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Chef Santana Benitez on Her Mom, Military Life and Creative Flow

Chef Santana Benitez on Her Mom, Military Life and Creative Flow


– This is Santana Caress
Benitez and I Don’t Camouflage. I was born in England and then my parents were both in the Air Force
which is why I was born there. Their military career
took us to California where my mother’s from,
Panama, Turkey, Texas, D.C. All over the place. It actually wasn’t hard growing up. I think it was really fun, actually. My mom was one of those parents
who made moving really fun. And I had sisters with me so
it was always an adventure. And to be honest, I think
a lot of my childhood has a lot to do with my adulthood in terms of why it’s
hard for me to stay put and stay in one place. Like, it’s turned me into a Gypsy, so I think it was really cool. Like, I have no regrets. I was never upset with my
parents for making us move. And I would say that my sisters share the same sentiment, too, you know. And my mom’s an amazing cook. And growing up, and she
learned from her mother, her adopted mother, but
that’s my grandma, you know. So my mother was born in Oakland and for the first five years of her life she lived in Oakland then
she was given up for adoption through a family friend and moved to LA. So she was raised in LA
from the age of five. And the parents that adopted her with both from the deep South
like Mississippi and Houston. Old Black folks, like
real old Southern food. We’re talking like gumbos
and fried fish and biscuits and all the cakes and desserts, cobblers. So that’s how my mom grew
up and that’s how I grew up. Like, my mom would cook
those foods for all of us. And also just being overseas
and being in the military and also being from
California she was exposed to Asian food, Mexican food so
she would do different nights like taco nights or, you know, my mom did and still does play around
in different cuisines. It’s funny, you don’t realize that they’re actually your role model until you get older and you’re
like, oh shit, I’m my mom, and I picked up all those
really important lessons. Not even things that she verbalized, but just things that she would just do. You know, the way she ran her household, the way she handles business,
especially the way she cooks. Like even now when I go home I’m like, there’s certain things I’m
dying for my mom to make for me. So yeah, my mom’s a huge,
huge influence in my life. I really love when my
mom makes fried chicken and she does yellow tumeric
rice, avocado salad. I really love her gumbo,
like she does seafood gumbo. Ooh, and her fried pork
chops, that’s my shit, too. Smothered pork chops, honestly anything. Her Thanksgiving dinners are probably my favorite meal of all time,
her Christmas prime rib. I mean, that woman can throw
down, she can really cook. (warm electronic music) I think my culture and
my background definitely, definitely built who I am right now. I mean, you know, I was
exposed to other things outside of my ethnicity
and my background, I mean, from my music to my food to
even my political stances everything, everything was influenced by who and where I come from. My journey into the military was because I came from a military family. It was just part of my path. It kinda happened that way. I joined right before I was
20, I was in it for six years. And I made sure that if I was
going to be in the Air Force that was gonna maneuver my way
to go where I wanted to go. So I was like, you know what? I wanna spend my last three
years of duty overseas and that was like the
best thing I coulda done ’cause I was so close
to Paris and Amsterdam and all these great cities,
like four and 1/2 hour drive. It was really cool, I loved
living in Germany, loved it. Thought it was great. I always love food, I always love cooking, but I think moving to Western Europe and having all the access
to all those organic markets and the way they present
and sell and treat food is so much different than
we do in the United States. It made organic food and
specialty items more accessible. And believe it or not, I
think even more affordable than in the United States. So I initially wanted to
get out of the military and be a journalist, a
political writer and write for or even report for
Democracy Now! who I love. But that shifted, I
wanted to be a food writer and then when I went to
culinary school I was like, oh no, I wanna be a chef. And that’s kinda like
where it all took off. (cozy electronic music) That’s the beauty of being a chef is that we have to eat every single day. Some people might get into a mode where they’re not inspired to
do their work or their art, but I’m like, I have
to eat every single day so it’s really nice as a
chef that that keeps me, just the basic human need to eat food. Here it’s really nice
to be back in a place where the produce is cheap and accessible. Like, going to Chinatown I get inspired ’cause I’m always there eating so that’s really how I keep my shit going because I gotta eat everyday and food is just like to me so exciting. Painters will have their tools,
their brushes, their paint. Like, this is literally my art so it’s fun to just get to play and create
and take raw ingredients, literally raw ingredients and turn them into something really beautiful and exciting for people to taste. It’s just cool and it transforms you. And cooking just brings you, for me, it just gets me in a zone
where I can just go for hours just not even thinking, just cooking. And everyone eats, everyone
loves to eat, you know? (warm instrumental music) I describe my tribe as, well for one, it’s heavy on women ’cause
I have three sisters so I grew up around women. I’ve always related to
women really, really easily. And a lot of creatives, a
lot of doers, activists, people who care about other people. Even just now, the fact
that my friend’s like, yeah, do your thing at my house, whatever. Those kinds of things. My tribe is beautiful, my tribe is made up of native New Yorkers,
people from the island, people from everywhere, but
that’s my tribe right there. I really like wearing stripes. I know they say you’re not
supposed to wear horizontal. I like all shapes, horizontal,
vertical, I like polka dots. (laughs) I like it all. Am I, oh, shit, I am, oh shit! (laughs) I like stripes because they
feel clean and grown-up, but also I don’t know
what it is about stripes. I like them, I think they feel polished. You could wear a striped T-shirt. I don’t know what it is
about a striped shirt or striped anything, but
there’s something about stripes that I feel look cool together, even if you’re being real casual.


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