Frontdoors Magazine October 2021 Cover Story: A Taste for More

While navigating the COVID crisis, Mark Tarbell revised his recipe for success

Since coming to the Valley, Mark Tarbell has gone from strength to strength, enjoying success as a wine expert, chef, restaurateur, TV host and amateur musician.

Even still, 2020 was one of the most challenging years of his life. In March, dine-in services at Phoenix restaurants were suspended to limit the spread of COVID-19. Tarbell’s, the eponymous restaurant, did not offer takeout or delivery. “It was a pretty scary moment,” Tarbell said. “I looked at the prospect of everything I did for the last 27 years being no longer.”

Just like that, the team changed its business model. They put together an online ordering system, rented cars and figured out how to package and deliver food. “We took all the tables out of the restaurant and filled it with boxes and tables to organize. We drilled a hole through the wall, pulled phone cables through and had six stations with iPads for taking orders,” he said.

Tarbell tapped his servers for delivery to provide jobs for them, friendly faces for customers and to ensure the quality of the food. Running the operation was scary and expensive — and also a smashing success. April revenue was above the previous year. “The phones were ringing off the hook,” Tarbell said. “We were scrappy, and we wanted to be excellent.”

Tense days were filled with two-a-day COVID-protocol meetings and worry about the safety of family, staff and patrons. “We were walking this razor’s edge all year, believing we were part of the solution,” Tarbell said.

Dubbed an “essential business” — “I was like, seriously? We’re one step below Disneyland. We’re here for entertainment.” — Tarbell came to see himself as part of the food distribution system. “We were trying to be consistent and give people what they wanted, when they wanted it, which is a lot of their favorites,” he said. “What woke up in us during COVID was innovation and wanting to break some of the models we were doing before. We’re all essentially wacky creatives, and this really ignited that in us.”

In some ways, the scramble felt like his early culinary days, when Tarbell was working his way up from dishwasher to chef. “I did an apprenticeship for a year in Amsterdam. I went to culinary school in Paris. I did apprenticeships at one of the top restaurants in Paris, a 3-star restaurant at the time, and then a 1-star restaurant. I worked in a butchery and at a wine bar,” he said. Tarbell became a chef, then a sous chef, then a chef in Boston before decamping to Arizona.

Along with the move came the pivotal step to the front of the house to learn the business side of restaurants. Leveraging his wine experience, Tarbell became the food and beverage director at The Boulders Resort in Carefree when he was 23, the youngest of any 5-diamond resort in the world. “I entered into that whole realm for practical reasons and ended up loving working at The Boulders. I was there eight years.”

Then came a fork. Money he’d borrowed planning to open a restaurant back in Boston wasn’t tied to location. “I’m grateful that, for practical reasons, I decided to stay here,” he said. “I’d already established myself a little and knew where to get my food and wine. From a fear-based mentality, I stayed in Phoenix. And I loved it.”

He opened Tarbell’s in Phoenix in 1994, and the restaurant became a hit. It was also the launching point for Tarbell himself, whose outsized work ethic and ambition spurred him to open several more restaurants, write a weekly wine column for The Arizona Republic, and make frequent radio and TV appearances, including winning “Iron Chef America” on The Food Network in 2007.

His current Arizona PBS series “Plate & Pour” recently received four Emmy nominations. An engaging host,
Tarbell takes viewers into interesting Arizona eateries and chats with chefs, restaurateurs and others in the local food community.

The gig suits him. “The world needs to know how great the chefs are here. It’s not just sunshine and new homes,” Tarbell said. The show also offers a chance to shine a light on the good people of Arizona. “There’s so much charitable work,” he said. “People are committed to being here and are so generous.”

A case in point is how the culinary community has rallied around the Careers through Culinary Arts Program. The 31-year-old nonprofit provides culinary, job and life-skills training to 9,000 Arizona high school students each year. “These kids get a purpose, and they get an opportunity to compete and meet other kids around the state,” Tarbell said.

This year, they’ll also get the chance to show off at the 7th Harvest Moon Feast that Tarbell is hosting in his restaurant’s Camelback East Village parking lot. With 25 food tables, C-CAP students will cater the event with their chef mentors. Tarbell is pulling out all the stops — closing down the restaurant for the night, inviting celebrity friends, even stepping in with Nate Nathan and the Mac Daddy-O’s on guitar. The event will not only help students get real-world cooking experience with professional chefs, but it will also raise funds to provide scholarships and jobs.

“We have one of the largest, most effective C-CAP programs in the country,” Tarbell said, “One that others model themselves after.” Tarbell’s has taken on a lot of C-CAP students as apprentices over the years. “They don’t all stay in the culinary world, but they’ve accomplished something,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with being in the kitchen because you learn about people, time management, math and all kinds of other stuff.”

Tarbell enjoys seeing the kids grow and move on. Matt Fenton, a C-CAP scholarship winner, is an example. “He worked at Tarbell’s for six or seven years. I trained him and opened up my kimono — showed him everything about the restaurant business, including the back of the house, front of house, regulatory, government, all the things where people fail. He’s gone on to open his own restaurant — successfully — in Iowa,” Tarbell said.

His success brings Tarbell joy, both for Fenton individually and because another C-CAP graduate has created another great place to eat. “We here at Tarbell’s fund two $5,000 scholarships every year for them to continue their education,” he said.

Tarbell is known for being generous; he’s a staple at charity events throughout the year. So much so that early in
Tarbell’s career, his accountant asked if he was aware he had given away three times more than he took home that year. “You might want to think about balancing that” was
his advice.

These days, the balancing act includes his own children, who are in middle school. Not surprisingly, cooking together is a favorite pastime. “There’s a lot of joy in cooking,” Tarbell said. “We bake and make homemade pasta. I make breakfast for them every day from scratch.”

Fatherhood offers a new perspective and the responsibility that comes with mentoring a new generation. “We’re not always going to be perfect, but in our imperfection, we can also teach,” he said. “I don’t think any child is different from any other child in their abilities. I think it’s just access and opportunities. So if we can, in our small way, provide that inspiration, motivation, mentorship and an opportunity, then we are doing our part.”

In many ways, the pandemic offered Tarbell a forced reset and a chance to prep for the courses to come. He looks forward to filming more episodes of “Plate & Pour,” traveling the state, eating food and sharing stories. He also has big ambitions for his bistro and wine store. 

“My aspiration is to get one Michelin star for Tarbell’s or any kind of team recognition for our wine program or service,”  he said. “I want to make this a teaching restaurant and influence in a positive way as many people as I can.”

Whether as chef, wine expert, TV host or musician, he remains everyone’s friend, showing up to give back and do the job. “That’s what I do,” he said. “I’m very work-focused. Always work, work, work.”

To learn more about C-CAP Arizona and the Harvest Moon Feast, visit ccapaz.org. 

About Karen Werner

Karen Werner is the editor of Frontdoors Media. She is a writer, editor and media consultant. She has interned at The New Yorker, worked at Parents Magazine, edited five books and founded several local magazines. Her work has appeared in Sunset, Mental Floss and the Saturday Evening Post.

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