When John Cox first visited the stunning, 714-acre Fess Parker Ranch in Los Olivos last year, it was just as a favor to a friend, Paul Hoyle, president of the Fess Parker hotel group. Cox found himself on a tour past the ranch’s long-established vineyards and new wagyu cattle, as owner Eli Parker sought Cox’s advice for selling the prized beef to restaurants.
But Cox immediately saw potential for something even better. He imagined creating a restaurant for the Parker family where they could serve the wagyu and other products from their ranch themselves.
“It would be such a waste for that wagyu to go out of the family— no one is going to have the same connection to those animals,” Cox says. “You talk about the terroir—as soon as you let go of something from the ranch, people are not going to appreciate it in the same way.”
The Parkers, heirs of the late actor Fess Parker, who was also the savvy real estate investor who purchased and deeply loved the ranch, lost little time in taking Cox up on the idea.
In August, just a month after Cox had helped open the wildly popular Cultura–comida y bebida in Carmel where he is a partner and consulting chef, Eli Parker and his sister Ashley Parker made Cox a partner- chef in what would become The Bear and Star restaurant, and Cox started work on the project in September. (the restaurant name is a reference to California and Texas, the two states Fess Parker considered home. Both are influences for the restaurant’s “refined ranch cuisine.”)
Since then, this story of imagination, decisiveness and follow through has carried Cox and the Parkers rapidly through the hiring of culinary and beverage teams, a farming team, the relocation of a Parker family cattlewoman back to the ranch from New Mexico and an extensive and inventive reimagining of what had been an upscale Greek restaurant at the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn.
Katie Parker, a former bucking bull breeder and trainer who has been raising wagyu cattle for three years in the Southwest and is thrilled to be able to fulfill her beloved grandfather’s dream of raising them on the Los Olivos Ranch, can’t say enough about the creative, calm and organized leadership that Cox has brought to the enterprise.
“It’s so incredible when the world aligns you with the right people,” Parker says.
For his part, Cox is amazed at what the team has been able to accomplish.
“It’s a very supportive and open environment but the team is also just very proactive in making things happen,” Cox says, adding that as a result, “the restaurant is way more exciting than anything I’d imagined six months ago.”
As this issue of Edible Monterey Bay was going to press in early May, the restaurant was just opening but had for weeks been testing its dishes at small tastings for family and friends.
“For the most part, we’re thinking back to meals that really resonated with us growing up, re-envisioned for a modern California restaurant,” Cox says, describing the intent behind the restaurant’s cuisine and referring to his and sous chef Trent Shank’s childhoods in Texas, and chef Jeremy Tummel’s experience growing up on Santa Maria tri-tip in Santa Barbara.
Standouts at a tasting held one night a couple of weeks before the opening included deviled eggs prepared with Santa Barbara sea urchin and sea cucumber roe, and a remarkably umami-filled blackened tofu dish served with an update of Texas caviar, the tasty marinated salad traditionally built around black-eyed peas rather than fish eggs.
Other exceptional dishes included a melt-in-your-mouth, savory smoked wagyu carpaccio with cured egg yolk, koji, charred scallions, radishes and mushrooms; deeply flavorful wagyu tri-tip; and Morro Bay oysters dressed with a bright pink peppercorn and Meyer lemon mignonette.
“It’s been overwhelmingly positive,” says Tummel, who was most recently chef de cuisine at Stillwater Bar & Grill in Pebble Beach, referring to the response to the small tastings the chefs had been staging, noting that “the key is going to be to keep that consistency when we’re doing 200.”
But amazingly, the food is likely to only get better, as ranch director Carly Connelly, who worked with Cox as assistant gardener at Post Ranch, and a multitude of other ranch staff, gradually ramp up the ranch’s production and replace the ingredients the chefs are purchasing with meat, vegetables, fruits and eggs produced right on the ranch. The plan is to feed the livestock grape pomace from the wine operation and spent grain from a Parker family member’s nearby craft brewery, Kris Parker’s Third Window, in something of a closed loop of sustainability akin to those of other farm-operating chefs who have inspired Cox, such as Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York.
Katie Parker leads horseback rides at the beautiful hilltop ranch, where the family’s 300 acres of vineyards as well as 75 head of wagyu cattle and its chickens, quail, rabbits and organic row crops and heirloom fruit trees may be viewed; soon grazing pigs, sheep and beehives will be part of the scenery, too.
But guests don’t have to venture farther than the restaurant itself, located in downtown Los Olivos, to see the ingredients of a future meal being raised: Step onto the patio, and you’ll find an aquaponics system that the restaurant built with repurposed grape bins and uses to produce catfish, edible flowers and greens; venture into the “chef ’s room,” a private dining room lined with Cox’s personal knife and cookbook collection, and you’ll find mushrooms growing in a glass tower, and through a window to the kitchen, microgreens thriving.
Aside from the chef’s room, diners can also be seated in the bar (where inventive cocktails like the mezcal-laced Ranch Hand Reviver are served), a secret wine room hidden behind a wall of wines, or the main dining room, all of which are bright and elegant yet relaxed.
The restaurant’s prices are also relaxed—especially considering the pedigree of the chefs and the quality of their ingredients.
Before you leave, just be sure to ask for a tour of the custom-made 30-foot-long mobile smoker out back. It’s just one of the fancy culinary toys Cox’s team is employing to work its magic, but it’s where the chefs honed their barbecue skills to walk away with awards from the San Angelo Stock Show and Rodeo Barbecue Championship in Texas in February—including a first prize for chicken and third prizes for brisket and overall performance.
The shiny belt buckle the chefs won as a trophy is proudly displayed on a wall outside of the kitchen.
“I couldn’t be happier,” says Cox of his latest restaurant adventure. “It’s really exciting.”
The Bear and Star
2860 Grand Ave., Los Olivos 805.686.1359 • www.thebearandstar.com