The Phoenix food scene is busting at the seams with creativity and local chefs from all walks of life are making their mark. One ingredient that’s captured a lot of attention is cannabis. And the days of baking brownies with a little something extra in the mix are long gone. Chefs cooking with cannabis now have created an entirely new food scene that’s elegant and aimed at combining flavors from around the globe.
Enter local chef, Derek Upton. Derek is the creator and chef behind “Stay Hungry Kitchen,” a YouTube cooking show redefining how cannabis is used. And more recently, he was featured in an episode of the new Netflix series, “Cooked with Cannabis,” where he competed against two other chefs to create artful meals infused with cannabis for the chance to win $10,000. While his journey didn’t start with cannabis—he’s had stints at well-known Valley favorites like Beckett’s Table and Café Monarch—he’s become a true advocate.
The use of cannabis in elevated, restaurant-quality cuisine feels like something that’s just starting to take hold, but Derek’s passion for treating food as medicine has strong roots in his life.
“I dealt with a lot of weight issues. I needed to fix myself and get clarity back,” Derek remembers. “I went through a life change of eating better and researching organic and healthy food that would help me both physically and mentally. Through food and through plant-forward food, I’ve been able to change a lot about my life. I used to be well over 500 pounds. I had to get my mind right; if my mind wasn’t right, then my body wouldn’t follow.”
When creativity is the driving force behind everything you do, it’s hard to turn it off. So, Chef Derek will just continue to feed the need by staying hungry, all the time.
JA: Thank you so much for chatting with us—we know a little about your background: you started as a professional drummer touring and doing live shows. As you leaned into your passion for cooking, you ditched the drums and found yourself in culinary school. Can you tell us about that transitional time in your life?
DU: I’ve always been a creative mind; that’s how my mind always worked as a kid. Music and drums were very natural for me, but cooking was too. The bringing together of people over food always stuck with me. I kind of fell into drumming. One thing led to another and the next thing you know, I’m working for Capital Records. I learned about marketing and PR and creating content, but it wasn’t fulfilling me really. I was gone a lot and was missing a lot of family time. But when I’d come home, I’d cook to calm down. That led me to doing dinner parties at the house and got me thinking about cooking for real. So I went to culinary school.
I’ve always naturally been a seeker of knowledge. When something inspires me, I will keep learning about it until I can’t learn anymore about it. I was always at home watching videos, watching shows, so when I went to culinary school it was very easy to connect the dots. It made things kind of click and make sense for me. It allowed me to decompress and be calm but create beautiful things. I got to cook for people, feed them, share their story and be a part of their story.
JA: It sounds like creating is part of your DNA, but that can be exhausting. What do you do for self-care?
DU: My “me time” also involves work, but it involves work that calms me down. I like to do a lot of online research, gather ideas. I like to dive into ideas and find ways to inspire myself in my downtime. It gets my creative juices flowing. I might not be directly working or stressing but I get to be creative. Being creative helps me destress. I like to think outside the box. I like to live in the world of “what if?” If it makes me happy then it makes me feel like I’m being true to myself at the same time. I also love reading and watching documentaries on food and being inspired by that. It’s shutting my brain off in a way that’s positive, educational, informative and helps spark new ideas.
JA: Speaking of generating new ideas, can you talk us through some of your ventures? You have the Stay Hungry Kitchen; can you tell us more about that?
DU: It was really something that was born long before it was actually born. I look back on it and realize all the things I used to wish for but didn’t realize what it would turn into. I grew up in a household where my mom was very into plant healing. It got me into thinking about cannabis as a medicine, not as a drug. There’s a lot of science behind what is being done with cannabis and what’s being done with it as we move into 2021 and beyond.
It’s something that needs to be redefined. I’ve been on this journey of using CBD to combat anxiety and depression. I just went on this journey of research and found that healthy foods, spices and herbs along with cannabis provided amazing results. I really believe it changed my life. It saved my life. It’s about staying hungry for more in life and not just about cannabis. Cannabis was just a vehicle. I use heavy CBD flower; when you pair that with healthy, delicious meals you bring cannabis out of the dark ages. It resonates with people who want to cook a salmon recipe and infuse it with CBD olive oil.
I think right now with healthy food, people are going to want that. “Stay Hungry Kitchen” is an educational platform that wants to redefine cannabis through food. You could call it a food lab, a think tank. It’s not about getting stoned. It’s not about getting high. At the root of it, it’s about plant medicine.
JA: In combing through the “Stay Hungry” Instagram feed, we noticed a lot of your dishes seem to be inspired by Asian flavors, which are typically lower in sugar and great for our mouths because diets low in sugar can help reduce cavities. How would you describe the cuisine that makes the final cut into your toolbox?
DU: My style of cooking isn’t very complicated. I like straight-forward, fresh, clean food with bright flavors, bright ingredients and bright colors. It should be appetizing for the eyes and the nose. I like simplicity. I like to find genius in simplicity. I don’t think food needs to be crazy. For the normal person, the food I’m creating is fresh and straight-forward. It’s super simple and resonates with people at home.
JA: What’s your creative process like? Do you go into each dish with an idea in mind? Do the ingredients themselves inspire you or is it the other way around?
DU: The ingredients speak to me. I get giddy when I go to a farmer’s market where there’s immaculate produce. I get bug-eyed thinking about what I can do with it. I like to find equations and plug in random things. Instead of using a carrot puree, lets use parsnip. Instead of using cream, let’s use cauliflower. I have a dish I do that’s plant-based gnocchi. It has a cream sauce with no cream or dairy, it’s made from cauliflower. That’s how my brain works.
JA: Can you tell us about appearing in the recent Netflix series, “Cooked with Cannabis”?
DU: Honestly, it was one of the craziest experiences. They found me on Instagram. I got a random message and then they emailed me. They didn’t tell me which streaming service it would air on for a few months. We had personal assistants every day that would come and pick us up and take us into the filming site, which was an old, abandoned candle factory in the middle of Burbank, California.
We walked into this huge room with the hustle and bustle of makeup and lights. Each day was a crazy new day of: what are we going to do today? I got to meet Michael Rappaport and talk food. It was a crazy, surreal experience. I watch Netflix a lot and I can’t believe it happened and it was me this time. In just a few short weeks after the show was released, it started to change my life. It’s been humbling to be a part of something on such a big network. Whether I won the show or not, I feel like I won.
JA: You created a lot of unique dishes on the show, using different flavor combinations. What are some go-to ingredients for you? Is there anything you love to use that can be sourced locally in Arizona?
DU: Nopales cactus salsa. Nopales is something that’s huge out here. It’s super high in vitamins and minerals. It’s super healthy! You can grill it. You can make quesadillas. You can make salsa. The other thing is palo verde; you can take the pods and boil them. I’ve made hummus out of it.
JA: What a great way to keep fiber-rich ingredients from our beautiful desert in your rotation! Prickly pear cactus has amazing anti-inflammatory properties that can even help keep gum disease at bay. We must know, what’s your favorite food?
DU: My favorite cuisine to eat is Asian, I love Asian cuisine. I love all types of Asian foods and Asian fusions. You can do a thousand things with it and it’s always delicious. I love making handmade pastas. I love making pastas out of random things. I love trying new things. Like birch flour pasta, I’ve made that before. I like to be outside-the-box with pastas.
JA: You can do so much with pasta! We feature a mouth-healthy zoodle recipe on our blog that tries to think outside-the-box with pasta too. Speaking of creativity, who inspires you?
DU: I guess it’s multilayered, but at the root of it, my mom. My mom was the first person in my life who recognized my creative mind and supported it. I was kind of the black sheep for a while. My mom was a hippie and grew up in the ‘60s and listened to rock ‘n’ roll. She was always a positive mentor in my life. When I was trying to make it in the music industry, she helped pay my rent. She went to every show; she made every effort to be supportive. My mom is the one who keeps pushing me. My mom’s voice is always in the background.
My second inspiration is my girlfriend, Mindy. She’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. She’s been through this whole Netflix thing with me. She’s a huge supporter of what I’m doing. She’s talked me out of stopping all of it and walking away. She keeps lighting a fire under me and helps me make decisions that make sense.
JA: When you’re at work what puts the biggest smile on your face?
DU: Getting to do what I love to do. At the end of the day, yes, I want to make a career and be successful. But that’s not my only agenda. I made a career change because I want to be happy. Life is way too short. I’d much rather fight every day for my paycheck and be happy then have everything be easy. Whether it’s at home cooking for Mindy or cooking for a dinner party, I get to do what I love to do. And cooking is that vehicle for me. It helps me regulate my anxiety and my depression. It allows me to focus on my triggers.
JA: What can a home cook do to up their game? How can they build confidence in the kitchen?
DU: At the end of the day, there are no rules to cooking. There are no rules to your own kitchen and your own food. I think food needs to be fun and a place where you experiment and learn from doing it wrong. There’s a falling in love with that process and real fun starts to begin. You start to really learn and educate yourself. I know chefs who are great and have taught themselves everything they know from watching extensive hours of YouTube videos.
You no longer need to go to college to read a book on something. You can go online and learn from some of the best people in the world doing it. For people at home, make it fun, make it food you love, be creative with it. Learn techniques others are doing, learn the rules, then you know how to break the rules. You don’t have to be a professional to make great food. Your pallet will tell you. A lot of cooking is common sense.
Note: Delta Dental of Arizona does not take a position on the use of medical or recreational marijuana and it’s important to talk with your physician and dentist if you use cannabis. For more information on how the pros and cons of marijuana as it relates to your oral health, check out the article “What Marijuana Could Do To Your Mouth.”