A visit to California’s Cuyama Buckhorn is a time travelling experience, in more ways than one.
The historic roadhouse and 21-room motel opened in 1952, soon after oil was discovered in the Cuyama Valley. It has recently been lovingly restored to its original midcentury modern glory. Remote and surrounded by mountains, guests feel tucked away from the rest of the world. The architecture and setting conjure up a different era, when people took time to linger at a meal and mingle around a campfire.
“People from all different walks of life, from millennials camping nearby to a biker group riding through, to local farmers, enjoy a meal together and conversation,” said Savannah Fox, Buckhorn’s Marketing and Operations Manager. “It feels like time slows down a little bit.”
The restaurant has always served a dual function as an important gathering place for the sprawling Cuyama Valley community and a well-placed roadhouse on busy Hwy 166. It is the only full-service restaurant in New Cuyama, home to 550 people. Guests might bump into the Valley’s resident cowboy poet and rawhide braider, Dick Gibford, sitting at the bar for an afternoon apple pie and poetry writing session, or eat dinner next to Steve Zaritsky of SZ Ranch, the source of the Buckhorn’s eggs.
Chef Daniel Horn crafts refined rustic comfort food to meet the needs of both locals and out-of-town visitors. With a dedication to local sourcing and farm-to-table cuisine, he employs basic cooking techniques to showcase prime ingredients. “I find great pride and satisfaction in nailing a perfect burger,” he said.
Horn also simply and elegantly prepares Zaritsky’s golden-yolked farm-fresh organic eggs. The menu includes egg salad and — a popular breakfast — egg chilaquiles. The standard two-egg breakfast features them alongside house-smoked bacon, fresh roasted herb potatoes, and ciabatta toast with homemade jam. At special events, Horn’s bright purple local red wine-soaked deviled eggs are conversation starters.
Cuyama’s high desert climate is especially suited for producing excellent olive oil, a variety of apples, complex wines, and sweet carrots. Red oak harvested in the Valley is used to smoke tri-tip steak for the regional Santa Maria-style barbecue platter. Moister coastal farms provide English peas, artichokes, Japanese sweet potatoes, and heirloom oranges.
For the staff at Cuyama Buckhorn, developing a farm-to-table network has required dedication and tenacity. The Valley is an interesting juxtaposition, historically an agricultural region yet classified as a food desert. Even in an area with only 1,200 residents, many of the farmers and ranchers didn’t know each other when the renovated Buckhorn opened in 2018.
The staff began by building relationships, travelling out to farms to introduce themselves and build trust. In 2020, the Buckhorn hosted a Harvest Dinner to introduce the first farm-to-table menu to their twelve local suppliers. “It took two years to get to that point,” said Fox. “The opportunity of introducing the menu to our producers using their ingredients was an incredible experience.”
The Buckhorn aims to be a culinary destination, and this includes educational special events. The annual Wild Flour Celebration brings together like-minded organizations sustainably growing heritage grains. Classes provide how-to’s on growing, milling, and baking with them.
Beyond local sourcing, the Buckhorn has grown into an anchor for a broader local food system. Staff work with partners in the Cuyama Valley Food Action Network to expand local access and regional markets for the bounty of the Valley. Together, they developed the first ever comprehensive directory of food businesses, hosted by the Buckhorn on the Visit Cuyama Valley website.
Local products are highlighted beyond the restaurant. They stock the hotel room mini bars and are available at the Buckhorn Market, a source of Valley food products serving both locals and visitors. One favorite is Cuyama Beverage Company’s mead, a fermented honey drink 100% sourced and produced in the Valley.
The relationships between the roadhouse and producers are fruitful beyond strict economy. The Buckhorn staff consulted with local growers about incorporating local and edible plants into the resort landscape. And when they were concerned about their new olive trees, Steve Gliessman of Condor’s Hope Vineyard diagnosed the problem (a worm infestation) and helped treat them (with an organic clay spray to prevent egg laying) the same day.
Chef Horn has worked at resorts around the world but returned to his native California during the pandemic. He first experienced farm-to-table cooking in Cambodia when he would visit the local market for produce. He knows this kind of fare takes a deep commitment from the chef and he is thriving in Cuyama – nurturing relationships with ranchers and farmers, befriending suppliers, going the extra mile to pick up ingredients from far-flung locales on his day off.
Correction: This story was updated to note that it was Steve Gliessman, not Steve Zaritsky, who helped Buckhorn staff treat their olive trees.