he phrase “farm-to-table” is used as ubiquitously in modern restaurants as forks and knives. Despite the prevalence of those three words, however, the reality is often exaggerated — perhaps referring to an ingredient or a couple of dishes on an otherwise expansive menu. (And their constant utterance is becoming grating to the ears of restaurant regulars and food writers like me.)
But the widespread movement — in which chefs aspire to deliver fresh, regionally grown, often organic produce, meats, and more to their diners’ plates — continues to have primarily positive effects: Small farms now thrive as once-invisible growers approach celebrity status; everyday diners care more about the food chain than ever before, increasingly rejecting environmentally questionable, corporate-scale farming; and, when in the hands of capable chefs, the resulting meals are reliably delicious.
As chefs around the world aim to intensify this ethos, there remain critical hurdles to clear. One is that there is no set of standards or verification system, other than sheer trust — you may have waiters proclaiming sustainable sourcing in the dining room as the frozen-food truck pulls away from the kitchen. Another is that many regions, such as the otherwise agriculturally blessed Central Coast, do not currently grow or raise enough staple foods — i.e., grain for bread or milk for dairy (hence that truck …) — to support a well-rounded menu.
But the toughest question to answer is whether people will pay the actual amount that it costs to deliver a meal that really came from a nearby farm and landed on your table. We’re witnessing the downside of that quandary right now, as The Bear and Star — an ambitious and honest ranch-to-table restaurant opened by Chef John Cox and the Fess Parker family in Los Olivos in May 2018 — is closing at the end of this year. “In order to actually be sustainable with The Bear and Star burger, we would need to charge $30,” Cox explained when the news broke last month. “That just doesn’t work for most people.”
Despite the obstacles, Chef Conrad Gonzales is jumping deep into the farm-to-table fray. A fourth-generation Californian born in Santa Barbara and raised in Lompoc, Gonzales is the co-owner and operator of Valle Fresh Catering, Valle Eatery & Bar in Lompoc, and the newly opened Cisko Kid in Los Alamos. The 39-year-old’s dream, though, is to cultivate heirloom varieties of corn — the most integral staple to Mesoamerican cultures — in Santa Barbara County at a grand enough scale to regularly serve his wood-fired, Mexican-influenced, Central Coast–sourced cuisine atop homegrown, handmade tortillas.
“Tortillas have been massacred in this country and in Mexico,” said Gonzales of how this elemental food has lost all of its flavor, texture, and soul via mass production. “We felt that we should push the envelope here and be a tortilla advocate.”
Along with farmer Fidencio Flores, who is the third generation in his family to work the land at Buttonwood Farm & Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, Gonzales is in the early stages of a three-year trial, determining which varieties grow best where on that property. They’re testing small plots of dent corn such as Nothstine and Oaxacan Green — the kind with dry kernels used to make masa, from which tortillas are made — as well as popping corns such as Black Aztec, all distinct from the sweet, or eating, corn that we all know from backyard barbecues.
The goal is to find the right types, grow the plots to 20 or even 40 acres, and create enough supply and consumer demand to serve tortillas, tamales, hominy-filled posole, and other corn dishes all year long. With a steady flow, the opportunities are exponential. “Even if you’re making Italian food, you can make polenta, or in Southern food you could make grits and cornbread, or if someone wants to make 100 percent local bourbon,” said Gonzales. “There’s a lot of other stuff you can do with this dent corn.”
But making tortillas is the heart of the project. Not only does it connect both Gonzales and Flores to their Mexican heritage, but tacos are all the rage for American eaters right now. They’ve been a California hallmark for decades, but they’ve skyrocketed into trendy gourmet status in recent years thanks to attention from top chefs across the globe. Their simple yet satisfying formula shows no signs of fading.
“We will have the most authentic tortilla here, definitely on the Central Coast, and maybe even Southern California,” said Gonzales, who’s already served small amounts of tortillas, posole, and more that he made from his first test plots of corn and plans to start serving the 2019 harvest soon. “We’re the first ones who can say with confidence that we’re making 100 percent handmade, sustainable tortillas from our area. No one else can say that.”
Children of the Corn
Founded in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley 51 years ago by Betty Williams, Buttonwood Farm is a dynamic agricultural operation, from the many varieties of peach trees that ripen in subsequent stages all summer long to the nearly 40 acres of grapevines planted in 1983 that power the estate winery. But on the day after the July Fourth holiday, I’m not there for peach chutney or sauvignon blanc. Instead, as my kids feed weeds to the resident sheep, I’m standing next to a tiny plot of midseason cornstalks, where Gonzales and Flores are inspecting their experiment.
“Fidencio and I planted this old-school, all by hand,” said Gonzales, his ball cap brim pulled low as we overlook this yellow corn planting of Nothstine Dent. The Black Aztec and Oaxacan Green plots are on the upper ridges of the property this year, near the grapevines. “We took the wine approach with it,” said Flores. “Let’s plant different types in different places and see how it grows.”
The two met about five years ago, soon after Gonzales started the Valle Fresh Catering. He’d already been in the food industry for two decades at that point, but Valle Fresh was the first business of his own.
Raised in Lompoc, his father, Conrad Gonzales Sr., was a widely regarded minister and youth advocate, winning the town’s first-ever Valley of the Flowers Peace Prize in 2011; he passed away from ALS in December 2018. But the younger Gonzales was drawn to cooking by watching his grandmother and started working small coffee-shop and deli jobs back in 1995 while he was still in high school.
Upon graduating in 1998, he moved toward a career in graphic arts but quickly grew bored. Gonzales popped his head into A.J. Spurs in Buellton one day, inquiring if they needed help. They needed a dishwasher that very night. He spent the next eight years there rising through the ranks, eventually manning the firepit and running the Grover Beach location. “That’s where I got my cooking-over-live-fire skills,” he explained.
He returned to Lompoc to open a Sicilian restaurant called Saletti’s, learning more styles for a few years, and then started cooking for La Casa de Maria retreat center in Santa Barbara, where his uncle, Rene Rodriguez, had run the kitchen for a quarter century. “That introduced me to the whole farm-to-table movement,” said Gonzales, who used the center’s homegrown produce to make healthy meals for retreat attendees and planted an herb garden next door to the kitchen. “They were really supportive of everything that was just slower, and just being in touch with your food and where it comes from.”
His uncle encouraged Gonzales to check out SBCC’s culinary school, where he “ran circles” around most of the students since he already had so much experience, while adding baking, pickling, fermenting, and more to his repertoire. Unlike other students, he loved the bookwork. “It connected the dots,” said Gonzales, who also took Chicano studies and history classes, finishing his degree in 2009.
Then came catering jobs for Santa Barbara Barbecue and Epicurean Cowboy Catering, whose beloved owner, the late John Aspra, taught Gonzales a lot about owning a business. In 2013, he launched Valle Fresh with a pop-up in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. “I had no master plan and no investors,” he said. “I just knew that I wanted to cook my own cuisine for my own clients.”
Taco bars became the Valle Fresh calling card. “You can really capture every kind of person with a taco bar,” explained Gonzales, who also started serving his tacos from the kitchen of Babi’s Beer Emporium in Los Alamos. “You can do vegans and gluten-free people. You’ve got your beef people, your pork people, your not-pork and not-beef people. There’s something for everybody. It’s very customizable.”
Through those taco-bar pop-ups, he met Flores, who was raised on Buttonwood Farm. His grandfather Armando Zepeda planted the original grapevines in 1983 and is still the vineyard manager, while his father, Lupe Flores, has been the winery’s cellar master for a quarter century.
The younger Flores spent a lot of his early years with Buttonwood founder Betty Williams, who taught him about the world. “She was one of the biggest people in my upbringing,” said Flores, who started his own patch of heirloom tomatoes with her encouragement at age 12, attended Dunn School with her support, and then went to Chico State, where he studied business and ag.
“For me, the whole property taught me more than just agriculture,” he said. “It taught me a way a life, a way of thinking, and it supported me to create a base for what I wanted to do. Buttonwood is more than home for me. It’s been my life.” Today, while managing the peaches and more at the farm, Flores runs his own vineyard management company and a wine brand called Esfuerzo, and he is considering grad school.
Flores and Gonzales first connected during a pop-up at Figueroa Mountain Brewing. “I noticed the quality of the food,” said Flores. “We clicked.” Pop-ups at Buttonwood ensued, and Flores began growing tomatoes and peppers for Gonzales, who then started canning peaches for the farm. One day, while talking business ideas together, Gonzales said he wanted to grow his own corn for tortillas. The game was afoot.
Test plots were planted in 2017 and 2018, when Gonzales also worked with farmer Abel Basch, who grew a small amount of corn at Fairview Gardens. In the meantime, Gonzales expanded his own empire, opening Valle Eatery & Bar as a brick-and-mortar restaurant inside Lompoc’s new Hilton Garden Inn.
They quickly learned that corn requires a good amount of water, said Flores, but nothing excessive, close to what tomatoes require. They’ve been able to grow the stalks without use of pesticides, and are only seeing pest damage on the tips of the Nothstine corn, which is the most promising variety right now. The Buttonwood plantings expanded dramatically in 2019 and were harvested at the end of September.
“We’re happy with this,” Gonzales told me one afternoon on the back porch of Cisko Kid, looking at the hard cobs of dark yellow, nearly orange Nothstine kernels. “This is exactly what we want in yellow corn.”
He’s also intrigued by the Aztec Black, including cobs where the kernels point out like spikes rather than lay down together. “Look at how wild that looks,” said Gonzales, who’s also fascinated by the freak purple and multicolored cobs that appeared. “That’s the heirloom variety doing what it’s supposed to do. That might be what corn looked like 1,000 years ago.” The Oaxacan Green didn’t work as well in its location this year, but they’ll try again in 2020, using seeds from the bank that Gonzales is steadily building with each harvest.
“My family has grown corn in Mexico for thousands of years,” said Flores, whose ancestors come from Jalisco, in a valley between the mountain ranges where mariachi and tequila originate. “We’re getting back to our roots. This is maize.”
Tucking Into Tortilla
On a recent Tuesday, I was the first person to try finished products from the 2019 harvest. I met Gonzales at the Cisko Kid, where he and vintner James Ontiveros manage a large property, with a huge dining room, wine bar, and large outdoor patios and picnic areas. Originally a service and gas station owned by the Scolari family, the property has sat empty for many years as Ontiveros wrangled with the county on permits and ran through a series of chef partners that all backed out. Earlier this year, as the permits finally fell into place, he heard that Gonzales was looking to break out of the small Babi’s kitchen and get back to wood-fired cuisine.
“We shook hands, and two months later we had our grand opening,” said Ontiveros. “The corn project was the closer for me. I always joke that if it makes any commercial sense, I don’t want to do it. I’m always trying to figure out the longest way around the cape.”
Once the corn is harvested, Gonzales mills the cobs, nixtamalizes the kernels, and then prepares the masa for tortillas. (See sidebar on page 25 for step-by-step explanation.) He’s doing this process all by hand himself right now to dial in the techniques, aiming to perfect his methods before enlisting a larger milling facility to do this tedious part of the processing.
To provide a direct taste of the results, Gonzales served me the Aztec Black popcorn with seasonings and shaved manchego cheese followed by a series of simple tortillas: one with avocado, one with goat cheese and sea salt, and one with yellow and pinquito beans, both unique to this region. He also brought out a bowl of hominy in verde sauce and a quesadilla.
As expected, the tortilla’s thicker, slightly gritty texture is much more dynamic than the typical taco vehicle, and rather filling. It may seem silly to say, but they taste intensely like corn — richly, deeply, truly, more savory and layered than what we’ve come to accept from tortillas from grocery stores and even many “authentic” taquerias.
In this case, the tortilla is the show, not the sidekick — like a fine piece of artisanal sourdough supporting avocado toast or a brioche bun that steals the limelight from the meat inside. When it comes to the finished product, there’s nothing left to prove: It’s deliciously unique, worthy of the extra effort, supported by a great story of sustainability and ancestry.
Then it occurs to me: Whether this project is ultimately successful is not going to come down to the farming prowess of Flores or the chef skills of Gonzales. They’ll get the corn to work, and the food will be toothsome and trendy.
But whether they can scale up — and deliver Gonzales his long-range dream of opening a “tortilla house” that functions like an artisan bakery — comes down to consumers. Are we ready to pay what it costs to grow this corn in our own backyard? Can enough of us pay $5 for one taco rather than $6 for four? Will we put our money where our farm-to-table mouths are?
I’m down. Are you?
Popcorn & Pinot Noir: Wines by James Ontiveros
The Cisko Kid at the Station in Los Alamos is a collaboration between Chef Conrad Gonzales and vintner James Ontiveros, a ninth-generation Californian who’s worked in the wine industry for more than 20 years. With Gonzales in charge of the food, Ontiveros is using the space to showcase his two Santa Maria Valley–sourced wines: Native9, which is pinot noir from his family’s Ontiveros Ranch, and Rancho Viñedo, a chardonnay that comes from vines planted in 1973.
But he has grander plans too, and smartly bonded the entire place as a working winery. “I’m going to freeze grapes and run fermentations in the main room all year long,” explained Ontiveros last week. “I call it ‘demonstration fermentation,’ which has a nice ring to it.” That will enable visitors to see the winemaking process up close, and perhaps even participate in punchdowns and other harvest chores.
In addition to his estate wines, Ontiveros plans to start making a broader range of wines to serve at the bar under the name Los Alamos Gourmand Group. And, yes, there’s also plenty of beer on tap, which tends to go quite well with barbecue too.
For more on the wine, see ranchosdeontiveros.com.
Tortilla Making 101
Step 1: Grow the right variety of dry-kernel corn, which is called dent or field corn, as compared to the sweet corn we eat fresh from the stalk. Nothstine Dent is a good choice for tortillas
Step 2: Mill the corn, separating the kernels from the cob.
Step 3: Boil corn in a mixture of water and slaked lime (a k a lime calcium hydroxide) and then let it sit overnight. This ancient process, called nixtamalization, softens the corn while boosting calcium and niacin levels. The result is what we know as hominy, most commonly used in posole.
Step 4: Grind the corn into a dough. Now you have masa!
Step 5: Squish balls of dough into circles on a tortilla press, warm, and serve with your favorite toppings!
Ancient Grains to Grub
The corn project of Chef Conrad Gonzales falls into a nationwide movement to rescue and revive ancient grains. Here are three heritage-grain gurus to know.
Anson Mills: A pioneer in the American heritage grains movement, Glenn Roberts started this South Carolina–based operation in 1996. They sell corn, rice, wheat, and much more retail and wholesale via their website. ansonmills.com
Kandarian Organic Farms: Based just up the coast in San Luis Obispo County, Larry Kandarian grows a wide variety of grains you’ve probably never heard of, such as teff, triticale, spelt, and millet. He sells at numerous farmers’ markets around the state (but not in Santa Barbara) as well as via the website. kandarianorganicfarms.com
Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project: A collaboration between Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills, and Jon Hammond of Linda Vista Ranch, this project — which is based about 4,000 feet up in the mountains southeast of Bakersfield — aims to return drought-tolerant and low-gluten heirloom wheat and other grains to California. tehachapigrainproject.org