Longtime Pismo Beach chef and restauranteur Doug MacMillan didn’t choose cooking as his life’s work. He was born into it.
His wife, Shannon, on the other hand, married into the restaurant industry when she and MacMillan said, ‘I do.’
And for the past two-plus decades, the couple have helped run a successful, family-owned restaurant Rosa’s—given countless volunteer hours to their community, raised thousands of dollars for the Lucia Mar Unified School District, awarded numerous scholarships to high school seniors and recently opened a second restaurant, Ada’s Fish House.
The new restaurant, at 558 Price Street, Pismo Beach is a nod to MacMillan’s dad’s Bostonian heritage. Bill MacMillan, who died in 2013, was born in Boston and met his wife, Rosa “Ada,” when she emigrated by boat from Italy to the Massachusetts city. She died in 2006. The pair worked at Rosa’s till their deaths.
“We do have an East Coast theme (at Ada’s) because my parents were from the East Coast,” MacMillan said. “We have long ties to Boston, relatives there. So we wanted to bring a little bit of the East Coast here.”
MacMillan’s parents opened Rosa’s in downtown Pismo Beach in September 1988, relocating from the San Joaquin Valley where he was born. The first Rosa’s opened in Visalia in the late 1960s. The family owns seven restaurants, mostly in the Valley and most named Rosa’s.
“I didn’t have a choice. I was always in a restaurant since I can remember,” MacMillan said when asked about his decision to pursue becoming a chef.
As a child, he and his sister, Helen, would make their way to their parents’ restaurant after school, where the two would do their homework at the eatery’s booths. MacMillan also washed dishes and vacuumed in the mornings.
“On the weekends, I would make the pastas with my mom,” he said. “At a younger age, of course, I wouldn’t lift the pots, but I would section the pasta so she could make the manicotti. I would organize the strips. Six hundred, that’s a lot of work. So, I would always be there.”
He added, “We just worked. It’s weird. My mom would say, ‘This is going to be yours one day.’ Every day something would change and we’d just step in.”
MacMillan began actively cooking at Rosa’s at 491 Price Street in Pismo Beach, shortly after his parents opened the doors. He left his studies at the University of San Diego to return to the Central Coast to help run the restaurant. He was 19.
“I cooked but I really started cooking when we opened this,” MacMillan said about those early days in the kitchen at Rosa’s.
When he was 24, his parents sent him to northern Italy to study under Chef Enzo Penilli. It was during his apprenticeship that he learned to cook food specific to the northern region of the country, where butter, sauces and rice are dish highlights.
“We figured we had the southern all wrapped up,” MacMillan said with a laugh, referring to his mom’s roots in southern Italy, where tomatoes and basil are abundant and key ingredients of that region’s food.
Although he didn’t expand much, MacMillan said what he learned most while studying abroad was his mom’s words of wisdom were correct.
“I think the most important thing I learned was that my mom knew what she was talking about,” MacMillan said. “I went all the way there to learn that. And that’s true because you don’t want to listen to your parents … and you better believe that I when I got back I paid a little closer attention to her.”
Shannon, who grew up in San Luis Obispo and graduated SLO High School, met MacMillan at Rosa’s. They were 27. He was cooking in the kitchen alongside his parents and she was eating four-cheese pizza in the restaurant’s nook area. The pair bumped into each other over the next few months, dated and have been married for the last 21 years.
“She never remembers the anniversaries. I have to,” MacMillan said, smiling with his trademark grin, when the couple was asked how long they had been married.
At the beginning of their relationship, Shannon worked the front of the house at Rosa’s with her in-laws, eventually stepping back from the business when the couple started their family. They have two children: Brianna, 20, and Nicholas, 15.
Asked if she ever envisioned running a restaurant before she met Mac- Millan, Shannon said she didn’t, although she had 10 years of working in the back office at F. McLintock’s Saloon & Dining House in Shell Beach under her belt when the two met.
“To answer your question, no, I didn’t,” she said. “But I love it. It’s fun.”
For seven years, Shannon helped organize and pull off The Martini Shakedown fundraiser at Rosa’s benefitting the Lucia Mar School Dis- trict. The event raised more than $40,000 during its run. She now heads Ada’s, with the help of her chef husband, of course, although he’s quick to point out who’s the boss.
“The best part of this place is having her so involved,” MacMillan said, looking across the street at the family’s namesake restaurant. “I consider that (Rosa’s) my place and this her place. (She) stocked all the wines, does the menu planning, designed the menu. We did it together, but she’s the one who did it.”
He added, “I don’t do anything here without passing it by her. At Rosa’s, I don’t get her checks. Here, this is hers.”
About opening Ada’s, Shannon added, “He would look over here, see an empty restaurant and it was just calling him. (Rosa’s) kind of runs itself. We just wanted a new adventure.”
“Everybody was sort of catering to the tourists, and we wanted to be something for the locals,” Shannon said about Ada’s, where fresh fish that’s not fried tops the menu, along with steak, chicken, and salads. “And we have done that … with the food that we put out. Everything is fresh and a reasonable [price]. We have created an atmosphere where it’s comfortable and not too fancy.”
There’s a sign on the front door of the restaurant that reads, “Flip flops and tank tops welcome.”
“We didn’t have anything like this, where people can walk up from the beach in their flip flops and have a fish sandwich, fresh,” MacMillan said. “We are ordering fish all week long. There is no compromise on freshness here. I guess if we had a motto here it would be, ‘Simple and fresh.’ Traditional, simple and fresh.”
An example is the lobster roll served at Ada’s. Fresh Maine lobster is cooked every day for the dish that’s made from hot lobster, butter, and bread, just like it’s served on the East Coast.
“It’s a traditional lobster roll,” MacMillan said, adding with a laugh that it was Shannon’s decision to stick with a traditional recipe and if he had any say, it would have been “over-chefed.”
“You think I did this menu because I am the chef?” He asked rhetorically. “No, she did this menu. If I did the lobster roll, I would have added a whole bunch of (ingredients) to it. People are thanking and complimenting me for keeping it simple.”
MacMillan views his restaurants as family ventures; places that provide jobs for locals and family members and a possible future for his kids and his sister’s kids.
“You have to understand that some people who have a restaurant (believe), ’It’s mine,’” he said. “I have never been trained like that. The restaurant is just somewhere we go and work, and if there’s a little money left over, we share. If you have family members that want to come work with you, you all work together. It’s not like this is yours. No, it’s my family’s.”
In addition to teaching him his way around the kitchen and how to run a restaurant, MacMillan’s parents also taught him the importance of community and giving back, which he and Shannon have done and continue to embrace.
After The Martini Shakedown fundraiser ran its course, the MacMillans started a scholarship at Arroyo Grande High School, where two high school seniors enrolled in the school’s culinary program are awarded $1,000 each. The scholarships are given in MacMillan’s parents’ names.
“I get to go to the school on scholarship night in my chef’s coat and had out checks,” MacMillan said. “I also give them a set of knives; its kind of fun. My mom always said to be in the community you have to be involved.”
MacMillan was also a driving force behind the creation of the culinary program, where he taught classes last year. His schedule is keeping him out the classroom currently, as he’s also the junior varsity soccer coach at AGHS and has coached AYSO, club and high school soccer for 30 years.
“If I had my way and I had enough time, I would teach culinary at the high school. That would be a dream of mine,” MacMillan said.
Asked about any retirement plans, the MacMillans—both are in their early 50s—answered with a resounding, “No.”
“There’s nothing concrete, but we know there are still more things we want to do,” Shannon said. “We are not done.”
“My parents didn’t retire,” MacMillan said. “They died doing this and I will die doing this. I am not going anywhere. What am I going to do?”