Mark Tarbell chats about hosting ‘Check, Please! Arizona’

Arriving just in time to cure any post-holiday blues, “Check, Please! Arizona” returns for its eighth season on Jan. 4, 2018 at 7 p.m. Each episode brings three guest reviewers around the table to provide a glimpse into their experiences at three local restaurants.

“It’s like hosting a dinner party where you want the people to be as different from each other as possible,” said producer Margery Punnett. “We want to get different perspectives, and we want it to be authentic.”

In anticipation of the new season, take a look back at our quick chat with host Mark Tarbell from his first season on the show.

Chef Mark Tarbell, host of 'Check, Please! Arizona'

How has the experience of hosting compared to your expectations? Any surprises?
It is a lot more intense than I thought it would be! It’s a challenge, but I like it.

Your restaurant, Tarbell’s, was highlighted on “Check, Please! Arizona” in season two. What’s it like to be on the other side of the process?
A lot of respect for what Robert McGrath did, and for what the team here has done to create the show. And also how much work it is to put together – finding the right restaurants and putting the right guests together and the coordination that goes into doing that.

What are a couple of things you personally look for when you go to a new restaurant?
I’m just so taken with what all these people are doing – it’s their passion, and to see that expression of it, knowing the business and knowing the back end of it and how hard it is to do it, I just come away a little humbled and appreciative that I am part of this community. I travel a lot outside the state for work, so I would see interesting things in other cities, but then I’d come back here and work and not go out – so I’d always think, oh it’s so fun in Seattle or Portland or San Francisco or New York – but it’s fun here, too. It’s all here.

When you’re in the kitchen, what are your favorite foods to prepare?
It’s funny: I either do very long roasted or long preparation (bolognese, meatballs, whatever). Or I like things very clean and simple that are done very quickly (stir fries or pastas, simple fish or seafood preparations, shellfish), where I can do the whole thing in less than 20 minutes. I like brightness: I like bright colors and flavors, I like acidity. And then there’s the other side: very deep flavors, very complex. And that can even be sloppy joes, which if you do them right can be very complex and very deep.

You’ve said the first cookbook you bought as a teenager was by Jacques Pépin, who of course has been a public television staple for many years. Are there other culinary heroes that you’ve looked up to through your career?
There have been so many. For example, Michel Richard, who just passed away, he was quite innovative on the very extreme creative side of things. And people who are really the flavor masters, like Hubert Keller from San Francisco. Locally, Chris Bianco. He’s a master of simplicity, and that takes a lot of courage, in my opinion. To do things simply in the culinary world is way more courageous than doing something complicated that you can never recreate.

What’s the story behind your new sign-off, “Have a delicious life”?
Well, for the first few episodes, I used “Eat well and often,” which sounded sort of self-serving, like I’m trying to get people to eat out more, but that’s not really what I meant – though I do think people should go out and be entertained. I just think people should have a playful, delicious life. I think we have enough in our lives that is serious, we have enough in our lives to keep us grounded. I believe that what restaurants do is take you away from that. You have this moment, and I think that’s the greatest gift.

This interview was originally published in the Winter 2016-17 edition of ‘Arizona PBS’ magazine. Preview Season 8 of “Check, Please! Arizona” here.

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