3205 E. Camelback Road • tarbells.com
For almost three decades, Chef Mark Tarbell has served dishes at his namesake restaurant,
Tarbell’s – and it all started with a book he received at age 14. He’s worked every facet of the industry and it’s evident that whatever Chef Tarbell does, he does it with passion and love for his craft.
What was it that cemented your desire to become a chef?
When I was young, I was given a copy of Jacques Pépin’s La Technique, which runs through a lot of different classical French techniques, and I dove into it. What I didn’t know then – what I know now – is that I have this “gift,” ADD, so I was hyper-focused, and it felt good to me.
In high school, I was a dishwasher. This might sound a little disgusting, but at the place I worked, the owner would let the dishwashers eat whatever came off the plate, and the chefs and cooks made their own food. And I thought, ‘well, that’s a big difference, and I like to eat, so I’m going to be a chef so I can make my own dinner.’ There wasn’t really a path to being a chef at that time, so it was purely a love for it. About four months into my apprenticeship [in Holland] at 19, I knew I wanted to have my own place. I haven’t done anything outside of the industry in my career – that’s a long time [laughs].
Did you have a favorite position while moving up in the industry?
Being an expo in the kitchen, as a chef on the line is one of my favorites because you’re both cooking and communicating with the kitchen and the front of the house. You have to be succinct and positive in a way that doesn’t debilitate the rhythm. Running the door on a crazy night is awesome – the same deal as the kitchen, except you have a lot of people with high expectations wearing nice clothes.
Where are you originally from?
I was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and moved here in 1986. My internship was in the early 80s in Amsterdam. Then I went to culinary school and wine school in Paris, and worked as a chef in three separate places.
What was it like working in Europe?
It was great. My apprenticeship was with a chef who was in the last part of his career – he was old school. He was intense, tough and standards-driven. And scary for some people. Culinary school was great because – even though the chefs were very demanding – they were also very supportive if you put in the effort.
Taillevent [a three-star restaurant in France] was the quietest, cleanest, most disciplined kitchen I’ve ever worked in – a fantastic place. In the one-star restaurant I worked in, the chef was…crazy. One day, he kicked another apprentice down the stairs. He was intense and had a temper. But that’s just an individual – that’s not the French way.
After Europe, where did you go?
I went from France to Boston and was a sous chef and chef at a wine bar. It was interesting because wine bars were brand new back in the early 80s. I also worked at a bakery, and as a baker, I worked all the time. We supplied all the bread to the top restaurants in the area.
I taught wine classes at the University of New Hampshire. I was briefly a pastry chef, which wasn’t my talent, but I wanted to stretch myself and understand that position. I was a very busy guy – I always have been.
What can folks find at Tarbell’s?
Our hope and prayer is that we’re like a club without dues. A neighborhood restaurant with friends from all over the nation, and when they come here, this is their spot. Our door says, “welcome home.” As far as food – there are two sides to what we do here.
We’ve developed a lot of home runs; things people attach themselves to. I take what I’ve learned and apply it to American classics with a Mediterranean base. With seasonal things, we take that and be creative. We get to play with it. But you’ll always be able to get the scotch beef – from here on out. We use the highest cuts of beef; it takes four days to make the reduction sauce; everything is done at a high level.
Tell us about The Wine Store.
I’ve been here for a number of years, and for a while, next door was Sportsman’s. It was the number one food, wine, and spirits shop in Arizona for years. The Fines owned it – they were extraordinary retailers and neighbors. It was sold to the Basha family, and they decided not to continue with it, so it was left empty.
My landlord threatened to turn it into something really horrible [laughs], and I took the bait. I opened it seven years ago. I kept the DNA and made it 1/3 wine and spirits store. It’s a hospitality-driven experience with wine from all over the world and a section dedicated to Arizona, of course. Arizona wines are extraordinary and will continue to be.
You started wine school as a hobby?
When I was in culinary school in Paris, some friends decided to take classes at Academie du Vin, so I went with them. It was great. When I first started, I felt bad because I didn’t know what people were talking about; all these people in this room saying, ‘oh, this tastes like gooseberry with a fringe of blackcurrant,’ and I’m like, ‘are they making this up?’
I went through a process of feeling lost, but I just kept working at it – and by working, I mean I kept drinking wine [laughs] – and eventually the synapses in your brain connect and it’s like learning a language.
Tell us about one of the nonprofits you work with.
There are so many, but the one that’s most present is C-CAP – Careers through Culinary Arts Program. These are high school programs with instructors and students who do extraordinary things. It teaches life skills, partnerships, competitions and mentoring.
A lot of students come out of these programs with increased skill sets and exposure. They go off to do other things, which is encouraged, or they may find themselves in the culinary/hospitality world. Last May, we awarded $1.6 million to students in Arizona. It’s a really robust program that has a direct impact. We now have over 60 high schools that participate.
In October, we hosted a party with music from Nate Nathan and the Mac Daddy O’s. Thirty high schools and their culinary students came out and showcased their dishes. We had 450 people come out and so many great sponsors. So, that’s just one of the nonprofits – but I’m not passionate about that at all [he says with a wink].
What awards or recognitions have you received?
This is a tough question because the way I’m wired is that yesterday is gone and today is here – the future is uncertain. I’m saying this because I’m trying to buy time – I can’t remember what awards I’ve won [laughs].
I work with PBS, and I’ve won five Emmys with the work I’ve done there. Check, Please and Plate and Pour are shows that celebrate Arizona’s culinary talent and hospitality – a celebration of all the crazy good stuff going on here. I also won the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame for media and for chef.
Do you consider yourself a television personality?
I mean – I guess. I am the host of a show – I’ve been on television a lot; I’ve been blessed with that. In 1995, the producers at Channel 3 asked me to be the resident chef, and I did that for 13 years. I was there every day, and then at the end, I was there twice a month. I competed on Iron Chef and won. I don’t know about television personality, though. I’ve won some Emmys for it, so someone out there thinks I am!
What was Iron Chef like?
It was nerve-wracking – you’re competing with a chance of losing on a national program that happens to be the number one show on cable in 2007. It’s putting yourself out there, and I’m not so good at that – I like to compete as long as no one gets harmed. My team was Jim Gallen, who’s over at Mountain Shadows and Paul Steele, who’s at a club in the east valley. We trained for six weeks and bought all the same equipment that they had on set. I wanted to remove some of the stressors of the competition. We were the only ones to win that season; we threaded the needle and got really lucky!
What do you love most about the industry?
This will sound obvious, but I love people. I’m blessed with that. It’s an intense environment with both the staff and the guests that come in. All humans are different and have different needs, so to be able to weave that all into a great experience for everyone is challenging but rewarding.
Have there been any cooking techniques that have surprised you?
When I was young, it all seemed like magic, you know? As an apprentice, I worked with this Chinese couple that ran a garde-manger in a hotel – they did all the displays for the buffets. They would carve the most beautiful swans out of melons and roses out of tomatoes, and all of this was like magic to me.
Fast forward – restaurants are making these amazing dishes where something turns into something else, balloons filled with the smoke of parmesan – all this magic with new technology. I’ve never endeavored to do that, but places that do it at a high level – it’s so cool.
What’s your favorite thing to cook?
I like either slow or really fast cooking. That’s one of the reasons I gravitated toward the scotch-beef dish – the pot roast. You do it for eight hours overnight with the right aromatics; it just comes out great. Also, anything that’s quick and sensitive, like fish. It’s varied in its cooking time; halibut is different than sole. It goes from yummy and moist to dry in a snap. I like baking bread, too. When I read that great bakers don’t use recipes, I was like, ‘yeah, I can do that.’
Do you have a favorite restaurant in Arizona?
So many! I like Mexican food – there’s a big future for Mexican food in general because it’s so diverse and complex; lots of influences. It’d be anything from Taco Chelo downtown, Madrigal in south phoenix, CRUjiente – but, hey, I’ve been known to have late-night Filiberto’s, too.
When you’re not at work, what are you doing?
I’m eating! I fasted once for five days and what I realized – which was shocking, scary and a teeny bit depressing – was that I had absolutely nothing to do. I’m either thinking about food, making food, eating food or thinking about what I’m going to make and eat next. When I fasted, there was just this huge vacancy. I don’t fast anymore. Other than that, I love the outdoors, camping, hiking, stuff like that.
I have a number of years left here at Tarbell’s, so at this point, I’m just paying it forward, passing it on, developing as many young people as I can and giving them the tools they need to understand what it takes to go into this business. That’s important to me.