Thursday, May 11, 2017
“This ranch is the heartbeat to our family,” says Katie Parker McDonald, the eldest granddaughter of actor-turned-vintner and hotelier Fess Parker. “Grandma has always loved the winery, but Fess loved the land.”
We’re riding through the high grass of an oak-studded plateau on the Parker family’s Foxen Canyon Road ranch, where our horses don’t quiver at the sight of a gopher snake nor pay much attention when a donkey brays loudly in the distance. We’re on the hunt for Katie’s Wagyu cattle, a Japanese breed famed for the marbling of its beef, and we find their dark hides and docile demeanors lingering in pockets of shade near the last of the season’s purple lupine.
After spending all of her life stabling horses, teaching riding lessons, leading trail rides, renting livestock to television shows, running beef cattle, and even raising bucking bulls for professional rodeos — “I like to think I was my grandpa’s favorite because I’ve always been the resident cowgirl,” she quipped — Katie and her husband, bull rider Rocky McDonald, started raising the coveted breed about four years ago. The inspiration came from a Wagyu hamburger in Las Vegas. “It was so good; I didn’t even eat the bun,” said Katie.
Despite being a slow-growing and sensitive breed, the herd — whose life starts on the family’s New Mexico and Texas ranches and then continues on these pastures before ending with a butcher in Santa Paula — is now a substantial family affair. The 120 head of cattle are further fattened on grape pomace from the family’s winery operations as well as spent brewer’s grains from her half-brother Kristopher Parker’s Third Window Brewing Company. Katie hopes to plant beardless wheat in between the vineyard rows next year while growing the herd to 300 animals. When Katie’s dad, Eli Parker — the son of Fess, who died in 2010, and Marcella, who’s still alive — started to wonder what to do with the meat, he talked to Chef John Cox during a visit to Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn.
“When it’s that tied in, it would be a shame to take a product and sell it to someone else,” Cox advised about a year and a half ago. “I told him that, long-term, you need to create a restaurant. It was inevitable.”
Farm-to-Table, for Reals
The family’s Wagyu, wine, and beer are just a few slices of the ranch-to-restaurant pie being cooked up by Cox and the Parkers at The Bear and Star, which opened on May 1 in Los Olivos inside the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn. Katie is also raising 50 sheep for the menu, and Cox’s friend Carly Connelly is tending to Mangalitsa pigs, two acres of row crops, 75 fruit trees, 40 chickens, and a greenhouse on their property, with 50 quail accessible nearby. And the restaurant itself is putting out. There’s an aquaponics system growing about 30 catfish below and leafy greens, watercress, and nasturtiums atop, as well as a fascinating mushroom cabinet with pink, white, and yellow oysters, bear’s heads, shiitakes, and reishis.
“My pet peeve as a chef is how abusive people have become to the farm-to-table slogan,” said Cox, who worked at Post Ranch on and off for 15 years and for similar properties such as Hotel Hana Maui, Cavallo Point, and Sea Ranch Lodge among other stints in Fiji, Florida, and Carmel. Even with everything he’s got going, Cox will be excited to source 50 percent of the menu from the ranch right away and hopes to be close to 80 percent within a couple of years.
Why not 100 percent? “Ultimately, it’s people’s expectations,” Cox said. “I would be completely happy with kale, dry-aged beef, and sunchokes — that’s achievable. What’s not achievable is 20-30 menu items, like seafood. We couldn’t really have steelhead trout; we couldn’t have salmon.”
So despite all the cross-country hype, Cox explained, “You could probably count on two hands the number of true farm-to-table restaurants in the United States. You’d think that places in California would do it more.”
Due to that unique opportunity, Cox jumped onboard as a partner last November, moved from Big Sur to the Santa Barbara Harbor, and directed the design evolution that ensued during the speedy remodel. The look is elegantly modern yet infused with chic cowboy touches, most prominently the skull that hangs over the fireplace in the dinner room. “Maggie was the favorite cow on the ranch,” said Cox, explaining that her addition came at the last minute. “She finished the room for us.”
He’s also proud of enhancing the outdoor seating options and breaking down the layout — which was formerly home to Petros and once housed the family’s Restaurant Marcella — into more intimate spaces. That includes the secret room behind the wall of wine bottles and the chef’s room, where he plans to serve more inventive fare amid the shelves of pickling vegetables, fermenting hot sauce, lab-looking rotovap machine, library of cookbooks, mushroom cabinet, and view into the kitchen.
Texas, California-Style (or Vice Versa?)
Though born in Dallas to a multigenerational Texas family, Cox was raised in Santa Fe and got into food in California kitchens, so traditional barbecue wasn’t really in his arsenal. So he bought a massive smoker in Texas with his crew, trained with a famed pit master at Perini Ranch, and then hit the world barbecue championships in San Angelo, where Fess Parker was born.
Despite being outsiders — a beef rib preparation they envisioned at the last minute got them dubbed “The Kumquat Boys” — they got first place in chicken and third overall out of about 40 contestants. The smoker is now an integral part of the restaurant for beef, bacon, ribs, and more, and serves as a symbol of what The Bear and Star is all about: the melding of Texas tradition with California ingenuity.
Menu highlights include oysters with pink peppercorn sorbet; deviled eggs with guajillo pepper yolks topped by crispy lardon; smoked pork rillette on grilled bread with pickled onions; Wagyu carpaccio with koji, charred scallions, radish, crunchy mushrooms, and shaved cured yolk (emu if you’re lucky, which tastes like gouda cheese); and cornbread in a cast-iron pan that comes out sizzling in bacon lard with a brown sugar, sherry vinegar, and house hot sauce glaze. And those are just appetizers. Entrees include burgers, pork chops, meatloaf, stuffed quail, and Wagyu tri-tip, while dessert upholds old-school Texas: savory pecan and chess pie, a custardy concoction whose sugary insides form a crust on top while baking. There’s also a full breakfast served daily 7:30-10 a.m.
“At Post Ranch, a lot of the food got pretty cerebral,” said Cox, who will still do some of that for one-off dinners. “I hope the level of detail here is the same as there, but we’re trying to do it at an accessible scale.”
That’s also why the prices are downright cheap, at least for such considered and directly sourced cuisine: the most expensive items are the $32 Wagyu tri-tip and $28 Berkshire pork chop — similar items easily go for double at many steakhouses — all the way down to the $16 burger and $14 smoked chicken cobb salad. With a pint of Third Window beer, you could escape satisfied for about $30.
“It’s the most fair pricing we can do,” said Cox. “The artist from down the street can not only make the plates, but she can come down 10 minutes from her house and afford it. It’s so much fun seeing your neighbors come in and have an awesome experience.”
In my estimation, The Bear and Star is not just another new restaurant to try. With so much competition in the culinary space, the biggest challenge is creating something truly unique yet honestly authentic while keeping the menu logistically manageable and relatively affordable. If Cox and the Parkers can stick to the formula, and continue to grow this real ranch-to-restaurant experience, The Bear and Star may prove to be Santa Barbara County’s homegrown version of New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Certainly, that Dan Barber hotspot is a whole different animal, with a $258 tasting menu and almost everything grown on-site, but the spirit is identical.
The Parker family’s extensive resources don’t hurt either, nor does the fact that this is the culmination of a generational dream for many of them, including Katie, who’d wanted to do something like this for a long time. “Everyone was at a point in their careers where they were perfectly prepared for this restaurant,” she explained as our horses trotted under the spring sun. “You couldn’t have planned it better.”
2860 Grand Avenue, Los Olivos; (805) 686-1359; thebearandstar.com