By Liane O’Neill
At 18 years old, the future appeared ripe for Mark Estee, the star quarterback at Arlington Catholic High School in Arlington, Mass.
The captain of the football team prepared to enter the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a division 1 school, and set out on a course he seemed predestined to tread upon. “I always thought he’d end up being a teacher of some sort,” said his mother, Sandra Estee. “He always liked history. I thought he’d be a history teacher and then a coach.”
As an infant Mark Estee excelled physically– topping weight and height charts. His abundant energy delighted his parents. “He needed constant stimulation,” Sandra Estee said.“He was a busy boy, he never stopped.”
In elementary school classrooms, his teachers reported that children were drawn to him as a leader. This became a noticeable trend as Mark Estee grew older.
He rose to become the captain of his soccer and basketball teams, but his true passion was football. “He was very competitive,” said Estee’s former assistant football coach, Serge Clivio. “You had to tame him down sometimes, a very outgoing and fun kid.”
During his time at Arlington Catholic High School Estee lead his team to multiple victories including a league title. And in his senior year he represented his school at the Shriners All-Star Football Classic, a prestigious honor. He graduated riding a high.
Through a natural course of events, Mark Estee emerged on of the other side of the school system looking toward college football with upmost confidence.
A Change of Pace Two years into his college career, Mark Estee asked for his parent’s permission to drop out. His golden dreams of UMass football had been checked by reality. He spent his freshman and sophomore years watching players accomplish what he could not.
Mark Estee’s interest in traditional school waned as his field time dwindled. He told his parents that he wanted to enroll in culinary school. “My family was really surprised because back then in ‘88, ‘89 it’s not cool to be a chef,” Mark Estee said. “Now it’s like everyone and their mother wants to be a chef.
They’re like rock stars. Well, when I started it was $8 an hour and you were looked on as a peon in our society.” His father, Kevin Estee agreed to accept this new career path with one condition. “Go get a job in a restaurant and get into it, because I want you to know exactly what you’re getting into. It’s not all a bed of roses.”
“Never did I think he would end up on the course he’s taken,” Sandra Estee said. But she hedged a bet that he may have been influenced by his family background; in particular by a great-grandmother who had been an excellent cook. “I’m Greek descent. And everything in our family has been based around the table and gathering and getting together.”
Sandra Estee is familiar with risk. Mother to three children, and an entrepreneur, she entered into her first business venture at age 33 with her best friend.
Together they opened one of the few woman owned businesses of the time— a telephone answering agency. Sandra Estee and her partner traded off work schedules so they could both be home to care for their children. Kevin Estee, an accountant, would cook family meals on the weekends in order to relieve his wife.
His son, Mark, was a loyal taste-tester at his side. “At a young age he had a good palette,” Kevin Estee said. “I don’t think I ever taught him anything, except he realized that men could be productive in the kitchen.” As a freshman in high school, Mark Estee got his first job working as a dishwasher at the local ‘greasy spoon’ owned by one of his friend’s parents. He found himself cooking for girlfriends
and watching gourmet culinary shows on PBS. The night prior to the first football game of the season, Kevin and Sandra Estee would invite the entire team to their home for a spaghetti dinner. Mark Estee did a majority of the preparation and cooking for these occasions himself. “I was just enamored with that all,” Estee said.“When the football dreams started to dissipate, being a chef was sort of a continuation of that,” Kevin Estee said.
Labors of Success Estee took his father’s advice upon leaving Amherst and worked as a salad chef at a pizzeria while he attended classes at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I. After graduation, he moved to Boston and began working as a chef for the Hyatt Corporation under mentor Eric Howson.
In 1996, Howson relocated to the Lone Eagle Grill in Incline Village, Nev. to accept an executive chef position. Mark Estee followed in suit, and moved across the United States to join his mentor at the Hyatt property restaurant. He quickly climbed in the ranks to the level of executive sous chef of the entire Hyatt property.
“I was the youngest cook in the kitchen, never mind I was the youngest chef,” Mark Estee said. At the peak of this accomplishment he gazed out at the horizon and decided it was time to move on. Following a series of short stints at restaurants along the west coast, Mark Estee settled in Truckee, California, and in the true fashion of his mother’s entrepreneurial spirit, he and several partners opened Moody’s Bistro and Lounge in 2002.
“I really started to think I made an impact when I opened Moody’s,” Mark Estee said. “As an owner you get the chance to make an impact. As a cook working for someone else I did consider myself making an impact, but I was still earning and it was still up to them to make all decisions.
Customers flocked to the restaurant as its reputation for fresh and local Northern California cuisine spread like wildfire. Although Mark Estee celebrates his first venture with fond memories, he admits to some novice mistakes that he regrets. “All I cared about was the food.
I didn’t pay attention to everything that was going on around me,” Mark Estee said. After 8 years at Moody’s, Mark Estee decided to transition out of the business. He was searching for something new and different. And that’s when he met Aly Digesti.
Something New The couple was paired up on a double date in 2009. Digesti had recently returned to her hometown Reno, Nevada after a 10 year absence to discover much had changed. “My best friend at the time was dating a guy by the name of Andrew,” Aly Estee said.
“She texted me ‘Hey, do you want to go up to the lake tonight? Andrew’s friend is going to cook dinner and we’re going to go to Shakespeare on the beach.’” After much persuasion, she reluctantly agreed to go on the date and meet Mark Estee. “I didn’t know anything about him,” Digesti said.
“I knew of his restaurant because it was my mom’s favorite, but I had never been.” In retrospect, she appreciates knowing little about Mark Estee’s celebrity status. “I think if I’d known who he was maybe I would have changed my initial perception of him. In that respect it was really cool because I was actually able to meet him and have this interaction with him on a level that is completely different than who he is professionally and in the media.”
Mark Estee and Andrew had planned to host dinner on Mark Estee’s boat in Tahoe, but when the weather began to deteriorate, the couples decided to dine on the beach. Mark Estee prepared dinner on a warped tree stump. Digesti noticed that he gave attention to every minute detail of the meal.
“He had complimented everything with wine and champagne,” Digesti said. “We ended up having this amazing dinner on the beach.” Later in the evening the couples went to a Shakespeare play.
As soon as they walked in to the amphitheater, Digesti noticed heads turning in their direction. “I remember as we were walking I heard these girls and they’re like ‘Oh my God, that’s Mark Estee. Who’s that girl he’s with?,’” Digesti said. “So I grabbed my friend and went to the bathroom and started Googling him.”
The first article she read was a frivolous interview that Mark had done for a lesbian lifestyle magazine– “Tahoe Truckee’s most Eligible and Sought-After Bachelor.” Digesti laughed.
“His answers were so dumb. So, then I started reading different articles and it hit me.
Oh, this guy is really someone.” But the initial interaction had already sparked a flame. “I was like wow, this chick is pretty cool,” Mark Estee said. “I was surprised.” “We just connected, we met,” Digesti said.
“Neither of us was really looking for it. I knew that first night we met that he was going to be the person who I was going to marry.” They were engaged four and a half months later, and Aly Digesti is now Aly Estee.
A Day in the Life At 6 a.m. a lone alarm bleats in the Estee household. It is time for the day to begin. Mark Estee quietly prepares to leave, careful not to wake his sleeping wife and son.
Stepping outside, he closes the front door, gets into his car, and drives away; sometimes taking a short detour to the gym, but always at home base by 7:30 a.m. Campo time.
“I wake up every day and thank God for what I have,” Estee said. “I come in and I try to work harder than I did the day before; I try to make people hap- pier than I did the day before.”
Mark Estee walks into his restaurant. The tables and bar are empty, but in the back the kitchen is alive with sound. Vigilant cooks are busy chopping and slicing– preparing for the day ahead. Mark Estee checks in and consults a preparation list. Satisfied, he walks into his office to review a day ahead full of appointments and projects.
Mere blocks away, Aly Estee, rises to dress and feed their 15 month-year-old son, Enzo Estee. Mother and child set off, falling into a schedule of their own. Activities like Gymboree and swimming frame their days. A nanny interrupts the weekly rhythm of routine to watch Enzo Estee for a few hours a week, giving Aly Estee time to run errands and go to the gym.
And on Wednesdays, Mark Estee comes home to play with his son while Aly Estee relaxes. “When he walks through that door, he immediately falls into the role of dad,” Aly Estee said. “Enzo gets the biggest smile on his face and runs up to him. To me it’s like ‘My husband— he’s sexy he’s got it.’” “I love it, everyday he’s something new,” Mark Estee said. Aly Estee watches the two carouse in amusement. “He comes up with the most fun things to do, and Enzo mimics everything he does,” Aly Estee said.
At the end of the day Aly Estee and Enzo Estee sit down for a family meal. Meanwhile, Mark Estee has his hands full at Campo, ensuring his restaurant is running smoothly in its busiest hour. Sometimes the family will FaceTime over dinner.
Aly Estee supplements the many pictures she has sent to her husband throughout the day with excited accounts of what new and wonderful thing Enzo Estee has accomplished. “She is terrific,” Kevin Estee said. “Mark has so little time and Aly is just in touch with Enzo.”
At 11 p.m. the front door opens and then shuts. Mark Estee’s footsteps resound throughout the house. The day is over. In a few hours it will start again. While Aly Estee has come to expect a daily lack of certainty, she sometimes reflects on what a life of normalcy would be like. “I never expected it to be like this,” Aly Estee said.
“I always knew he was going to be successful, but when we opened up Campo I never expected it to be like it is now. “Family events and stuff that most people take for granted— he doesn’t know what that is. He doesn’t know what it’s like to go to swim class or go to Gymboree.
He doesn’t know what it’s like to sit down and have a family dinner, or wake up and see your son, or wake up and see your wife. “It’s funny because people are like ‘You own your own restaurants. You must have tons of time to spend together.’ I never really see my husband.”
A self-described workaholic, Mark Estee admits that his work schedule is nothing like the typical American nine to five. “That’s not even who I am. I wouldn’t even know what that’s
like. I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d have to be a new person. I’m not going to apologize for who I am.” Campo even has its place on Sunday mornings when Mark Estee takes off work to spend time with Enzo and Aly Estee. Mark Estee bundles up his son early in the morning and the two leave the house, tracing a familiar path.
They walk towards downtown Reno, pausing to purchase a New York Times and a Chronicle. Then they continue to the park, inevitably passing Campo on the way.
A Championship a Day “I think he married his love of food with his love of being on a team, and that’s pretty much what got him there,” Kevin Estee said. “It’s that determination to get the job done, to do something extra special, to make tonight’s meal just a little bit better, to add something that we didn’t have yesterday.”
“Awesome guy to work for,” said Campo chef Luis Fragoso. “Always encouraging you to do bigger things.” It’s been more than 25 years since Mark Estee retired from the football field, but he still walks into Campo every morning with the attitude that it’s game day.
“Just keeps the motivation going here,” said Debbie Reetz, Campo pastry chef. Perhaps it’s the look of pure enthusiasm in Mark Estee’s eyes, maybe it’s the positive spin he puts on every new day at Campo, but ask his employees and family and you will find that many have had the pleasure of conversing with the captain of the Arlington Catholic High School football team.
Liane O’Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.