Restaurant blends fine dining with home-style recipes
By Raiza Giorgi
Chef John Cox has worked in fine dining since he started his career, but the opportunity to create his entire kitchen from scratch and spend time creating not only the recipes, but the farm where he sources most of his produce and meats, is an experience like none other.
He and his team of culinary artists are excited to be opening the Bear and Star at Fess Parker Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos this month.
“We have really taken our time to open the restaurant because we want everything to have a meaning, and that we have taken the time to show the history behind Fess Parker,” Cox said.
Cox and the late actor have similar backgrounds in that they both grew up in Texas and started from the bottom and worked their way up to success.
Parker was known for portraying Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, and in his later life for his winery and resorts in the valley and Santa Barbara.
Cox grew up in Texas and knew at an early age he wanted to work in the culinary arts. He started washing dishes in a restaurant in Santa Fe when he was 15 and left school when the chef took him under his wing and taught him the ropes. Cox ended up getting his GED and enrolled in a culinary school in Vermont, a world away from what he knew.
“When I had my first internship I moved back to Texas and lived with my grandparents, and it was the best time of my life. She taught me about our family and old recipes that I’ve actually adapted into our current menu,” Cox said.
He then interned in a fine dining restaurant in Dallas, working under Chef Kent Rathbun for Abacus.
After his schooling he was hired at Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur as a sous chef and traveling for their corporate company working in Hawaii and other hotels.
“I’ve gotten the amazing opportunities to work in some of the highest-rated hotels in the world and it definitely honed my culinary skills. That’s what I hope to bring to Bear and Star, but at a level so anyone from locals to tourists will be able to enjoy,” he said.
Cox was offered the head chef position back at Post Ranch Inn, where he met Parker’s son Eli. They started talking about the Parker Ranch and how most of his offspring were doing something in the food and wine industry and wanted to connect them together.
“Eli asked me to come look at his Wagyu beef and see how they could start a program around it, and I couldn’t say no. Then I came to the ranch and the land reminded me of Texas and home, and I’ve been here more than a year cooking up this restaurant,” he said.
The Parker ranch is operated by Parker’s granddaughter Katie and her family. She also raises bulls that are featured in rodeos around the country. Granddaughter Tessa Parker-Cody is a winemaker with her own label, Tessa Marie (her tasting room is just around the corner from the Inn).
At the ranch Cox has started a small farm for fresh produce, a chicken coop for fresh eggs, and facilities to raise rabbits, chickens and other poultry.
Cox’s partner Jeremy Tummel of Santa Barbara grew up in Santa Barbara and has worked at many notable restaurants up and down the Central Coast from the Wine Cask, to Pebble Beach, to Kevin Costner’s Epiphany to the Bacara.
“I love all styles of food. Growing up in Santa Barbara, I surely have an appreciation of seafood and wine,” Tummel said.
Sous chef Trent Shank came from Fort Worth, also with a fine dining background.
The three of them decided to take a road trip to Texas when their custom smoker was being finished. The trip also coincided with the San Angelo Stock Show and Rodeo Association Cook-off, so they decided to stay and experience the best of barbecue to get inspiration for their menu.
“We ended up entering the Calcutta competition where we had to place in the top third in one of the categories in order to win our money back. We didn’t realize that when entering. We thought we were sponsoring a team, but we were the team. In an hour we were at the local grocery buying as much meat as we could,” Cox said with a laugh.
The trio stayed up all night talking with locals about how they barbecue and smoke their meats, learning as much as they could. They ended up placing third in brisket, first in chicken and third overall.
“It really tested us working as a team, and I think brought us closer than we thought,” Tummel said.
Pulling home their smoker, which is as long as a small recreational vehicle, they showed off its built-in outdoor culinary capabilities that include a wood-fired oven, grill, firebox, smoker, rotisserie and kitchen.
“We can feed 200 people in the middle of a field with no power,” Cox laughed.
The trio is trying to work as sustainably and locally sourced as possible. Their efforts include an aquaponic vegetable box in the back of the hotel for growing lettuces, with the roots being used to feed the catfish they will serve. A mushroom box in the chef’s room continues the starter mushrooms at the farm, and everything patrons use down to the glasses and napkins have been made within a small radius of Los Olivos.