6 Questions with Mark Estee

What sparked your passion for thinking and cooking ‘local’?

My passion for the local food movement is something that I hang my hat on. But you know, I went to Chez Panisse with Alice Waters in Berkeley back in the late 1990s, and she asked me where I got my food from. And I was like, I don’t know, the produce guy, the meat guy, the fish guy. And she asked me, why don’t you know any local farms or farmers or ranchers in your area? So I started asking those questions. And fast forward, here we are almost 25 years later. And this local concept is what I’ve built my company on. It’s something really close to me. It’s something I will be involved with for the next, you know, until the day I die.

Grandmother’s cooking, what does that mean in your restaurants?

Grandmother’s cooking, to me, is creating those memories that you had as a child. Not everything has to be so fancy, right? You can make an old dish and turn something that might have been a forgotten ingredient, into a memory that’s inspires people to connect to that dish. I mean, for the most part, you go to a restaurant, everything should be delicious, right? But how do you connect with a customer, how do I connect with you as the chef and the owner.

Not every dish can be an emotional roller coaster, right? You need a few things that are familiar. A Caesar salad that is just delicious, and it’s familiar. But you know, my grandmother’s braised short ribs might be a little different with the cinnamon and tomato and the Greek style. My grandmother’s cuisine is always something for me to make connections, new and old.

Your show “Undercover Chef” tackles why restaurants fail to thrive. What is a common misconception about running a successful restaurant?

People think they can get by with just passion to run a successful restaurant or a cool idea. And part of that is true, you definitely need passion, and you definitely need something that’s unique and cool and that you really love to do.

But the hardest thing to know in a restaurant is—it’s a day to day operation, it’s the daily grind that makes you successful or not. And I’m a big believer in systems, the systems to look into it every day. My heart tells me that it’s going well, but my gut tells me that it’s wrong, right? And really what happens is the bank account tells you is this successful or not. Can you afford to keep this thing open? Can you afford to close it down? Can you know what’s happening from the business side? I think that people forget the business side needs to be there. You have to be able to be quick on your feet. Things change on a daily basis. So to be able to read that and see that is, I think, the secret sauce.

Describe yourself in three words.

Unfinished. Passionate. And energetic love. They all work so well together. Yeah, right. Big mess!

What inspires you to create?

I’m really driven by seasonal cooking, by what I see, by what’s right at hand. I’m not somebody who walks in with an idea and says, ‘I’m going to cook this.’ I might think I know what I want to do. But really, I love being inspired by what I see. And by creating something new, our riff of a memory, or a riff of something that maybe someone else has done. I’m inspired by experimenting, making different flavors go together. I’m also inspired by simplicity. You know, how can I really boil it down? What’s the most simple thing I can do?

What gets you most excited about Piedmont?

I love Italian cooking. I love Italian cuisine. I love Italian people. I love the region. I love how small, and how big, it feels at the same time. And I’m excited. I’ve been to Italy many times, but Piedmont is a new region for me. So I’m excited to get out and experience the food and the ingredients in a region that’s new to me. And doing this all together. It’s an adventure, you know, we’re going on an adventure together. You’ll just be seeing me and my whole entire unkept, unfinished big mess kind of way in a place I love.