The Best Ingredient

Nate Santana cooks up a variety of infused flavors in the Los Angeles food pop-up scene.
Nate Santana
Courtesy Nate Santana

During any given week, chef Nate Santana, winner of the first episode of Netflix’s Cooked With Cannabis, pushes himself to concoct several new dishes in order to keep things raw and fresh. His dishes are inspired by the hallmarks of Southern hospitality and many other cultural influences.

The Palmdale, California native crept up the ladder of professional culinary arts, eventually moving to Los Angeles. He began cooking at Culver City’s award-winning restaurant The Wallace while still a student at The Art Institute of California. At the time it was run by chef Joel Miller, one of his mentors in the art of food. Santana climbed the ranks at The Wallace to executive sous chef and ended up curating the menu there himself.

Armed with experience, Santana became the chef de cuisine at New Orleans-themed Preux & Proper—following the lead of chef Sammy Monsour. For those out of the know, Preux & Proper was a Michelin-rated fine restaurant that honed in on the heritage of the South through elements of hospitality, seasonality, sustainability, and craft-level cocktails. It was one of many restaurants, however, that did not survive the pandemic.

Santana is currently sous chef at The h.wood Group, where he curates the food for private events, and owner of Dorthy’s Pizza, a private pop-up collective of gourmet pizza delicacies he launched with acclaimed chef Jack Hotchkin. And when I say pizza, I mean pizza with ingredients like boar sausage, Spanish chorizo, balsamic redux, fennel pollen, Fresno pepper jelly and so on—food that you can taste hours later, which is a stoner’s dream.

The Art of the Pop-Up 

Cannabis is at the core of Santana’s cooking mentality. When cannabis is involved, however, due to legal restraints, the infused dishes are usually served at private events in the form of a pop-up. Fortunately, pop-ups in Los Angeles and New York cater to the high bar set by foodies, as does Santana.

A few years ago, before the pandemic, I was blessed to attend two such pop-ups, including an infused private, underground pop-up experience called Cultured, Create + Destroy in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles, with an exclusive shortlist of cannabis-adjacent journalists and influencers. A large fan leaf adorned my plate at my place sitting, and each guest received a live resin vape pen. The food was infused with locally sourced pot from Los Angeles-based Botafarm Genetics. Botafarm was founded by Jay R., the grandson of a winemaker from Bordeaux, France, and Santana is their go-to chef.

My particular menu for the evening included a multi-layered experience including Kumamoto oyster, Botafarm-infused fermented hot sauce—and Jack Herer-derived terpene for the kicker. One of the other choices for the main course was pork loin al pastor, with charred tomatillo pesto, with Botafarm blueberry muffin with a dehydrated pineapple chip.

“I think LA is ahead of its time in terms of cuisine,” Santana tells High Times. “The food is really good. There’s just so much culture here. There are a lot of really good chefs here that are pushing the boundaries. I think all of the diversity and culture is good for LA. You could say the same thing about New York.”

Santana’s food has a multi-layered taste you can’t exactly describe in words, enhanced by terpenes and the natural herbal taste of cannabis.

Courtesy Nate Santana

The World’s Best Ingredient

On Instagram, Santana calls cannabis “the world’s best ingredient.”

“I mean, it just is,” Santana says. “Everyone knows it can improve your health, lower stress, improve stimulation. It’s an ingredient I’ll keep using all of my life. It does the same thing for food: the flavors are great. If you can do it right, it can do really good things for food. I personally like the appearance and you can taste the flavor, at least when it’s sourced from really good farms.”

He explained that cannabis’s herbal flavor is more useful than common herbs like rosemary or thyme. Cannabis has its own pleasurable taste.

“It’s just like smoking, you can really taste the difference when it’s good quality.”

Santana explained how he uses the same process to select cannabis that he does when sourcing vegetables locally, from farmer’s markets and other places that have farm-to-table quality foods. Sometimes he wants his guests to taste the weed and sometimes he doesn’t.

“It really depends,” he says. “Like any great product, if it’s grown by farmers and tastes great, you really want to highlight that.”

Santana won the first episode of Cooked With Cannabis on Netflix, which became available on the streaming service back in 2020, by playing it safe with a grilled burger, which the judges loved. In every episode, there’s a $10,000 dollar prize. (Chef Manuel Mendoza was the final winner of the season.)

The chefs were judged by singer-songwriter Kelis and food expert Leather Storrs, joined by Ricki Lake, Mary Lynn Rajskub, singer Elle King, and comedian Jo Koy, and the first episode had a backyard grill theme, which Santana nailed. His professional achievements peaked only to have his world thrown upside-down by the pandemic, as in-person pop-ups were core to his overall persona.

“I was on the first episode of the first season,” Santana says. “And I filmed that back in 2019. It’s weird how it seems so far away now. And then in April 2020, everything just got shut down. So it’s a competition show. It was three courses and we had to do infusions, freezer foods, how to do the right dosage. It was fun and I’d do it again.”

When the pandemic wreaked havoc on his in-person private pop-up plans, he pivoted to other ventures, including Dorthy’s Pizza, a gourmet pizza pop-up collective, named after his grandmother. Dorthy’s Pizza deep dish cheesy crusts are a wonder to behold, and are cooked with the secrets only Santana knows.

Follow and book Santana by visiting his Instagram at @chef_nate_santana and @dorthys_pizza for a “little slice of society.”

Infused Mint Salsa Verde

Recipe by Chef Nate Santana

Courtesy Nate Santana

100 grams of mint

30 grams cilantro

50 grams parsley

2 Fresno peppers

1 shallot

2 tsp lemon zest and juice each

3 tsp Sherry vinegar

Salt to taste

Pepper to taste

Olive oil—enough to bring together

3 tbsp Pot d’Huile infused olive oil

Instructions

  1. Pick and chop all herbs, then add to mixing bowl.
  2. Brunoise shallots and Fresnos, then add to herbs.
  3. Zest lemons on a microplane, then add to mixing bowl with the juice.
  4. Add the rest of ingredients, then season to taste with salt and pepper.

This article was originally published in the December 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.

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