and hundreds of plants.”

McClay said she learned about patients who purchase lozenges for their medical conditions and then follow recipes to melt the edibles into fat so it can be incorporated into a food product. She said she would like to explore offering courses at the culinary academy to “teach people how to manage this and work with it so that it’s flavorful and tasty, and not medicinal tasting.” The academy could also educate students on how to create edibles for patients and also prepare students for work in research and development designed to bring out the best in cannabis, both medicinally and flavor-wise.

“With baked goods you can mask a lot of that medicinal taste with chocolate and sugar and caramel, or with strong, flavorful ingredients,” McClay said. “I also understand from the research that if you’re not knowledgeable about cannabis you could destroy the properties by not cooking it properly or by overcooking it. You would not want to waste what is a pretty expensive ingredient.”

McClay said students likely would be taught about medical-marijuana products and the research and development of those products first, and then if the state legalizes it for recreational use, they could learn about the commercial use of marijuana. “It will be like a new frontier, with all sorts of trial and error,” she said. “But lots of products come out of trial and error and it can be very rewarding working with a new ingredient in the kitchen.”