Have you ever felt like you had more to give to the world? Nikki Steward was working in pharmaceutical sciences when she decided to make a major pivot into the culinary sphere. “I feel like everyone identifies with a yearning for more and feeling like you have more potential,” she shared.
Today, Chef Nikki is a celebrity chef, an alchemist, and an entheogen advocate. As the founder of her event production company, The High End Affair, she delivers live experiences that infuse gastronomy, entertainment, and cannabis. Read on to learn about how she carved out a space in the culinary world as unique as her, her personal routine for protecting her energy during crowded events, and her thoughts about the psychedelic renaissance.
Chef Works: The world is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. We’ve done a lot to change the narrative around entheogens, and at the same time, there’s a lot more work to be done. What are your thoughts on working with cannabis and magic mushrooms at this precise moment in history?
Nikki Steward: I’ll try to not get too metaphysical, but I do believe in divine purpose and alignment. I think it was my purpose to be doing this right now, and that I’m falling in line with the things embedded in me from my ancestors and from walking in my truth.
I was also doing these things before they were considered “biohacking” and cool, so I’m very aware of people’s points of views of plant medicine, psychedelics, and entheogens in the past versus now. I’m often tasked with redefining what those things look like and how to implement them into your daily practices. Most of the time, I’m reminding people to get back to where we came from and get reconnected with the earth; We came from growing and planting and foraging.
CW: Working with cannabis and mushrooms is a spiritual practice. When you’re hosting an event or working with a client, what are some of the steps you take to protect that sacredness?
NS: I always give a very adult conversation before we get into the space, reminding people of boundaries, grounding, and, if you’re with someone, being mindful of holding space for the other person. I go into this with really good intentions, making sure that I’m taking care of people when they’re omitting energy and releasing things. From my experience, you do have to remind your guests that it’s a safe space, and whatever/however they feel, you don’t dismiss that.
It’s a lot of hospitality. I work for Dave Chappelle and a lot of celebrities, so I’m very used to front-of-the-house and making sure needs are met. As that translates into my own brand and my own experiences, we’re just very mindful. I do my own grounding work prior to events. I carry quite a few interesting crystals in my pockets to safeguard myself.
CW: Since you mentioned it, what does your personal grounding routine look like? How do you prepare yourself before stepping into an event full of people and mixed energies?
NS: I do a lot of breathwork and my own cannabis meditation. My team actually does a full yoga meditation session. My team consists of almost all women. We sage ourselves. We all have palo santo or sage in our knife bags. And then we clear the space, set the intentions… I just breathe positive energy into it, you know what I mean?
Also for me, proper rest is important because I know that the day of a dinner, it could be very heavy. I’m meeting a lot of interesting people. I’m meeting people that are ill and they’re coming to my events because this is something that’s good for their health. I’m meeting people who have trauma, and cannabis has helped them through trauma. It’s really a mixed bag between executives, entertainers, artists, rappers, athletes, and then everyone else. It’s a broad scope, so I need to be able to handle the diversity of people that are in there. I’m so used to it now, but I had to be trained on how to bypass energies so that everyone is still in the highest light, not in the darker spaces.
CW: I’d love to switch gears a little. You worked in pharmaceutical sciences in the past, and now you’re a celebrity chef, a healer, an entertainer, an alchemist — all of these things that have come together beautifully in a cohesive career. What did the journey look like for you?
NS: I’m one of those people that feels like they’ve lived many lives. At 40 years old, I feel like my life cycle has turned over every seven to 10 years. Starting from childhood, I was always very curious — very like, “Let’s go in this cave!” I’m getting lost in the woods, I’m playing a lot in the dirt. And from there, my mother really kept me very into science and math. I used to want to be an archaeologist, and then a neurosurgeon. When I eventually said, “I want to be a chef,” I remember my dad saying, “There’s no money in that.” My parents, who were not together, both were like, “Yeah… no. You need to go to regular college.” So I went to Ohio State. I majored in bio/pre-med, and then I switched out to pharmaceutical sciences.
And then, once I got into my career pathway, I felt like I had more to give the world and I was only in this very small space. I feel like everyone identifies with a yearning for more and feeling like you have more potential.
I have always been cooking. I sold plenty of things in college, like dinners and liquor-infused cheesecakes with Kahlua and Bailey’s. It got to a point where I started doing dinner parties at my house for the people I went to college with, a lot of my sorority sisters, and they were like, “You should really do this as a side catering company.” And I was like, “I don’t know.”
And then I had a kid in college. I remember when I would volunteer to do the kids’ holiday parties, all of the moms would get pissed at me because I was so on. Like I had the kids in there making beignets, dipping strawberries, and making fortune cookies. I was really doing the most.
I started doing little things like that. And I was like, “Well, maybe this could be a business.” And as I started to get into catering and doing gigs, I thought about going to culinary school. But I was like, “Shit, I’ve already gone to pharmacy school… I already understand the basics of cooking, so let me figure out if I could just go straight to work and do internships and stages.” And that’s what I did.
I speak to a lot of women, especially women of color, because we’re often put in positions where we’re not heard and not recognized as a valuable asset in kitchens. When it comes to junior sous, sous chef, chef de cuisine, and executive chef — we’re not really taken seriously in those positions. Therefore, we’re not put in line for James Beards and Michelin stars and any type of notoriety. So I always press upon them to understand their greatness very early. Even though you may doubt your skill level, you can still be really great with dedication. And at one point, I just asked the universe to bless my hands if I decided to do one thing really, really good.
CW: It sounds like it’s been an organic process in the way it unfolded, but you were also very intentional in the steps you were taking.
NS: Yeah, I was very intentional. My family has amazing cooks, but the business of food is not in my family at all. And so I was stepping into uncharted territory. I had support, but I didn’t have someone that could give me advice. So I was very intentional with listening and learning from all the chefs who allowed me to come into their kitchens, do stages, and work from the bottom. I kind of did it the old school way. Because at that point, I had my second child. And then I had a stepkid, so technically I had three kids. So I’m like, “I don’t know how I’m going to go back to college and work.” And so, I just immersed myself in all things culinary. I quit my job at CVS, took a sabbatical, and just traveled and learned food.
CW: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
NS: What we’re doing in plant medicine and entheogens, at some point it’ll really take off. You know, it’s a very small group of us that are working in this space — and doing it at a capacity where we’re doing it well. James Beard folks came up to me this summer and were like, “You know we don’t have a category for what you’re doing.” I’m not trippin’, you know. At some point, it’ll be there. But I always tell people that if you take cannabis or any plant medicine out of it, I’m still a chef. I still work really hard.
A lot of people don’t get the complete inside scoop because I’m kind of reserved because I clearly am going in between drug culture, chef culture, culinary culture, entertainment. Also working for Dave Chappelle and working for a lot of folks like that, I’m more quiet because we’re a very tight-knit group. I like to be the most known unknown — that’s what I always like to say.
Follow Chef Nikki on Instagram @thechefnikki