Ian McPhee changed the food and wine scene in San Luis Obispo County by bringing a new approach to selecting, preparing and serving great food in local restaurants. He was the first chef to focus on pairing those meals in his restaurants with the best local wines being produced in the county. He introduced himself to local winemakers, tasting and purchasing their wines for Ian’s Restaurant in Cambria and McPhee’s Grill in Templeton. To appreciate his creativity, innovation, and impact on cuisine in SLO County we have to look back in history to the revival of the California agriculture and the wine industry, post-Prohibition.

Prohibition ended with an act passed by Congress to repeal the 18th Amendment in 1933 and allowed the production and sale of alcohol, subject to state and local regulations. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the Midwest caused thousands of farmers and workers to migrate to California in search of jobs, food, and housing during the 1930s. When World War II began, farmers focused their efforts on growing food for the war effort and the workforce manning the factories and services across the country. California led the nation in agricultural production just as it does today.

After the war ended, many people moved west to California, the “land of opportunity.” The hard liquor industry quickly revived, but the wine industry took years to rebuild. A generation of winemakers had been lost. The vineyards were planted to yield large harvests of table grapes; wine grapes were grown for local California winemakers. In the 1960s and 1970s, more and more vineyards of wine grapes were planted in anticipation of the revival of commercial winemaking. By the mid-1960s wine production was controlled by approximately 20 large industrialized wineries, including the Gallo Brothers and Swiss Colony. There were very few premium wines being produced. The focus was on table wine.

Ian McPhee was born on May 29, 1951, in Lynwood, California. He was an athlete and excelled at football. He graduated from high school in 1969 and was awarded a football scholarship at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo. At the same time, Robert Mondavi had opened his winery in Napa in 1966 which opened the door to a new era in California winemaking. The era can be characterized as one of experimentation, innovation, and rapid growth in the wine industry, attracting people from a variety of backgrounds who saw themselves as artisans and mavericks. There was a freedom of spirit to pursue your passion and try new things, even if you had no background or training. Many California winemakers were from a wide variety of backgrounds and self-taught.

In contrast to Napa, San Luis Obispo County had four wineries selling to the public in the 1960s: York Winery, Rotta Winery, Pesenti Winery, and the Dusi Family in their tasting room on the Dusi Ranch. All four winemakers were second or third generation winemakers, trained by their families. The primary wine was Zinfandel and it was most often paired with their own home cooking.

When Ian graduated from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, he had no interest in pursuing a career in the food industry or plans to become a chef. He had not yet focused on a career. He wanted to stay on the Central Coast and so he looked for jobs to support himself. Ian became well known among those who owned local restaurants. He worked his way from dishwasher to waiter and manager at the Cigar Factory in San Luis Obispo. He worked at DW Grover’s in Grover Beach and in local restaurants in Avila. In 1976 Joshua’s opened in Paso Robles with a menu that became very popular with locals. Ian was hired as the manager and created some of the recipes. His red cabbage salad with parmesan cheese vinaigrette dressing was legendary and 40 years later people still talk about it. Joshua’s became a major destination in a town where most friends dined at the local Denny’s Restaurant. As the restaurant became more popular, Ian met chefs and winemakers, focusing his interest on the restaurant scene and the possibilities. Local wine and food societies were formed around the county and chefs from other regions were invited to cook at the San Luis Bay Inn and special events. Ian wanted to learn more about cooking and restaurant management. Ian also met his future wife, June, who was a pastry chef and whose family friends in the restaurant business would become his mentors when he decided to open his own restaurant.

Ian applied for a job on the Cal Poly Campus at the foodservice restaurant known as Vista Grande in 1978. This job was a turning point in his career. Vista Grande offered dining for students in one side of the building and a dining room for faculty and their guests in the other. The kitchen served both facilities. Ian was exposed to the entire range of skills involved in food management. He planned menus, ordered the food and supplies, met with local and regional vendors, and focused on a range of people as customers from students to professors.

He began to question traditional methods and menus, focusing on innovative meals and local foods. On the traditional “steak night,” Ian decided to bring in barbecues and cook with fresh meat. Instead of using frozen fish, Ian insisted on buying 800 pounds of fresh fish – a first at Vista Grande. Ian was able to improve the quality, the taste and the presentation of the meals for both students and faculty. The California Cuisine Scene was just beginning to unfold.

At the very same time Ian started at Vista Grande, a woman named Sally Schmitt opened one of the first restaurants that launched California Cuisine-the original French Laundry in Napa. Although they had never met, both Ian and Sally were on the cusp of the Food Revolution in California which grew rapidly from 1978 to the present, sourcing fresh ingredients, local products, presented in a healthy and delicious array of recipes. There was a freedom to experiment, which nurtured the “art of cooking.” By 1984 Chef Alice Louise Waters’ first cookbook had been published and she was mentoring many at Chez Panisse, the restaurant she founded in 1971. Many would become famous chefs, including Jeremy Towers, in their own right. Alice became known for pioneering California Cuisine, and as a food activist. Chef Julia Child was teaching classes on television, writing cookbooks, to inspire everyone to try French cooking at home.

Ian wanted to work on his own, selecting the foods he loved to eat and serving them to the public. He favored a casual lifestyle in a small restaurant serving fine food and local wines.

In 1983, Ian teamed up with Dave Billingsley to open a new restaurant called Ian’s in Cambria. This is where Ian taught himself to cook in his own style and established his reputation as the finest chef in the County. He used newly published cookbooks on California and French Cuisine to inspire his menus of delicious food made from fresh ingredients. The restaurant seated a maximum of forty. Ian changed the menu weekly and often served dishes made with recipes he was using for the first time.

Ian looked for local wines to pair with the food he was serving. He met winemakers that would partner with him in a variety of venues and events over the next four decades. Winemaker Gary Eberle who drove often from Paso Robles to the Cambria Coast to dine at Ian’s Restaurant said, “Ian was the first all-star chef to cook in the area.” Chef Ian describes those years saying, “I had the passion and the restaurant kitchen but the learning curve was very steep.”

One of the greatest challenges was sourcing fresh ingredients for the menu. Fruit, vegetable and dairy production thrived in the Salinas and Central Valleys, far from local restaurants in San Luis Obispo County.

Local farmers were focused on growing grains, oats and barley, almonds and walnuts and raising cattle. Many vineyards were being planted by commercial growers to sell grapes to winemakers in Napa and other areas of California. Farmers Howie Steinbeck, Bob Young, and cattleman Jim Sinton made the decision to plant vineyards in 1972 east of Paso Robles. Restauranteur Norman Goss and former Purity Market owner Jack Nevin planted vineyards around the same time in the Edna Valley south of San Luis Obispo. Gary Eberle and his family built the largest modern winery facility in Paso Robles in the early 1970s producing award-winning Cabernets and Chardonnays; many small wineries and privately owned vineyards were established in the early 1980s.

Ian created his menus weekly. Ian began his search for local sources of vegetables and cheeses. His stories of the early days illustrate both Ian’s passion for cooking and the steep learning curve he experienced. Here are some of our favorite stories, as told to the Wine History Project.

Ian tells the story of Chris Coucher, a San Joaquin Valley asparagus grower, who brought a crate of his spring crop to the restaurant. Ian decided to make asparagus soup for the first time, using a recipe from Julia Child’s Cookbook. It tasted terrible. Ian threw it out and tried again. He served the second batch to friends, they described as inedible. Late that night, unable to sleep and upset that half the asparagus had been ruined, Ian consulted the Julia Child cookbook again. He read the chapter on techniques and finally noticed that Julia gave some sage advice that he had overlooked: “never use an aluminum cooking pot when you are cooking asparagus. It will ruin the flavor.”

Ian tells many amusing stories of his search for good quality local ingredients. He enjoyed the challenge! This next story provided Ian with a secret ingredient in his recipes that he uses to this day. One of the first local pioneers in high-quality local food production was Sadie Kendall who was the only person making goat cheese and crème fraiche in the county. She was located in Atascadero. Ian visited her often to purchases cheeses and one day she suggested he buy her crème fraiche. He had no idea how to use it; she told him he could use it in many ways and any sauce you added it to would taste delicious. Ian tells the story that while cooking the meals for a fundraising event, his sauce for the main course began to separate, and looked very unappetizing. At the moment his sauce failing, Sadie’s advice suddenly came to him. He reached into the refrigerator and added Sadie’s Crème Fraiche which restored both the taste and the texture of the sauce. Ian has been using Crème Fraiche in his cooking ever since.

Ian tells wonderful stories of trying to bring ingredients to San Luis Obispo County from other California destinations and the challenges of food delivery. One story is about ordering duck from Sonoma. It came in an iced box by Paso Robles bus station. By the time it arrived at Paso Robles or San Luis Obispo, the package was dripping because the ice was melting and looked rather gross. The Greyhound bus driver helped load the package in Ian’s truck on the first delivery. The second delivery the greyhound driver did not help but just pointed to the heavy soggy package.

Ian tells another story about being inspired by Chef Jerimiah Towers recipe for Wild Boar on a spit. Ian found a source in Salinas and had the boar shipped down from Salinas on the local greyhound bus. When it arrived, the four feet were sticking out of the box. The bus driver looked the other way.

In the 1980s, as Ian selected the wine for the restaurant menu, the movement to support local winemakers was just beginning. Winemakers Gary Eberle and Ken Volk dined often at his restaurant. Gary had founded Eberle Winery and came up with the idea of having wine dinners for customers in the Tasting Room. He hired Ian to prepare the first five dinners he hosted. Ian describes the challenge of serving 48 people with a three burner stove and his own Bar-B-Que equipment that he brought to the site. Wine dinners were soon very popular with many winemakers. Ken Volk and Ian collaborated on doing wine dinners to raise money for local charities. Ken hosted the dinners which had four to five courses and were paired with Wild Horse wines. Ian remembers once event where Ken served three vintages with each of the four courses.

As the years progressed Ian collaborated with and supported more and more local winemakers. Their wines appeared on the menus. Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat produced the house wines.

In 1993, Ian and Dave decided to part ways. Ian was able to purchase a building in Templeton that was in foreclosure. Local friends helped Ian raise the funds to buy the property which is now known as McPhee’s Grill. As soon as Escrow closed, Ian planned to do a quick remodel and open to customers within ten days. He put newspapers on the windows, planning to strip the kitchen overnight under the cover of darkness. When Ian knocked a hole in the wall, he discovered thousands of cockroaches living happily there. The remodel took ten weeks to remove all walls, cockroaches, and appliances and redo the kitchen.

McPhee’s Grill opened as a steakhouse serving steak and fish. Ian designed a new menu each week and he cooked what he wanted to eat. His wife June worked as the Pastry Chef. It became a destination for fine food and has always been operated as a family business. Ian continued to collaborate with local food producers and winemaker to create outstanding food and special events on the Central Coast. Ian and June’s children work in the business today.

Ian has been active in philanthropy since he became a chef. Ian decided not to spend money on advertising McPhee’s Grill but instead to host dinners as fundraisers for local organizations. Ian felt that he wanted to connect and to support local non-profits in his community. He built the support and trust with those in Templeton and throughout the County.

Ian also donated his services to The KCBX Wine Classic, The Central Coast Wine Classic, and The Friends of Hearst Castle to support KCBX radio, local charities, and the State Park, Hearst Castle.

Ian donates part of his profits from McPhee’s Grill to nonprofits. Including The Boys and Girls Clubs of North County, Templeton Education Foundation and Templeton Library Foundation.

The most poignant example of Ian’s generosity involves the local football team. For over 20 years Ian has been preparing and serving steak dinners at McPhee’s for the Templeton Football Team before each home game. Ian grew up playing football and his talent and football scholarship brought him to the Central Coast. He wants the young men to remember the special things about their home-town and that includes the delicious local food they enjoyed during the time they were growing up in Templeton.

In August 2013 Sunset Magazine named McPhee’s Grill in the article about Templeton called “The West’s Best unsung BBQ town.”
To quote Ian, “This is not a job for me – it’s part of my life and my lifestyle. I am so happy to be here and I love what I do.”