I’ve had the privilege of meeting wildly successful and talented personalities in the cannabis industry. Among them are also some of the most humble and encouraging souls that I have ever met. Many of us specialize in cannabis today but have come from all walks of life. Chef Derek Upton is one of these special souls who multitasks in the cannabis community as a fine dining chef, activist and businessman. Chef Upton has been featured on HBO and Chopped 420 as a contestant. Chopped 420, hosted by comedian Ron Bunches, features celebrity judges who rate chef performances in high intensity culinary challenges. Contestant chefs are ‘chopped’ week by week until one winner remains. Chopped 420 season one released in 2021, and is available on Amazon Prime Video.
I sat down with Chef Upton to learn more about how a classically trained Chef can bring cannabis to the fine dining table. We dig into his favorite foods and even some recommendations and tips for home chefs interested in cooking with cannabis.
How were you introduced to cannabis cooking?
Cooking with cannabis was more of an epiphany than an introduction. I sought out my own help and medical relief from depression,insomnia , and anxiety after wanting to stop taking so many pills that were not helping. It really started with the use of and study of cannabis over many years ,trying to understand why it helped better than my pills. Cooking came later as I changed careers from pro studio drummer to chef. Cooking was always my second love in life ,so it made sense for me and ultimately led to using cannabis in food as a way to re-introduce it to the public. Everyone speaks the language of food, thus really starting my journey in cannabis food. This all happened well over a decade ago.
How did your passion for cooking really develop?
Cooking has been a part of my whole life growing up, with strong Portuguese /European genetics ,it’s my earliest family memory. Holidays were the best because it was everyone cooking , each one of us had our job to do, then we all sat down to enjoy the food together. I love bringing people together over food.
How did you officially become a cannabis chef?
Honestly, I kind of fell into it by way of doing it and experimenting on myself for years. I really never thought of myself as a quote cannabis chef, just a chef offering medicinal insight through cannabis food. Not until I started to be seen in the media and TV did I get labeled a cannabis chef. I would say that when Netflix happened that would be the official day I became known on some national level as a cannabis chef. From there I just kinda became the guy( among others) for that sorta thing, especially here in AZ.
What accomplishment are you most proud of in your culinary life?
I am most proud of having the balls to do something different in the culinary cannabis world, pioneering a movement of cannabis education through food. I told people years ago that I was going to cook cannabis food all over the world, that I was going to bring people together over it and it was going to change how everyone looked at cannabis. I am doing just that, and the journey is not over.
What was it like being on chopped 420?
To be honest that show is hard, hahaha shit is tough man. As chefs we are not used to cooking in those types of conditions, under time constraints, limited knowledge of where everything is; it’s a real challenge for sure. However to be able to once again pioneer a national TV show for cannabis is the real win, and shows that the world wants this. It was an absolute honor to be asked to do it; I made some great friends along the way as well, it was an amazing experience.
What is most surprising about filming TV production?
You would think that big TV shows would have it all together, but Netflix was a controlled dumpster fire during a storm (lol). Schedules changed from day to day, one minute you're doing interviews, but nope wait we're doing this now. It was crazy but so exciting to be apart of that, EPIC!!!
What is most real and most fake about TV filming a show?
The energy and stress we feel is real, the intensity is real, however most times you have a producer on the other side of the camera asking questions to get things out of you for the show side of things. That can be a bit fake at times, but nothing was staged or faked really on the show I was on; it’s all in the moment stuff.
Who would you dine with dead or alive if you could choose a dinner guest for the ages?
Man this is a hard one for me, because there are so many people I would want to sit down with for so many reasons. I would say over all if i had to narrow it down to someone, it would be Socrates or any of the great philosophers honestly. The mind-bending philosophical conversations alone would be worth it. I love seeking knowledge.
Which chefs do you look up to right now? How are they changing the game?
I would say that the one chef I look up to is Chef Danielle Leoni of The Breadfruit & Rum Bar (Phoenix). She is changing the way we understand sustainability in seafood, but across the board as well, as raising awareness for restaurants affected by the pandemic.
What are your expectations for the cannabis food industry in the next 5 years?
I believe that cannabis is going to be a global economy in the next 5 years as we see more and more cannabis, including hemp, changing lives. It will be the foundation that we will build a new era of our history on.
Who are you working with currently?
One of my big passion projects is, as a lot of people know, The Clarendon Hotel, more the changing of the hotel over to a full cannabis-friendly Hotel . The owners of Pro Hospitality Group and I started a company called Elevations; we specialize in cannabis fine dining and unique event experiences, but we are also responsible for implementing the cannabis aspects of the hotel . We have 16 cannabis friendly rooms , a cannabis friendly Skydeck event space and the cannabis lounge downstairs. We will be the first in AZ if not the US to fully embrace the cannabis lifestyle.
We are working with and partnering with brands such as : Abstrakt , HOLOH , WeedMaps, MJM APP, Studenglass , Polite, Aims institute.
What should our readers know that you would like to share? About anything…
I would love the readers to know to connect with me on social media and stay in touch. I love to chat, and I am always open to answering questions about food and cannabis. I appreciate and cherish the continued support from all of them.
The Cannabis Cactus Magazine has more great interviews.
Michael Cassini is the founder and editor in chief of The Cannabis Cactus Magazine. He focuses on community relationships with a goal to maintain a culture of love, peace and knowledge in the cannabis industry.