Chef Santana Caress Benitez doesn’t call herself an actress. This, despite her appearance as Lourdes “LuLu” Blackmon in Netflix’s recent series reboot of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It; a scene-stealing supporting role that has literally sent Hollywood calling (as evidenced by the feature-film audition she’d sent off just prior to our conversation).
Personally asked to audition by Lee himself after attending an open studio event at 40 Acres and a Mule, Benitez took a chance and went for it, attending a series of castings and screen tests before landing the role of Lourdes, Mars Blackmon’s Santeria-practicing sister. (Fun fact: Hamilton alum Anthony Ramos was the first cast, as a now Puerto Rican Mars.) On-screen, Benitez was a natural, radiating equal parts high-strung Brooklyn Boricua and shamanic grace in her acting debut.
But Benitez’s first on-screen experience was a bit more spontaneous as she juggled both a blind date and a mystery basket on Food Network’s hit show Chopped—and walked away with the win.
The chef—who holds diplomas in both culinary and culinary management from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City—initially found her calling while stationed in Germany with the Air Force, having also grown up an Air Force “brat,” born in England and raised in California, Panama, Texas, Turkey and Washington, D.C., before starting her own military career.
And, like the military, cooking is in her blood:
You know, I’ve always been into cooking; my mom’s a bomb cook, her mother is ... food has always been a big part of my life. But moving [to Germany] and living 30 minutes from the French border, going to get wine and cheese and all kinds of foods from different markets, that made me think about food in a more gourmet sense. ... I grew up always eating really good food, but living there put me in the mind frame of elevated food: the presentation, the markets and the whole culture around food there.
Initially, she’d intended to channel that passion into food writing, starting a Tumblr in 2010 called I’ll Cook Like Your Mother, the title inspired by a Badu lyric. Today, I’ll Cook Like Your Mother is a full-fledged business and blog, offering catering, events and culinary education from Chef Santana herself. A scroll through her food gallery is a seriously sensual experience; and while Benitez is well-versed in a variety of cuisines, when asked for her favorite, her response was just as sexy: “I really like Asian flavors—I like the umami: that tart, that sweet, that spicy that Asian food brings.”
On the day of our interview, Benitez stuffed 200 empanadas for a nonprofit organization empowering women, a service she happily renders whenever a cause resonates with her. But left to her own devices—or in collaboration with fellow chef and friend Jade Verette as newly minted culinary team For the Culture Catering—she likes “lots of colors, lots of flavor, and just, you know ... fun shit.”
Her heritage is equally colorful, as the third of four daughters of a black-and-Italian mother and Puerto Rican father raised in nearby St. Croix. For her, it’s a type of mixed heritage that too often goes ignored:
When people think of ‘mixed’ [people], a lot of times, their heads just go to half-white, half-black. As a mixed woman, I don’t relate to [that], because my family—on both sides—are black ... and it’s like, the culture is different, but the same. I don’t have a ‘white side’ of my family; it’s just different brands of black, on both sides.
When she is asked what her “black on both sides” holiday will look like this year, Benitez’s answer is delicious: “It looks like a lot of coquito, pastelillos, roast pernil [pork shoulder], arroz con gandules, prime rib, ham, greens, mac and cheese. ... It’s all just one big, beautiful mesh of good-ass food.”
Hell, yeah. And because we’ve gotta have it, too, we’ve gotten her to give up a few of those recipes for The Glow Up. ¡Wepa!