By Pamela Dozois
Conrad Gonzales is an artist, and his medium is food. He is the chef and owner of Vallefresh, a taco tasting bar in Babi’s Beer Emporium in Los Alamos.
A Lompoc native and a graduate of Santa Barbara City College School of Culinary Arts, Gonzales worked the line in various restaurant kitchens but after 14 years, he began to feel unfulfilled. He had greater aspirations. Stepping away from the restaurant business, he began working for a catering company in Santa Barbara.
“I was still cooking, but in a different place every weekend, meeting new and interesting people and interacting with clients and people in general, which I really enjoyed. For me that was a really big thing – it was exciting,” Gonzales said.
After a couple of years catering for private parties and social events in Santa Barbara, Gonzales yearned to open up his own business. In 2013, with the knowledge he had gleaned over 20 years’ experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry, he opened up his own catering business, specializing in authentic, creative tacos.
Soon he had a significant following, catering for upscale private parties, special events, food and wine pairings, and private dinners including monthly pop-up dinners in Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley. Sonja Magdevski, the winemaker and owner of Casa Dumetz, heard of his reputation and hired him to do monthly pop-up dinners for her.
“At that time I was interested in using the kitchen at Babi’s, mostly for canning and pickling,” Gonzales said. “But then I got really busy with my catering business and it wasn’t until a year and a half ago that I reconnected with Sonja and she asked if I was interested in taking over the food bar at Babi’s. It was perfect timing for me as I had had many requests from fans of my catering business to open up a local outlet for my tacos. So I said, ‘Yes, I think I’m ready.’ In 2016 I opened up a taco and tapas tasting bar in Babi’s Beer Emporium in Los Alamos.
“Initially I had the idea of doing a taco tasting counter because of my catering business,” he said. “The idea was to create an environment similar to that of wine makers and their tasting rooms – except it was for food. Having a place where potential clients could come in and taste the food and get general ideas of what our flavors are like, instead of booking private tastings, seemed like a great idea. It also gave the general public an opportunity to taste our food and generate more catering business.”
He says the secret to his success is the love he puts into his food, along with the highest quality ingredients. Everything is homemade and made fresh daily.
He sources pork belly from Snake River Farm, where the pigs are sustainably raised. He uses Mary’s chicken, which is free range, and vegetables from local farmers markets. His mushrooms are from Brandon’s Gourmet Mushrooms in Orcutt, and his tortillas are made by hand with stone-ground maize (masa) from non-GMO corn, using just corn, water, and lime calcium, the old fashioned way.
“For the food to be special, love has to be the first ingredient. You have to love what you are doing and do it with passion, and respect the ingredients that go into making the dish. I hire only people with a passion for the food and those that represent my cuisine,” Gonzales added.
Chef in training Miguel Ybarra helps out in the kitchen and with the catering, which he thoroughly enjoys.
“I have been with Conrad from the start of his catering business, and he is a really great teacher. I came into this business knowing nothing about cooking, but I had dreamed of being a chef since I was in fourth grade. Conrad made my dream come true,” Ybarra said.
Gonzales is well on his was to surpassing his own dreams.
He recently opened another restaurant inside the new Hilton Hotel in Lompoc after the owners heard about his food and asked him to open a restaurant there.
“It was a blessing,” said Gonzales. “It opened on September 28th.
“Initially I was reticent about joining forces with a corporate entity, but when I found out that the new owners were local Lompoc residents, I was sold,” Gonzales said. “I saw it as a good opportunity to grow the business. This restaurant is named Valle Eatery & Bar and has a California Cuisine-focused menu. We are serving dishes from around the world.”
“I feel super blessed. In roughly four years I have succeeded in creating food for people that love and support it,” said Gonzales. “As a chef, when customers follow your food, that’s when I feel that people get it – what I am trying to give them. They understand my food and support it. I am so grateful for that.”
Gonzales lives in Lompoc with his wife and four children.
Vallefresh, at 380 Bell St. in Los Alamos, is open from noon to 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and from noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.