This is part one of Lori Midson's Chef and Tell interview with Mark Tarbell. To read part two of this interview, click here.
"If it seems like I'm not paying attention to you, it's true," quips Mark Tarbell, the renowned restaurateur/chef who operates Tarbell's, his namesake restaurant, in Phoenix, his home base; the Oven, an organic pizza palace in Lakewood's Belmar, and Restaurant Home and a second outpost of the Oven at the Streets at SouthGlenn in Centennial. "If I'm ignoring you," he explains, "it's because I'm having a food daydream -- some taste memory is floating by.
Born and raised in Newcastle, New Hampshire, Tarbell, who confesses that he "daydreams about food constantly," started cooking when he was young, baking bread with his mother, making dinner in his grandmother's kitchen and moving into a restaurant galley as a dishwasher when he was fifteen. He trotted off to Holland three years later to do an apprenticeship aboard the Tall Ships, sailing the Baltic and North seas before eventually immersing himself in the intense culinary grind of La Varenne École de Cuisine while simultaneously studying wine at l'Académie du Vin, both in Paris. It was in Paris, in fact, that Tarbell met chef Fernand Chambrette, whose "simple, yet complex approach to food at the highest level has served as a foundation for my culinary philosophy," he says.
Tarbell, who has battled against New York kitchen guard Cat Cora on Iron Chef America (he won), is also the weekly wine columnist for the Arizona Republic. He's cooked for some of the world's most notable celebrities, including Muhammad Ali, Clint Eastwood, Julia Child, the Dalai Lama, Sammy Hagar and Michael Douglas, and over the past fifteen years, he's donated more than $1 million to various charities.
In the following interview, Tarbell talks about his aversion to smoked paprika, his dependence on water, the differences between "real" Mexican cuisine and faux Mexican food, and why British kitchen magician Jamie Oliver has no business being a celebrity chef.
Six words to describe your food: Simple food with respect for classics.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, focused, people-lover, curious, hungry, thirsty, blah, blah, blah. Is that ten?
Proudest moment as a chef: The day, which was fairly recent, that I realized that I'm just a guy who likes to cook and that it's fine to let others be chefs. I've carried a conflict around with me ever since I opened my first restaurant, Tarbell's, fifteen years ago. I found a great kitchen guy by the name of Mark Bloom to run the cuisine, but I couldn't find a general manager, so I became the de facto GM. I love food and have a passion for wine, but as a restaurant owner, my responsibilities are different from those of a chef. I love restaurants and I love running them -- the good, the bad and the ugly. And now that I have four restaurants, the conflict has ended: I am a restaurateur who likes to cook. I cook more at home and for friends these days than ever before, and I'm at peace with this.
Weirdest customer request: A person demanded that I cook the fish special with nothing on it or with it, or else they would call their good friend Mark Tarbell. When they tasted the dish, they told me that it was the blandest dish they'd ever eaten and demanded that it be taken off the bill. I agreed and told them I'd let Mark know they were in.
Favorite ingredient: That's like asking which is your favorite child, employee or dog when you have more than one of any of them. I love food, and I go on tangents with the use of some ingredients, but they usually don't last for long. It's possible to serve a dish with only one ingredient -- an amazing three-minutes-out-of-the-water uni + a spoon = a smile, for example. But this question forces you to answer in a way that's clever, old-school or cutting-edge, so I refuse to answer it.
Best recent food find: Filetti di muggine affumicat, which is smoked grey mullet that was served diced and sautéed with garlic, olive oil and spaghetti, with a last toss of arugula and a shot of fresh lemon and sea salt. An Italian friend brought it back from Italy, and it looked funky and, well, disgusting, but I'll try any food at least once -- and I'm glad I tried this, because I loved the intensity, depth and rustic Old World dimension it brought to a simple pasta preparation that I make at home.
Most overrated ingredient: Smoked paprika. There's smoke, which can be introduced naturally, and then there's paprika, which can be bitter and sharp. It's best not to overuse either.
Most undervalued ingredient: Water. I use water 90 percent of the time as my base for soups and to finish my stocks. I only use chicken, veal or fish stock when I want a dish's taste profile to lead with that flavor, and then I build support flavors around it.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Organic Colorado peaches, when they're in season, are amazing.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: The boring things are extremely important to me, like treating each other with respect, being intense on food execution and quality, attacking culinary weaknesses but not people, and no swearing. The things that drive me bat guano are the robo-cooks -- those guys who have their eyes open but aren't paying the slightest bit of attention to execution. I hate people who put themselves above the food, and I get seriously enraged with the young culinarians who believe that being a TV star will make one scintilla of difference in how their food tastes, on this plate, at this moment.
One food you detest: Mexican food that is not actually Mexican food. I moved to the Southwest in 1986, so I was part of the beginnings of the Southwestern food scene, and I quickly became disillusioned with the idea that it was anything but a press release. There is no simple answer to the question "What is authentic Mexican food?" because of all the true cuisines of New Mexico, Tex-Mex and, more important, the regions of Mexico. Mexican food is as diverse and complex as any other great world food culture, and I love everything from the taquerías and fish shops to grubs, bugs and goat. Diana Kennedy is a good voice for authenticity, and I highly recommend her cookbooks, but when it comes to "modern" Mexican or Southwestern food, combining these authentic cuisines with French-European techniques is never a good plan. It would be like if someone said we could make Italian food better if we only used French techniques.
One food you can't live without: My mother's macaroni and cheese: It's one of my earliest and best taste memories. What I love about it is that it's made with sharp Vermont cheddar, which is the key ingredient; it imparts the necessary tang, zip or acidity to balance the richness of the dish. My favorite day to eat it is not on the first day, when it's creamy; not on the second day, when the center is creamy and the sides are getting dry from reheating it. It's reheating it on the third day, when the center is dryer and the sides are golden brown and the texture of a cracker, that I eat it. I can see it now in that dark-blue enameled cast-iron pot...
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Only two? Wow. Goats?
If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? MFK Fisher. I met her once and found her to be very, very intriguing. She loved food and was a good writer. I sense I'd have to be on my game if I wanted to impress her.
Favorite celebrity chef: Mario Batali. He can cook and he's good people.
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Celebrity chef who should shut up: Jamie Oliver. He has too much integrity, his cooking technique is flawless, he's polite and he's damn sexy. He must go, because he's making the other celebrity chefs look like morons.
Hardest lesson you've learned: I was having dinner in New York with Jean-Georges Vongerichten last month, and we were served some focaccia that was so perfumed with citrus that we commented on it. The chef said it was rubbed with lemon juice, but I argued that it must be orange because it was so perfumed and sweet. He said, "Non...well, maybe Meyer lemon." He was right, I was wrong, and I was reminded of a favorite quote of mine by Mark Twain: "It's better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."
What's next for you? My goal is to simply take care of what I have and make them happy, busy places. Then again, I'm known to play my cards close, so, some clues: I have a Denver broker, I have an addiction to opening restaurants, I have a risk-taking profile and I'm younger than my grandparents. Of course, my giant goal is to play Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pride and Joy" on the guitar at Red Rocks this summer.