The Man Behind the Food

On a typical day, Chef Mark Tarbell is up bright and early.

“I’m up with the sun, then take care of any needs from the day before and get the new day started. I check in with my longtime business manager Anne Ballman, then I take a hike or chillax, then the daily meetings and restaurant activities start. I usually finish between 10 or 12 and like to cap off the night with some good wine and reading,” he says.

Mark is known for his locations in the Valley—Tarbell’s, Tarbell’s Tavern and The Wine Store, and his cooking television skills have garnered him numerous awards. The restaurants have won over 50 Best Of awards, he’s a two-time inductee to the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame, Tarbell’s won Best Restaurant from Food & Wine, he was nominated for a James Beard Award, he was a winner on Iron Chef America, he was named 40 under 40, and he was recently inducted into the 40 under 40 Hall of Fame—to name just a few.

Oh, and he recently won an Emmy Award for his show, Plate & Pour.

“This [show] has been a blast,” he says. “I get to work with the best people in TV, and it’s an honor. The show was created with the mission I’ve longed to fulfill and that is to highlight all the wonderful chefs, distillers, brewers and winemakers in Arizona and the Southwest. We journey around the state looking for people and their stories. We believe that Arizona is on the cusp of having its greatness known worldwide. This show, which launched in January, aspires to take a small part in furthering the good message.”

Mark says he loves to travel and interview and cook with the chefs and craftsmen around the state, and that hearing their stories fascinates and amazes him.

As for the Emmy, he says, “Winning an Emmy a huge honor and that it’s a team win all the better. For me personally, it’s something I never imagined I would be a part of.”

Mark first became interested in cooking as a child.

“I was drawn to cooking at an early age because I loved to eat,” he says. “My mom was always cooking, and until I was 10 years old, she made fresh bread every day. The aroma of fresh, hot baked bread is magical. When came out of the oven piping hot I’d slice off the end piece and slather butter on it—ahhh.”

He was born in New Hampshire, and spent his formative years first in Amsterdam, Holland and then Paris.

At age 15, he purchased a cookbook called La Technique by Jacques Pepin and “poured through it with enthusiasm.”

He was hooked. Mark began cooking for friends and family. Later, he landed a one-year European apprenticeship at the Sonesta Hotel in Amsterdam, Holland. After that, he was accepted to École de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, and while there, he worked as an apprentice in a 1-star Michelin restaurant named Michel Pasquet and a 3-star Michelin restaurant named Taillevent, and later did a stint at Willy’s Wine Bar as a bar back and cook.

“After Paris, I worked as a sous chef at The Oracle House, a sous chef and briefly chef of a restaurant in Cambridge outside of Boston, a pastry chef and later chef at a large Inn in New Hampshire,” he shares. “At this point, I knew I wanted to own a restaurant and yet knew nothing about service, so with the help of my mentor James Nassikas, I went West!”

In addition to his food and pastry background, he also had a wine background, having attended l’Acadamie du Vin while in Paris.

Mark moved to Arizona to work at The Boulders Resort, where he spent eight years. In 1994, he opened Tarbell’s.

Of his favorite foods to cook, he says, “I love to cook all manner of vegetables and fish. Each have so many opportunities to create nuance. They are the most alive and require great sensitivity.”

Another thing he likes to cook? Pudding. Specifically pudding for Alice Cooper’s Christmas Pudding, an event that brings together both new and classic headliners, and where proceeds benefit Alice Cooper’s Solid Rock Teen Centers (this year’s event will be held Dec. 14 at Celebrity Theatre).

“Alice and Sheryl [Cooper] were having dinner at Tarbell’s at table 52 17 years ago, talking about this charity they wanted to create. My response was simple, ‘What can I do and how can I help?’ I was in. We have been providing the Christmas Pudding for the Christmas Pudding since the first show. What a ride it’s been! I love the Coops—they are such generous and supportive members of our community and would do anything for them,” Mark says.

Not only is Mark involved with this event, but he donates to many local charities and groups, including Fresh Start, St Vincent de Paul, St. Mary’s Food Bank, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, CASA, Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC), and Peer Solutions, to name just a few.

At the heart of it all, though, is his customers.

“What’s most important thing in business is getting up every day and working to be better at serving your guests, staff and community,” he says. “I am just getting started. We have an amazing team of dedicated and kind-hearted hospitality professionals here. We are having fun with this.”

For more information on his restaurants, visit Tarbells.com.