Kitchen Ink: Chefs Talk About Their Tattoos

You can trace the origins of the chef-as-outlaw archetype roughly to the year 2000, when Anthony Bourdain released his surprise hit Kitchen Confidential and images of toqued gourmands were replaced by toking misfis in the imagination of the general populace. And where misfits go, so do tattoos.

"I've always accepted them," says Colicchio & Sons' Shane McBride of tattoos in the kitchen. "I started cooking in South Florida. There's a writer who once said that that's where criminals go to die. I worked in restaurants with a lot of people who were on the fringe of society. I would never judge someone because they had a tattoo."

McBride's tattoo tolerance seems to have spread to the rest of the restaurant industry, although several people I talked to were hesitant to get full sleeves for fear of ink peeking out from behind their chef's whites. Just last year, Food & Wine published an angry letter to the editor complaining about the prominently placed tattooed chefs on the cover of their "Best New Chefs" issue (including one Nate Appleman, currently at the helm of the new Keith McNally project, Pulino's). Still, when you're watching Top Chef and other shows in the ever-expanding world of food television, it's hard not to notice how many chefs are proudly displaying their tats. Why so much ink behind the bar and in the kitchen? We decided to talk to nine people in the industry and get the story behind their tattoos.

Matt Robicelli, co-owner Robicelli's Cupcakes (8511 Third Avenue, Brooklyn)

Matt Robicelli loves bacon. He has it tattooed on his left forearm, wrapped around a heart speared by a fork. And don't think he's just jumping on the bacon bandwagon—his mother's family actually owned a pig farm in Iowa. Not to mention that Robicelli is actually a fan of bacon-wrapped hearts: "If you've ever had bacon-wrapped rabbit hearts, they're delicious," he says. "When I worked at the Water Club, we'd make them as a special. I've also had bacon-wrapped duck hearts—they're phenomenal."

The tattoo (inked, ironically, by vegan tattoo artist Nacho from Brooklyn's Studio Enigma) is only the first part of a planned full-sleeve tattoo with a bacon-egg-and-cheese theme. Next on the agenda: Polynesian flowers done Sailor Jerry–style, with sunny-side-up eggs at their centers, with a box grater above showering the whole mess with different kinds of cheese. It might seem strange that Robicelli—a six-foot, 320-pound meat-loving dude—would go into the cupcake business, but once you see the list of baked treats he and his wife, Allison, have concocted, it starts to make sense. One of his most popular cupcakes is called the Elvis, which includes banana, peanut butter, and, yes, candied bacon.

Shane McBride, executive chef Colicchio & Sons (85 Tenth Avenue)

Chefs are a tough breed, enduring cuts and burns on a daily basis. But getting a tattoo on a freshly broken arm? That's hardcore. "I was kind of screwing around in the basement, riding somebody's skateboard because he didn't believe I could ride a skateboard," says McBride, recalling the fateful day three years ago. "He was like, 'You are too big, too old.' " McBride, who grew up skateboarding from as early as four years old in West Palm Beach, Florida, took him up on it. Bad idea: He hit a puddle and wiped out, landing on his arm.

The next day, he went to a tattoo parlor in his neighborhood, Astoria, and got a sectioned pig on his arm as he'd previously planned. But the pain was so bad that he went straight from the tattoo parlor to the hospital, where they told him his arm was broken.

He hopes eventually to complement the pig and the shamrock he got as a 17-year-old with a sectioned cow. Why did McBride get a sectioned pig tattoo in the first place?

"I tend to use a lot of pork in my cooking," he says. "Ribs, pork shoulder, bacon—there isn't any cut on the pig I don't like. Who can say no to crispy ears?"

Emma Hearst, chef and owner Sorella (95 Allen Street)

The raven-haired Emma Hearst has a bit of a gothic style. "I'll never have a color tattoo—black is my favorite shade." The 23-year-old's first tattoo was the word "soigné," the French culinary term roughly translated as "elegantly done," inked across her wrist shortly after she graduated from culinary school. It's part personal philosophy and part media-savviness: "I truly believe in the meaning of the word, but I got it in this specific place because I figured if my hand was ever photographed plating, it would look good in the photo."

Hearst (yes, of that Hearst family) also has her restaurant's logo on her arm, although it's a bit worn around the edges, as she scratched the newly minted tattoo while celebrating a four-star rave from New York magazine's Underground Gourmet. Her final food-related tattoo is a skeleton donning a chef's toque and carrying a knife, standing above the word "integrity," on her back, done, like all of her tattoos, at New York Adorned. Why does she think so many chefs have tattoos?

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