Member Spotlight: Tarbell's
Integral to The Scout Guide Phoenix & Scottsdale’s mission is telling the stories behind the small businesses Scouted in each Volume. The story begins in print and continues online, after all. As you peruse Volume 2, we are thrilled to continue our story-telling mission with Member Spotlights.
Photographed by Carl Schultz.
Recently, our Culinary Contributor, Marci Symington of TEXAZTASTE, met Volume 2 Member and award-winning chef, restaurateur, and TV host, Mark Tarbell, at Provision Coffee to talk culture, cooking, and culinary arts. Eager and wonderfully warm, the visionary behind Valley favorite, Tarbell’s, dished on his experience in the industry — and how he’s giving back.
Marci Symington: Mark, we hear so much about you and your work from the lips of others. We want to hear it from the man himself. Can you tell us about yourself and your business?
Mark Tarbell: So about me, I spent my formative years in a small town in New Hampshire and have lived my life with a singular passion: the food and wine business. When I was 17 years old, I decided I was going to open a restaurant. I’ve dedicated my life to the business. I feel blessed that I am still interested in food and wine. I’m still so excited to take my team to the next level and give back to an industry that’s been so good to me.
Marci Symington: Seventeen! Can you tell us about what led you to that decision at such a young age?
Mark Tarbell: I was about 2 months into an apprenticeship in Amsterdam when I realized, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do with my life.’ There was something about the energy of the kitchen and the difficulty of the kind of work. I don’t care if you are a prep cook, or on sauté, or grill, or you are the chef, it never ends and it never seems to change. You are dealing with humans, both on the staff level and the customer level, in a very intense, intimate way, so that to me has been endlessly fascinating.
When, after years in the industry, a Doctor friend, Ned Hallowell described me as someone with Attention Deficit Disorder my attraction to the energy of kitchens clicked. He considers ADD a gift, explaining that adrenaline functions as a sort of ‘natural’ Ritalin. Basically, when charged with adrenaline, those with ADD become calm. To put it succinctly, the restaurant business is adrenaline-fueled. It’s intense, complicated, and reactionary. But, I’m very calm when it’s busy: my pulse is at 60; I can see things clearly and come up with a variety of solutions within seconds. Also another suggested behavior with ADD is hyperfocus, and I have been hyper focused on this business for a very long time.
Photographed by Carl Schultz.
Marci Symington: It seems that you were destined for the business. Let’s talk Tarbell’s. What sets it apart from other restaurants?
Mark Tarbell: Tarbell’s has been open for 28 years. This is because of the amazing people we have here today and those who have worked here in the past. It’s a fun, richly textured story. What a ride.
Marci Symington: From a business standpoint, to what do you attribute that longevity?
Mark Tarbell: We run Tarbell’s as if it was a large company of 4,000 employees: we have systems for training, hiring, cleaning, wine and for everything in between. When I opened, I wanted that same level of professionalism and consistency brought to every level.
Marci Symington: Many diners can overlook everything that goes into a restaurant. In many ways, it’s like a machine. And Tarbell’s is so well-oiled. Beyond the systems and training you mentioned, what goes into achieving your gold standard of professionalism and consistency?
Mark Tarbell: The company culture is very specific. It starts with our hiring process, which prioritizes chemistry. We ask questions like, ‘What’s your favorite Movie? A large part of the process is for both sides to determine if will enjoy working together’ We want to nurture a respectful, communicative, non-reactionary, polite culture. We are tough on standards and easy on people. Standards are everything and they don’t bend. And while we teach to those standards, we understand that everyone has a different path and timeline. So, as long as our people are working towards those standards with care, we’re good.
And, above all, we seek to have a “servant’s heart.” What this really means is even in the worst scenarios where someone may be a tad short, that we still are at a point of service. We are not reactionary, we don’t get mad, we diffuse, turn the frown upside down, and have the guest leave in a better place. We also understand that we are there to provide entertainment and an escape. Food and wine is just our platform.
Photographed by Carl Schultz.
Marci Symington: After years in the industry and leading Tarbell’s, how as your approach changed?
Mark Tarbell: What is interesting now — as I gracefully go through the years — is taking a step back to let go of control and embrace surprises. For example, a team member will propose an idea, and now I’m like, ‘okay, let’s do it.” It’s about openness for me, because sometimes those ideas don’t work. And for someone who cares about not failing, I have to — and get to — let go of that, because I’ve realized there’s always something to learn and we are always stronger because of it.
Marci Symington: What is the most rewarding moment in your career?
Mark Tarbell: I appreciate the honors I have received and the journey of my career, but I’m not wired to consider the past. It’s not that I don’t care, but I am a working guy, and when NOT AT work, I’m with my family and friends…Those are my priorities. Recently, I had a milestone birthday. I didn’t want a party, but my wife organized one. Friends, colleagues, and family were invited to give toasts, which was so unexpected, but very moving. My chef, Adrian De Leon, did such a beautiful job. As did my brother and sister. Usually I would be hiding in a corner because I don’t want it to be about me, but for the first time I feel I accepted that and I listened. That was nice.
Marci Symington: Are there culinary heroes that you have looked up to throughout your career?
Mark Tarbell: There have been a number over the years: in France, there is Michel Guerard, Marc Meneau, Alain Ducasse, and Alain Sanderens. In this country, there is Michel Richard, the originator of Molecular Gastronomy, a pastry chef by training who had Citrus in LA and Citronelle in DC. He was the first to work with sous vide in a big way. Currently, I deeply admire Jean George (Vongerichten) for a lot of reasons. I think he is an amazing and very innovative chef and his execution is consistent. What I really admire is that he doesn’t stop innovating. For instance, he has this place abcV in New York which is a vegan/vegetarian concept in the ABC Building and it is so cutting edge. I had a croissant made with coconut oil and could not tell the difference. It is extraordinary. What I also like about him is he has global restaurants and they are well run and all are great.
Same with Nobu Matsuhisa. In the early 90’s I used to go to LA a lot and visited Matsuhisa restaurant. It was my goal to be able to sit in front of him at the sushi counter, and when I finally got that opportunity I let him take me on a ride… I never ordered but let him decide. And then he built his huge empire, but he is still that same wonderful person, an extraordinary talent. He took his cuisine and his time in Peru and has changed the world. Unfortunately, my kids love it, too. So Nobu is now a line item on our family budget.
Photographed by Carl Schultz.
Marci Symington: When you are in the kitchen, what are your favorite foods to prepare?
Mark Tarbell: Well I have such a great team that I don’t work the line so much. Because of the nature of being the owner, I kept being pulled away so I am out in the front of the house interacting with guests more. I cook at private events and at home. I had been telling myself for years that I wasn’t a baker. Everytime I tell myself I am not something, I examine that. I mean, I know how to bake, I just never did it, so I convinced myself I wasn’t good. So now, at home, I bake. Now I make all the bread for my family, often using family recipes. I make blueberry muffins, banana bread, and pancakes. I actually really like making bread, a very specific kind of bread. I use our chickens eggs, Hayden Mills flour, and really great organic butter. I turbo charge the bread with protein, and sneak in quinoa and other grains so my kids don’t know, but I also try to make it taste good.
Marci Symington: You mentioned family recipes… I know you learned a lot from your mom and cooking has been an expression of your upbringing. What kind of dishes are you passing to your kids?
Mark Tarbell: I have been documenting are my family recipes, as far back as my great grandmother’s. Though I have changed my great grandmother’s blueberry muffin and banana bread recipes, so I am recording both hers and mine. Having prepared it for so many years I have figured out ways to enhance the moisture, density, and texture. So I am passing on all those things.
At home, we make pasta as a family, which is one of the hardest 4-ingredient dishes to make well, in the way you dream about. I have passed this technique on to my kids. Oh, and bao. I looked at those things for years, and wondered how it was done, that silky white dough. Well, I decided for my birthday two years ago that I didn’t want anything else except to be at home with my family and make bao. And I did 4 batches and I finally got it on the last try.
Photographed by Scott Foust.
Marci Symington: Let’s switch gears slightly… What do you love about living and working in the Valley?
Marci Symington: What about favorite local spots and experiences?
Mark Tarbell: Lightning round…
Eat: At home. I love having dinner with my family
Drink: So many!! I love what Christiaan Rollich does at the Sanctuary is amazing, Jason Asher (Century Grand), Ross Simon (Bitter & Twisted), Blaise Faber (Valentine), Brenon Stuart (Killer Whale Sex Club), and of course Mikey Morales at Tarbell’s. Mikey is a chef by training and that is why he works well for us. He is so chef driven in his cocktails and they are always so balanced. And the people he has trained, Sam, Keith and Katherine have learned so much from him.
Shop: My ideal shopping experience can be measured in seconds.
Gift: The gift of time.
Exploring: Anywhere with Fife (Symington IV, as in Marci’s husband).
Activity: Hiking. My favorite activity, even before meeting Fife, has been hiking.
Event: The CCAP event at Tarbell’s and I enjoy going to Cardinals and Suns games.
Charities: CCAP (Career in Culinary Arts Program that benefits underserved youth), St. Vincent de Paul, St. Mary’s Food Bank, Feed Your Starving Children, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Heart Ball, and Circle the City where Sister Adele is doing amazing things
Marci Symington: At the beginning of our chat you mentioned giving back to the industry, can you share how you do that locally?
Mark Tarbell: I will meet with anyone in this town who has a question about restaurants, opening a restaurant, investing in a restaurant, you name it. And if I can help them in any way, then I do. It’s one of the reasons why I do the show on PBS (Check, Please!): to give back to the industry that has been so good to me.
Marci Symington: Lastly, any insider information you can share with The Scout Guide Phoenix & Scottsdale readers? What do these foodies need to know?
Mark Tarbell: Everyone needs to know about our new Spirit Room at The Wine Store. We are super excited about it. It is because of Mikey and Jason Taylor that we have the best agave selection in the state. Mikey is probably one of the most knowledgeable agave and spirit guy in town. We have a lot of exclusives there that people don’t know about. Also, what people don’t know is that if you are a Tarbell’s wine club member, you get a great discount of 30% off wines and 20% off spirits. And we deliver.
Tarbell’s is an upscale restaurant & bar serving American fare paired with global wines in a chic space. Complimenting Tarbell’s is The Wine Store, which offers the discerning oenophile a thrilling selection of wine and spirits. Visit both at 3213 E Camelback Rd, Phoenix. Reservations at Tarbell’s are available Monday – Saturday 4pm – 10pm. Phone: (602) 955-8100