Chef Spotlight: Mark Estee, Reno Chef & Restaurateur

By Lila Asnani, Foodable Contributor

Chef Mark Estee  | Credit: Jamie Kingham

Chef Mark Estee | Credit: Jamie Kingham

Earlier this week, we spoke with Chef Mark Estee, a restaurateur and entrepreneur, who is from Boston but who now happily calls Reno home. Estee owns and operates eight restaurants in the Reno and Lake Tahoe regions. He is also a community leader who is deeply involved with nonprofits in the area.

Join us as we discover, below, how Estee is taking on the Reno culinary scene and what he has learned in the past 10+ years of being an operator:

Foodable: How and why did you get started in the culinary field?

Mark Estee: I went to a typical college for 3 years trying to be a football star/history teacher and then decided to go to Johnson and Wales culinary school in Providence, RI from 1991-93. 

I knew I had made the right decision because I loved what I was doing. I love that the culinary field changes everyday. It challenges me and my team constantly. We have a great network of people. We all have our jobs and we rely on each other. We’re a family and we hold each other accountable.

In the kitchen  | Credit: Jamie Kingham

In the kitchen | Credit: Jamie Kingham

Foodable: Describe your food.  

ME: “Rustic Elegance” is the word we like to use. We like to make simple food that celebrates the items that come from our farmers and ranchers.

Foodable: Why do you have so many different types of restaurants? (French, rustic Italian, burgers and a cafeteria/retail outlet)

ME: Reno and Lake Tahoe is an emerging market and having different concepts means that we don’t have to compete with ourselves. We’re able to give our guests a nice selection and it keeps it fun and different for me and shows that we have skills in all areas.

Foodable: What are some of the business philosophies that you have incorporated into your restaurant?

ME: We use open book management. We have all our managers and employees engaged, not only in service and food, but also engagement in higher levels — in books and how the business is running. I also believe in visioning, having a concept and a mission statement. 

We strive to create a culture of caring, learning and respect for all our employees, managers and partners in line with our mission statement: “We treat others as we want to be treated. We have respect for our products, our people, our guests and our community.” These two business principles have helped us to be successful.

Foodable: You opened your first restaurant, Moody’s, in 2002. How has your cuisine evolved?

ME: I didn’t use all the tools that I have now. I learned along the way the best way to run a business, manage a team, use the financials to guide what we do, and still put service and quality of food as the number one goal to have. Cuisine-wise, we continue to explore and push for more local produce and meat from the farmers and ranchers here in Reno.  

Foodable: Where does your menu inspiration come from?

ME: We do a lot of reading, research and testing. We change menus everyday and I call it turning the model upside-down. I don’t call and say give me A, B and C. I call and say, ‘what do you have?,’ and that’s what I buy. I work with the local farmers and ranchers and adapt the menu to what’s available.  


Foodable: What are some of the challenges of opening a restaurant in Reno? 

ME: People don’t think of great food when they think of Reno so we’re working hard to put Reno on the map. Reno has always cared about where its food comes from. We have people who really believe and live that way. People who care about using less of the resources, eating more seasonally and locally, and asking those (sustainability) questions, and it shows because we have 27 farmers markets and a 10,000-square-foot food co-op.  

Foodable: Why is the sustainability movement important to you?

ME: We’re put in the place of feeding people and promoting the products that we have, and the more that I can do to move the dial with local food and ranchers, the better off that my business becomes. It’s important to me personally for my own kids and the over 250 employees who work for us. It’s not just a fad for us; we believe in it and we believe in making a positive impact on the community.   

Foodable: Why did you open Reno Provisions, your cafeteria and market retail outlet?

ME: It is a dream spot come true. It also includes a demonstration kitchen, events, butcher shop, pastry, and pasta and bread production facility. We do farmer and rancher spotlights monthly at Provisions and give them an opportunity to do cooking classes.  

I wanted to put my money where my mouth was and show that we could do something innovative. Reno Provisions uses vertical integration (when a company combines two or more stages of production normally run by separate companies). It was a chance to create the food that we make and make it accessible to as many people as possible. It’s my version of an inexpensive way to eat our quality food. 

Foodable: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

ME: I see myself being in Reno and mentoring the next group of young chefs and restaurateurs — more in the role of a founder/teacher. I hope I will have opportunities and more time for TV. I would like to open a restaurant in Boston and I have always dreamed of opening a restaurant in Mexico; Campo and Cabo would be fun!

Estee is well on his way of achieving his dream. In 2012, his rustic Italian restaurant in Reno, Campo, was named as one of Esquire magazine’s “Best New Restaurants in America.” Estee was selected as a James Beard semi-finalist for “Best Chef: West” in 2013. He was also chosen as “Entrepreneur of the Year” by the Reno Gazette Journal in 2013.