“Food is a second language to me,” begins Derek Upton when asked about how he got his start. “I’m Portuguese-Italian, so I’ve been cooking my whole life.”
The acclaimed Phoenix-based cannabis chef spent the first half of his career as a touring professional drummer before making the leap into the kitchen full-time a decade ago. But this move off the kit and into the kitchen was driven by an innate love of both food and flower. “When I made the career switch to cook professionally, it was also in the name of cannabis,” Upton says.
He explains that even though he’d been a long-time cannabis user, it was his struggles with depression and insomnia that ultimately pushed him to study the plant and its place in his life—and in his food.
“One day, something clicked for me, and I realized that cannabis was helping me more than all of the medication I was on put together. That led me to diving into cannabis, understanding cannabinoids, decarboxylation and the [body’s] endocannabinoid system.”
So, as a newly minted professional chef who was also immersing himself into understanding the science behind cooking with cannabis, Upton was naturally drawn to exploring the plant’s culinary possibilities.
“I started experimenting at home, and that led to doing dinner parties for friends and family,” he says. “I fell in love with it. I found that many people wanted the education, wanted to understand cannabis in a different way. What better way is there than through food?”
“Food makes the perfect vehicle to show people cannabis.”
With this normalizing mission in mind, the chef began hosting a series of private cannabis-infused dinners in and around Phoenix, where he quickly gained a following— all while continuing to work in a traditional, high-end restaurant. From there, Upton soon found himself on the fast track to success when Netflix featured him on the show Cooked with Cannabis in 2020, which then led to another TV gig on Food Network’s Chopped 420 in 2021. “From a chef’s standpoint, my career has skyrocketed,” Upton says, clearly happy about the developments.
After finding success in television and putting Arizona’s culinary cannabis scene on the map, Upton upped the ante by partnering with Phoenix’s cannabis-friendly The Clarendon Hotel & Spa to develop Elevations, a brand designed to explore the future of cannabis hospitality in the city and beyond.
“The Clarendon reached out and said, ‘We’d like to create some cannabis tourism experiences here,’ and Elevations was born.”
Upton and his partners at The Clarendon began putting together a series of Elevations rooftop-infused dinners and events, featuring sophisticated dishes such as Wagyu toro tartare, foie gras and New York cheesecake with cherries infused with 2.5mg THC.
“I think of cooking with cannabis like any other holistic thing we put in food, any other herb,” says Upton of his culinary inspiration. “I present cannabis to my guests in a way that resonates with them. They’re not seeing a joint; they’re not seeing a bong or dab rig—they’re seeing a plate of food that has cannabis in it. Presenting it to them like that changes the stigma, changes the perception of cannabis and what it has been.”
But the rooftop of the Clarendon is really a launchpad for the Elevations brand. “We immediately saw a much bigger picture than just dinners and started putting together SOPs [standard operating procedures] for cannabis hospitality from a hotel perspective,” he says. That led to us going, ‘hey, what if we move this to other states and take a 100,000-foot view of what Elevations could be?’ We’re building a lifestyle brand. Elevations will include an events side, online marketplace and cannabis lounge and hotel hospitality idea that can be built out to be franchise-ready to rec states all over the country.”
As part of this ambitious framework, Upton is developing a talented network of chefs who can help Elevations reach other markets, demographics and properties. The restaurant has recently hired Chef Jordan Savell from Hell’s Kitchen season 19 and plans to work with the chef and others like her to grow its consumer base.
With a proven track record of success in defining what cannabis hospitality can look like, Upton and Elevations are ready for the next step. “We’re finishing the foundation, thanks to some pretty awesome partnerships happening that are going to put a lot of eyeballs on us. We’re moving fast and people are understanding that this is where cannabis needs to be. This is where it needs to go.”
Wagyu Toro Tartare (serves 2)
- 2 6 oz. wagyu filets
- 4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 2 oz. shallots, minced and caramelized
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons thyme, chopped
- 2 large avocados
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 20mg THC-infused olive oil
- Toast points
- Semi-freeze wagyu and dice once firm. Store in the refrigerator.
- In a blender, combine Dijon, thyme, shallots, garlic until smooth. Season to taste. Set aside.
- In a blender, combine avocado, heavy cream and 20mg THC-infused olive oil until smooth. Season to taste.
- In a mixing bowl, combine diced wagyu and Dijon shallot mixture until filet is fully coated. Season to taste.
- Place wagyu tartare in a ring mold onto the center of a plate.
- Gently torch the top of the tartare to release the fat and add flavor.
- Add avocado cream and serve with toast point.
This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.