Ranch to Table: Parkers’ New Restaurant Sources Products from Family Ranch

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
photos by Chef John Cox, Kodiak Greenwood & Grey Crawford
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/27/16

Katie Parker on the family ranch (my pic)
On a horseback ride through her family’s 700-acre ranch last week, Katie Parker reminisced about her grandfather.  “He was a real visionary,” she said of Fess Parker, the Disney icon and Santa Barbara entrepreneur who passed away seven years ago. As she speaks, her steed’s steady gait takes her over rolling hills, past flourishing vines and across leafy pastures as far as the eye can see.  “He would have loved what we’re doing now,” adds the mother of four young children, “because I think he always imagined it.”

When Fess Parker bought this plot in the mid-1980s – a rambling property that sprawls along Foxen Canyon and abuts what was once Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch – it was wild and unkempt.  Today, it’s a working ranch run by his kids and grandkids, home to a vineyard that carries his name and a thriving ecosystem that includes dozens of Wagyu cattle, pigs, rabbits, quail, chicken, bees, fruit trees and heirloom vegetables.  And because it’s integrally linked to what’s about to become the newest restaurant in the county, it’s also part of could well be one of the most comprehensive culinary enterprises that this area has ever seen.

Chef John Cox
When The Bear and Star opens to the public on May 1, it’ll be a return to the restaurant business for the Parker family.  Located inside the deluxe Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in downtown Los Olivos, this is where Restaurant Marcella once flourished – a pet project for Fess and Marcy Parker that was as much a spot to eat as a place for neighbors and friends to gather.  It was leased out and renamed Petros in 2008, however, until the restaurant closed last summer.

Driven by a new vision, Ashley and Eli Parker are launching The Bear and Star as homage to their father, for one: the Star pays tribute to Fess Parker’s home state of Texas while the Bear denotes his adopted state of California.  But this is also about synergy.  It’s about producing and preparing food in a closed loop – from beginning to end, from ranch to plate – based on the notion that controlling every element guarantees quality and creates a unique customer experience.

Located just seven miles away, the Parkers’ ranch, then, plays a pivotal role.

“No one has a connection to those cattle and animals and produce the way the Parkers do,” says Executive Chef John Cox, who partnered with the Parker family to create The Bear and Star.  “They’re the only ones who can bring it to consumers in a very personal and intimate way.”

The Bear and Star's menu is inspired in large part by the dozens of Wagyu cattle that call the Parker Ranch home (my pic)
Mr. Cox, 36, comes from Sierra Mar Restaurant at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, where, for the last 15 years, he’s helped create one of the most lucrative dining experiences in the country.  “I wasn’t looking to move on from Post Ranch – it’s a lifetime job, as good as it gets,” he says.  But a serendipitous meeting with Eli Parker and a visit to the Parker ranch struck a very personal chord for the fellow Texas native.

As chef and contributing food writer for several national magazines, “I’ve always been a voice for sustainable food and farming practices,” he says.  “So many restaurants claim they’re ‘farm to table,’ but are they? Are they really making a difference in their community? This project, to me, was a chance to do something sustainable in a much larger scale.”

The Chef's Room, above, and the dining room bar at The Bear and Star
Chef Cox spent more than three months living on the ranch while he created The Bear and Star menu.  He calls it “refined ranch cuisine.”  For the Parkers, many of the recipes are actually familiar, since they’re inspired by meals created by Marcy Parker herself.

“We have been calling it family recipes with a twist, or re-envisioned,” says Ashley Parker.

The bar and main menus are inspired expressions of the ranch, the cattle in particular.  There’s an 18-oz. Wagyu Ribeye, a Wagyu Burger topped with smoked cheddar and tomato jam, a Smoked Wagyu Carpaccio, Wagyu fries and a Wagyu Meatloaf served with potato puree and garden vegetables.  The Berkshire Pork Chop comes with cheesy grits and syrah-braised cabbage.  The Stuffed Quail is doled out with farro risotto and bay laurel.  The Gnocchi Stroganoff features farm-grown mushrooms and crispy herbs.  The Parker Ranch Chile is served with cheddar, chives and cornbread croutons.

Bar Menu prices range between $3 and $15 and entrees on the Main Menu are priced between $14 and $32.

For breakfast, offerings range from Home-Made Country Sausage with poached eggs and sourdough country toast to Smoked Wagyu Hash with farm eggs, root vegetables and lemon-thyme hollandaise.

Chef Cox will, naturally, reach beyond the ranch as needed, although he’ll keep the spotlight squarely on the region, including neighboring farms and local seafood.  “It wouldn’t make sense for me to serve dishes I made in Big Sur,” he insists.  “The way I cook is really about creating an experience that reflects an environment.  In that sense, there’s no better place to do what we’re doing than Santa Barbara.”

Smoked Wagyu Meatloaf, above, and Classic Cheese Pie
The Bear and Star’s sommelier-run wine program will feature the family’s three labels prominently – Fess Parker, Epiphany and Fesstivity sparkling wines.  It’ll be buoyed by selections from Santa Barbara to France and a by-the-glass program focused on iconic and older vintages.  The market cocktail program will follow local and seasonally driven ingredients; the Wagyu Bull Shot is made with vodka, beef bone broth, turmeric and ginger.

In the kitchen, Chef Cox’s team includes Santa Barbara native Chef Jeremy Tummel and Sous Chef Trent Shank.  The revamped state-of-the-art kitchen will be the restaurant's gastronomic epicenter, for sure.  But the crux of the cooking will be performed on a custom, self-contained, reverse-flow, Texas-made, 30-foot smoker.  Complete with Big Green Egg barbecue, pizza oven, three-compartment sink with running water and on-board refrigeration and lighting, it’s parked out back.  But as a veritable kitchen on wheels, it’ll be on the move often.  “I want to be able to pull into anywhere and, without water or electricity, be able to cook for a couple hundred people,” says Chef Cox. “It’s a pretty awesome tool.”

The design of the revamped restaurant is both ranch-inspired and sleek.  There are four environments, including a glossy bar-lounge.  The main dining room has velvet chairs and bronze metal cafĂ© tables, and it opens both to a terrace along Grand Avenue and a back patio decked out in raised herb planters and aquaponic fish tank.  The preserved skull of Maggie, a cherished Texas Longhorn that was fatally injured on the Parker ranch, is displayed above the fireplace.

The Wine Room has a secret entrance – a sliding wall of more than 200 wine bottles – and is earmarked for winemaker get-togethers.  “They can go completely off the radar here, enjoy wine, get geeky, invite friends – if they get rowdy, it’s okay,” says Chef Cox.  Private events can be booked here, too.

And the Chef’s Room is a sexy space, complete with chandeliers and nine-foot marble table, which the chef describes as his command center.  Festooned with dry-aging cabinets and a personal collection of cookbooks and chef’s knives that spans 20 years, this is a space “for creative inspiration,” according to Chef Cox.  “The idea is to take all our cooks’ combined decades of fine dining experience and distill recipes, so that we can make them as best we can.”

For more information, check out thebearandstar.com.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, on horseback, Katie Parker reveals her own plans to help bring this culinary experience full circle: offering guided rides through the ranch to the public, beginning in a few weeks.  “It’s confirmation that we really are ranch to table,” she says.  “Come see it – it’s all here.”

Katie recently led me and my two boys on a trot through the Parkers' home ranch, check it out: 


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