Ai LIVE: Chef Mark Estee talks restaurants and leadership
In today’s edition of Ai LIVE, host E. Vincent Martinez talks with the energetic and passionate Chef Mark Estee. Estee is no stranger to success, having been nominated for the James Beard Award, was awarded Best New Restaurant by Esquire, and has been on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel. For the show “Undercover Chef,” Estee joined the crew of a struggling restaurant and went behind the scenes to see what was going on. Once he revealed himself as a professional chef, he got to work implementing practices that serve both the customer and the business. As he tells Martinez, there were no actors, which makes his role on the show all the more genuine. For him, the greatest reward was watching the restaurant make a comeback and be successful.
Estee describes his personal “secret sauce” for success as creating an environment of learning, caring, and respect for everyone he works with. Whether they are customers or employees, they belong to the culture of Estee’s restaurants. He notes that because the culinary industry is always changing and in flux, “If you don’t have a culture…you’ll fail.” Nowhere was this attitude evident than when the pandemic first hit. Estee tells Martinez the struggle he and his restaurants faced, and their decision to be community leaders. He describes it as doubling down on their community and gain social capital rather than currency. Even with a reduced capacity and staff, Estee sought ways to give back to the community. Three food delivery programs were established: “Delivery with Dignity” which sent meals to those with COVID concerns; “Feed our Heroes” provided hospital and medical personnel with food; and Nevada HIP (Hospitality Industry Partnerships), which gave individuals working in hotels meals. Estee wanted his restaurants to be leaders in what to do during times of crisis. “When it gets tougher, we need to lead more.”
Part of his leadership involves Estee working alongside his employees in the kitchen or even taking out the trash. He pays attention to what’s going on in the business, listens to his customers, and provides tools for the success of his staff. By doing so, Estee gets to see one of his favorite things: people becoming better than him at his job.
His advice to any new student looking to join the culinary arts is to take time out and make a plan, not just in a professional sense, but also in a personal sense as well. This plan isn’t rigid and immovable, but flexible. “The thing that is most difficult, or the things that make you the most uncomfortable, are the things I suggest you lean into.” These plans, according to Estee, help when times get hard.
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