Writer Kenneth LaFave
Photographer Loralei Lazurek

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s a well-known chef and restaurateur, Mark Tarbell makes it his business to know the best food cities on earth, among them Paris, Venice, New York and San Francisco. This year, he has added a new one to the list: Phoenix.

“I could not have anticipated how much fun it was going to be going into all these Valley restaurants,” Tarbell says. “I always thought we’d grown up as a restaurant town in the last five years or so, but I didn’t realize just how much.”

Tarbell refers to his latest gig as the new host of “Check, Please! Arizona” on Arizona Public Broadcasting Service. He can be seen on episodes of the show’s seventh season every Thursday at 7 p.m.

Each episode of “Check, Please! Arizona” features three restaurants reviewed by ordinary citizens. The reviews take the form of a roundtable discussion with the host. Design and ambiance are elements of the discussion, but the focus is the food, whether it’s a well-made hamburger, a perfectly grilled salmon or an excursion into ethnic cuisine.

Tarbell replaced Robert McGrath as host at the head of this season. McGrath, the founder of Roaring Fork restaurant, launched the show and guided it through its first six seasons, four of which won Emmy Awards for local programming.

It’s a whole different kind of cooking from whipping up some chicken fennel sausage to go with your house-made ribbon pasta — a Chef Tarbell specialty.
“I facilitate the energy and conversation of people, many of whom have never been on television before,” Tarbell says, explaining the host’s job. “The show has forced me to get out. Usually I’m in the restaurant, but now I’m trying three restaurants for every episode.”

Tarbell’s restaurant on East Camelback Road is an icon of Phoenix dining and part of the first wave of fine dining, locally-owned Phoenix-area restaurants in the 1990s. The restaurant’s motto, “Caviar with a side of spaghetti,” reflects its owner’s belief in cuisine that combines sophisticated cooking with the satisfaction of comfort food. It’s a place where you can order an elegant seared lemon sole served over potatoes Lyonnaise, then go for the splurgy homemade chocolate molten cake for dessert.

Since Tarbell’s started up more than 20 years ago, it has been known for fresh local produce and innovative menu items. Along with Vincent on Camelback and Christopher’s Restaurant and Crush Lounge, it spearheaded the birth of Phoenix as a foodie city. The only winning challenger on season five of “Iron Chef America,” Tarbell has received numerous awards. He was nominated for Best Chef Southwest by the James Beard Foundation, and Tarbell’s won a Best Restaurant title from Food and Wine magazine.

Do the chef’s inventions come from the stove or the head?

“Most of what I do, I do in my head — I have a vivid imagination,” Tarbell says. “I just think of the flavors together. Anything can trigger it, even a picture or a photograph. I once did a cookbook project sitting on the couch, writing up recipes out of my head. Then I asked Anne Ballman [business manager at Tarbell’s] to cook them in her kitchen to see if they worked.”

They did.

“That’s just experience,” he modestly claims. “It’s not rocket science.”

Perhaps not, but it’s rocket fuel, of a sort. Tarbell’s and the others sparked a surge of restaurant activity in Phoenix, especially in the last half decade or so. The range and quality of Valley restaurants surprised the new host of “Check, Please! Arizona.”

“I didn’t realize how much is out there,” he says. “There are certainly some well-known chefs, but what really took me by surprise is all these mom-and-pop projects with their microbreweries and great food.”

Small, out-of-the-way places can offer the greatest culinary surprises worldwide, Tarbell believes. As an example, he recalls a visit to Venice, Italy.

“Of course, Venice is very touristy,” he says. “But I made a connection with someone who led me to a little fish joint where all the gondoliers ate. It was a tiny, 8-by-10 shack, and the food was absolutely stunning. It’s the little underground places in back alleys that contain the biggest surprises.” He has had similar surprises hosting “Check, Please! Arizona,” but prefers you watch the show to find out what those local places are.

When Mark Tarbell goes to a restaurant, how much of the experience is the food, and how much is the environment, service, etc.?

“It’s pretty much equal,” he says. “But if there’s a number one, it’s being treated well. That’s why we train our servers in hospitality. So perhaps it’s the people, number one, and then the food.”

The next question gets a smile from Tarbell: What do you do in your personal time?

“I love that question, because it assumes I have time to spare,” he replies. “I don’t have a lot. But I really love being outdoors, hiking the preserves. I’ve always been an avid hiker because there’s so much richness in the desert. I hike the Phoenix preserves, South Mountain Park and the Superstitions.”

He is overly modest about his hiking abilities — a photograph on the website for Tarbell’s shows him standing on top of a mountain that just happens to be the Matterhorn in the Alps. If or when more time opens in the future, Tarbell says he will return to an early enthusiasm: trail biking. But for now, it’s food, food, food — cooking it, eating it and talking about it.

“I’ve loved working on ‘Check, Please! Arizona,’” he says. “Reading a script from a teleprompter is more challenging than I thought because you have to behave as if they are your own words. But everyone connected with the show, the whole crew, has been a complete joy and made it easy for me.”

Like all broadcast work, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Tarbell taped as many as three episodes a day.

“The first day on the job was 10 hours long,” he remembers.

By the end of the current season, “Check, Please! Arizona” will have covered 250 Arizona restaurants. Will there be a season eight with Tarbell returning as host? He’s signaled his interest, he says.

“Maybe they’ll say yes.”