Chef, caterer and restauranteur Conrad Gonzales has announced plans for a farming collaboration with Buttonwood Farm Winery for a new planting of five varieties of organic heirloom corn.
The special project will result in sustainable corn crops specifically destined for Gonzales’ scratch-made, hand-pressed tortillas and other corn-based menu items served at his restaurants and through his catering business.
The partnership with Buttonwood, a sustainably operated, organic farm outside Solvang, will allow Gonzales to further his heirloom corn project that began with the custom planting of heirloom Oaxacan Green dent corn in southern Santa Barbara County.
The crop from that planting, harvested in November and December 2018, was used in part for his prized handmade tortillas and a specific pozole verde, done in true “Valle” style with his homemade heirloom hominy, local lamb sourced from Buttonwood, tomatillo broth and avocado.
“My original vision for this corn project was to grow different varieties of heirloom corn in multiple areas of Santa Barbara County. I was curious as to whether the micro-terroir of the different farming locations would affect the flavor of the crops – just like it does for our region’s wine grapes,” said Gonzales.
“Some weeks, I go through about 200 pounds of corn between my two restaurants and my catering business. Our goal with Buttonwood is to produce about 1,000 pounds of corn,” he added.
His plans for the corn project include increasing production to the point of supplying not only his own restaurants and food businesses, but creating a retail shop selling both handmade tortillas and corn.
Gonzales has been working with Buttonwood Farm Winery for a number of years; his kitchens produce Buttonwood’s proprietary jams, using produce and fruits all grown on Buttonwood’s property, including peaches – Buttonwood boasts 250 peach trees – and pomegranates, persimmons, peppers and tomatillos.
A fourth-generation Southern Californian of Mexican descent, raised in Santa Barbara County, Gonzales attended Santa Barbara City College School of Culinary Arts, after which he embarked on a 15-year career cooking in various professional and restaurant kitchens.
He founded his own catering business, ValleFresh, in 2013, based on the simple principle of serving food made with ingredients that are “fresh” from the “valley.” In 2016, he paired up with local winemaker Sonja Magdevski of Casa Dumetz Wines to open a taco counter in Los Alamos.
In 2017 he opened a restaurant in Lompoc, Valle Eatery and Bar, and he envisions a Central Coast-based food truck to take his tacos on the road.
Gonzales also makes wine for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) awareness, as a tribute to his father.
The farming of Gonzales’ Buttonwood crops will be overseen by his friend and colleague, Fidencio Flores, whose grandfather, Armando Zepeda, planted Buttonwood’s first vines in 1983 and continued as the property’s vineyard manager for more than 30 years.
Flores was raised on Buttonwood’s property, studied agriculture in college, and returned to the Santa Ynez Valley to continue his farming and winemaking efforts alongside his father, Lupe Flores, Buttonwood’s longtime cellar master.
“We will plant in two sessions in order to stagger the harvest, allowing for second bearing of fruit later, in October. We plan to yield from one to two tons total this year,” explained Flores.