Phoenix culinary icon Mark Tarbell is happiest when cooking, teaching up-and-coming chefs

Tarbell is a luminary of the Phoenix food scene.
Updated: Jun. 20, 2022 at 8:00 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Whether it’s from his background in Parisian culinary school, his iconic restaurant serving up dishes in central Phoenix for nearly 30 years, or his long list of both personal and professional achievements, Mark Tarbell is a luminary of the Phoenix food scene.

Tarbell, like many esteemed chefs, discovered and fell in love with cooking at a young age. At the age of 14, Tarbell was given a book by Jacques Pépin on culinary techniques as a gift, and Tarbell’s culinary calling began. When he was 18, Tarbell completed an apprenticeship in Amsterdam, then went on to culinary school at École de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris when he was 19. After learning the renowned French cooking technique, Tarbell worked in two Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris, then in various bakeries and kitchens on the East Coast. From humble beginnings as a dishwasher to a baker and essentially every other position in a kitchen, Tarbell never lost sight of his goal often shared by many young chefs -- opening his own restaurant.

Eventually, Tarbell found his way to Arizona at the age of 23, working with several culinary heavyweights at the Boulder’s Resort just south of Carefree. Tarbell says he worked at the resort for about eight years before finally achieving his dream of opening his own restaurant, Tarbell’s, in 1994. When Tarbell opened his restaurant near 32nd Street and Camelback Road, he knew he wanted to design a menu and build the atmosphere for a place where someone would want to eat every day.

Chef Mark Tarbell having some fun in the kitchen while cooking up some pan seared scallops.
Chef Mark Tarbell having some fun in the kitchen while cooking up some pan seared scallops.(Jeff Popovich)

“I really wanted it to be an elegant atmosphere, sort of an East Coast atmosphere, very metropolitan and timeless. I wanted to make food that I just wanted to eat, and it was that simple,“ Tarbell explained. “I like a lot of different foods, from meatballs, to very fine things, and I like things with Japanese and Vietnamese influence, I love Indian influence. I love mainly how we play here with comfort food from the Mediterranean basin, I would say, and American classics. That’s kind of the core of what Tarbell’s has always been.”

Tarbell’s menu really does take a nuanced approach to American classics with culinary inventiveness and global influence with menu items like the Argentine Ribeye, the Braised Beets with Red Wine Aioli salad, Basil Gnocchi & Morel Mushrooms, Saffron Tomato Spiced Seafood & Chorizo Chowder, to authentic pizzas and housemade desserts! This well-researched and crafted menu can also be paired with fine wines from Tarbell’s next door (literally) wine endeavors, The Tavern and Wine Store. Tarbell’s stellar food and his contribution to hundreds of charities over the years have made him a staple in the Phoenix community. After 36 years of being a chef in the Valley, Tarbell says the growth of the food scene around Phoenix has been exponential.

“You can’t even imagine the growth of interest and number of chefs and great people doing great things, large and small. We are just a really great food state, we’re a great food city in Phoenix, and it’s just extraordinary for me to have witnessed that,” Tarbell explained.

During his time in Phoenix, Tarbell has also cooked for music and entertainment icons and political and sports celebrities. Tarbell has even been nominated for a James Beard award under the Best Chef in the Southwest category. Tarbell’s accomplishments also include winning on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America.” And who could forget? Tarbell was also the featured chef on 3TV’s Good Morning Arizona for 15 years! For anyone who has walked in and sat down for a meal at Tarbell’s, there’s a good chance you’ve met the man behind the apron. Tarbell has always been people-focused and considers himself blessed to be integrated within the Phoenix community.

“My desire when I opened was to stay open and to be a part of the community, both from a charitable point of view but also not necessarily catered to visitors and tourists because I wanted to get to know the people who came here. I thought that would be a richer experience for me and for my team,” Tarbell said. “We’re sort of a like a club without dues. People know each other here and there’s table hopping, and we’ve witnessed so many human events and personal events over the years, mostly joyous and some transitional. For me, being a part of the community is being a part of that human experience and it’s been the blessing of my life to having been in contact and shaking hands with, and having conversations with, and becoming friends with and being a part of people’s lives and families for so many years.”

Basil Gnocchi & Morel Mushrooms at Tarbell's in Phoenix.
Basil Gnocchi & Morel Mushrooms at Tarbell's in Phoenix.(Jeff Popovich)

After serving up six to seven thousand meals a month for nearly 30 years, Tarbell says he’s had a lot of exposure to people from all walks of life and that he truly believes in the goodness of others.

“For me, richness in life is human experience and contact and friendships. Even having a 30 second conversation with someone you may never see again, and just having that one little point of connection, I just think it’s rich,” Tarbell explained.

Aside from the joy of meeting and getting to know the patrons of his restaurant, Tarbell says one of his favorite aspects of his job is working with his team. To Tarbell, his classic French training instills that being the chef means you’re the one running the kitchen. There’s a great measure of respect and honor for the craft and the hard work that goes into it physically and mentally. And while Tarbell has often been at the helm of the culinary reigns, in recent years, he has also handed off the reigns to help guide and tutor new and upcoming chefs.

“This phase of my career is passing it on, and I take that very seriously. So, any kind of knowledge, help, or support in any way I can with my knowledge in this business is what I’m passing on. And I do it with people that work with me on the team, every day, I take that very seriously. And I also do it with people that I mentor outside of the restaurant,” Tarbell said.

Whether you’ve been to Tarbell’s restaurant or not or have had the pleasure of meeting the exuberant chef himself, it’s clear that his impact on Phoenix is felt throughout the culinary community. From his passion for cooking to mentoring upcoming chefs or just simply having a 30-second conversation with a stranger, Tarbell commits to all of the above with a smile on his face and emanating a sense of joy. If you’re in the area, consider stopping in for some top-tier food, and if you’re lucky, meet the friendly neighborhood chef and enjoy the quality human experience of Tarbell’s.

This is the thirteenth segment in a breakout series on chefs in the Phoenix metro. Arizona’s Family Foodie is sitting down with chefs around the Valley to tell their stories of triumphs, perseverance, and dedication to their crafts. There is a sizeable amount of work, research, and experimentation that culminates into what gets placed in front of you on a plate or in a drink. These are the stories of the creative minds behind those delicious meals or cocktails, and how their passions for food and beverage bring us joy and closer together.