John Cox cooks Texas-inspired food with beef that’s only available in California's Central Coast.
For once, I’m outside of Texas and don’t have to ask if the chili has beans.
I’m at The Bear and Star, a restaurant that opened last April in the California Central Coast town of Los Olivos. The purpose of this restaurant is to create “refined ranch cuisine” that’s inspired by Texas but made with California ingredients. The Bear and Star is part of the rural family empire started by actor/entrepreneur Fess Parker, who grew up in San Angelo, Texas, and went on to play Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone on TV. The chef/partner at this game-changing restaurant inside the Fess Parker Wine Country Inn is John Cox, a Texan who was raised by a fourth-generation Dallas family.
It’s clear that the Lone Star State roots run deep at The Bear and Star. This place is not going to mess up Texas chili. The bean-free chili, which I eat while gazing at a mounted steer head, is tremendously beefy. So is the restaurant’s smoked meatloaf. As somebody who spent the first two decades of my life in Texas, I’m gobsmacked by my dinner and the taste memories it evokes. The skillet cornbread is perfect. The house-made hot sauce, with jalapeños and habaneros that have been fermented for three months, makes everything better.
“I wanted to do simple, approachable food that would pay tribute to what I grew up eating, things like deviled eggs, meatloaf and steak you just season with salt and pepper and throw on the grill,” Cox says.
I’m so enamored with this restaurant’s food and the vision behind it that I decide to come back for dinner the next night. On that night, chef Jeremy Tummel brings out Dungeness crab hush puppies that look like little crabs. Plus, there’s a major addition to the menu: a colossal rib eye that’s been dry-aged in-house. It’s listed as a cowboy cut, but it’s big and rich and marbled enough to feed two cowboys. Then I realize: This is a different kind of intense beef experience than I’ve ever had in Texas. This, it turns out, is something that could only be happening here, at this restaurant.
All of the beef at The Bear and Star is wagyu that’s raised at the 714-acre Fess Parker ranch seven miles away from the restaurant.
“For me, it’s all about creating something that has terroir,” says Cox, who previously cooked at Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn. “We don’t want to just have a great piece of wagyu beef. We want something that’s unique. When you have that rib eye at The Bear and Star, it’s a product that’s only in Los Olivos.”
Katie Parker McDonald, granddaughter of Fess, is running the wagyu program and breeding cattle that are 50 percent wagyu, 75 percent wagyu and 100 percent wagyu. A happy and gigantic bull named Bubba, “definitely over 2,200 pounds,” is the ultimate stud on the ranch, responsible for maybe three-quarters of the cattle.
Parker McDonald is also growing all of the lamb that’s served at The Bear and Star. Everything she does is about sustainability: maintaining the natural resources at the ranch while ensuring that the family business adapts to the 21st century. All of the beef and lamb is finished with grape pomace from the Fess Parker Winery and spent grains from the family brewery, Third Window.
The ranch is also raising chickens, ducks and quails, which means Cox always has a bounty of eggs at The Bear and Star. The ranch has started breeding Mangalitsa pigs.
Parker McDonald and her husband, professional bull rider Rocky McDonald, maintain the ranch, which means they’re doing everything from bottle-feeding baby goats to harvesting wonderful watercress and miner’s lettuce out of the creek.
“I don’t look at it as a farm but as an ecosystem,” Cox says of the ranch.
The salads The Bear and Star makes with foraged greens are spectacular. Parker McDonald loves it when Cox uses acorns from the ranch to make pancakes.
“They’re so good I wouldn’t even put butter and syrup on them,” she says.
The ranch has grown kale, spinach and beets. Parker McDonald is getting prickly pears from cactus at the ranch. There are orchards for stone fruit that are still about a year from harvest, Cox says. Parker McDonald has created aquaponics gardens at the ranch and also at The Bear and Star. You can expect catfish and trout soon.
Parker McDonald is constantly enhancing her terrain. She drives us around the ranch in her grandfather’s old humvee and points out where she’s putting in a new mushroom cellar. She shows me where she’s building an events space with an outdoor kitchen, two greenhouses and trellis seating. She’s thinking about putting in a pizza oven because she found a lot of clay at the ranch.
The whole enterprise is not unlike Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. But inside of elaborate, expensive tasting menus, you get crowd-pleasers like The Bear and Star’s burger, which blends premium cuts (short rib, sirloin and hanger steak) with wagyu fat. As Cox points out, a burger becomes a lot more meaningful when you consider the three years it can take to raise cattle and get the beef to the kitchen.
“I am 100 percent self-taught,” says Parker McDonald, who was always the cowgirl of the family. “I came out of the womb riding a horse and chasing a cow. I think that’s why my grandpa and I were so close. What I did embodied his childhood. It was like his Texas heritage.”
Her grandfather believed that the most important thing he could give his family is a work ethic. Parker McDonald thinks about this when she’s waking up early to milk a cow or check on crops.
“He was the neatest grandpa to grow up with, that’s for sure,” she says. “One of the coolest things about him was that he really made you earn what you got. Education was alway really important to him. Me, I chose not to go college. I was going to learn it myself, student of life. I would be in his office every day, picking his brain about ideas and crazy things.”
Then they would go to lunch and continue their conversation. Parker McDonald used to raise bucking bulls, and she remembers that her grandfather was always in her ear about raising beef cattle.
“When he passed away [in 2010], I was like, gosh, my grandpa and I were extremely close,” Parker McDonald says. “I mean, I spent almost every day with him. Man, I really need to step up to the plate and start this beef program.”
She remembers her husband telling her she was nuts to raise wagyu instead of the more common Angus or Hereford cattle. Last year, when her husband tried steak from one of their wagyu cattle for the first time, he raved about how good it was and apologized to her. Hearing the words “I’m so sorry” made it all worthwhile, Parker McDonald says with a big smile.
The Bear and Star has a 30-foot smoker that uses grapevines and oak from the ranch. Cox has been firing up the smoker to make his own bacon. He’s taken it to the Fess Parker Winery to cook for big events. He’s got all kinds of plans for barbecue, and he’s also using the smoker every day to do things like smoke almonds or hay.
The story of the smoker is pretty insane, one of those sagas that sounds like a perfect Texas tall tale.
Here’s what we know: Cox had a “harebrained idea” that resulted in a three-week trip to Texas not long before he opened The Bear and Star. He hit barbecue spots like Pecan Lodge in Dallas and Franklin Barbecue in Austin. He went to Ennis and got a smoker from Johnson Custom Smokers, Then he stopped at Perini Ranch in Buffalo Gap and spent a couple days learning how to master brisket.
Then he went to a barbecue competition. This is where he fired up his new smoker for the first time. The Texans at the competition chortled when they saw Cox and his California crew with a big smoker that had never been used.
“We had no expectations going in,” Cox says. “We entered all the categories: ribs, chicken, brisket, [jalapeño] poppers. We learned on the ground.”
Cox observed what others were doing and then ran to the grocery store as he adapted his recipes. The competition turned out well for the team from The Bear and Star.
“We got first place in chicken and third place in brisket and third place overall,” Cox says.
Parker McDonald was there, marveling at how her family’s past, present and future are so connected.
“We kind of kicked butt, not to brag or anything,” she says. “It was a special trip."
The most special part of all? The competition was in San Angelo, where Fess Parker grew up and where his parents raised cattle.
“I envisioned a restaurant that was everything my family had already talked about,” Parker McDonald says of The Bear and Star. “Everything we do is a family-operated business.”
She smiles widely again as she tells me about how her 3-year-old daughter, Gracie, has gone around the Fess Parker ranch looking for carrots.
The Bear and Star, 2860 Grand Ave., Los Olivos, 805-686-1359