Mark Tarbell Dishes on Beating Cat Cora and the Joy of Apricots -- and Gives the Best Answer Ever to the Death-Row-Last-Meal Question

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Mark Tarbell Tarbell's 3213 E. Camelback Road 602-955-8100 www.tarbells.com

This is part one of my interview with Mark Tarbell, owner of Tarbell's in Phoenix and The Oven Pizza E Vino in Lakewood, Colorado. In Part Two,Tarbell talks about how he discovered wine and his advice for aspiring chefs. Mark Tarbell is known around Phoenix as the soft-spoken, supremely gracious host of his namesake restaurant and the down-to-earth oenophile who's written a wine column for the Arizona Republic for years. We don't necessarily consider him a chef (though he was trained as one) or a baker (though he worked at Clear Flour Bakery in Boston, which sold bread to the city's best restaurants).

Beyond that, Tarbell's a music-loving, celebrity shoulder-rubbing Renaissance man who realized what he wanted early on and bought a one-way ticket to Europe after high school, landing a culinary apprenticeship at the Sonesta Hotel in Amsterdam.

The experience was typically abusive, he says, but he hung in for a year before moving to Paris to take wine classes at l'Academie du Vin and talk his way into La Varenne, where he earned a culinary diploma a year later.

After another two years in Paris, Tarbell moved back to the States to work as sous chef at Vintage Wine Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the idea of opening his own wine bar some day. He earned extra money teaching classes on French wine until Jim Nassikas (the general manager who made San Francisco's Stanford Court a serious food destination) encouraged him to take a gig as GM of a resort restaurant in Deer Valley, Utah.

It was Nassikas' son Bill who brought Tarbell to The Boulders Resort in Carefree in 1986, where, at 24, Tarbell became the youngest food and beverage director of a Five Diamond property in the world. He stayed at The Boulders for 8 years, opening Tarbell's in 1994.

Since then, he's opened an Italian restaurant in Colorado (The Oven Pizza E Vino), cooked for the Dalai Lama, earned a James Beard Best Chef Southwest nomination and won Food Network's Iron Chef against Cat Cora (2007). How and when did you develop an interest in food: So early it's crazy. I would say I was always obsessed with flavor and texture. I would sit and eat a whole box of apricots with my eyes closed, thinking about the subtle differences among them and rating flavor and texture.

Who has been your greatest culinary mentor and what did you learn from this person: Jacques Pepin. I purchased his book, La Technique, at age 14 and went through it all one summer. It changed my life.

What was it like to be on Iron Chef: Training was hard but fun. I selected a team and came up with a training regimen that was pragmatic and serious. Competing is stressful on many levels, really one of the hardest things I've done. This is a team competition. The team trained for it, the team competed, and it was the team that won.

Best food memory: A perfectly roasted Poulet de Bresse with Pommes Anna and haricots vert with a bottle of 1979 Puligny-Montrachet "Les Pucelles" Domaine Leflaive at Chez l'Ami Louis in Paris -- 1983 (when Chef Antoine Magnin was still alive).

You're on death row. Describe your last meal: I would ask for something with a key baked in it.

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White of Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles

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