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?
"I think we're all artsy people—we're all a little crazy. We like to express ourselves, whether with our food or with our bodies."
Johnny Iuzzini, executive pastry chef Jean Georges (1 Central Park West)
Of all the tattooed chefs in New York City, Johnny Iuzzini might be the most famous. He got his first tattoo after a long journey backpacking across the world, during which he would volunteer in kitchens even if he didn't understand the language. That resulted in the Danish flag tattoo, a memento of a friend he'd made on the trip. Next up was a Mayan warrior, the symbol of a party he worked at the Palladium and a marker of the time he decided to finally quit the club circuit to pursue his culinary career full-time. There is a phoenix on his right arm, a symbol of rebirth inked after a tough year during which his mom fought cancer and his dad had a heart attack. He later got a large griffin on his arm, a tribute to his late mother, a wildlife rehabilitator who, like the griffin, was a guardian of sorts, taking care of sick animals in the Catskills until they could be released back into the wild. Both of his half-sleeves were done by Chris O'Donnell at New York Adorned, an artist he greatly respects: "I tell him the idea behind it and why I want it and let him do his art," Iuzzini says. "I would hate for someone to come into the kitchen with a picture of a cake and a recipe. It's like, what do you need me for then? I find people that I respect and trust and put it in their hands."
Jesse Schenker, executive chef
Recette (328 West 12th Street)
Jesse Schenker, an alum of Gordon Ramsay's the London NYC, takes the phrase "You are what you eat" further than most. His tattoo, which took more than eight hours to complete, is impressive: a piece of caul fat (the membrane surrounding a pig's internal organs) wrapped around a piece of meat—in this case, his entire forearm—punctuated by a slicer from Japanese knife-maker Misono.
"I just have an affinity for caul fat, the way it looks when it's stretched out," says Schenker. "It's almost like a web of fat. You wrap it around anything—meat, fish, duck, foie gras—and sear it. The classic French term is 'crépinette.' " It's a technique he loves, but one he usually reserves only for the fall and winter, when game is more available.
He actually brought a piece of caul fat into Addiction on St. Mark's to show his tattoo artist what it looked like, thus beginning the two-and-a-half-year process. That's not the only meaty tattoo he has on his body. He also has a T-bone steak on his shoulder, which is being cooked by a flaming skull. What's next? He's half-jokingly considering getting a tattoo of his spinal cord over his spine.
Brian Smith, cook The Good Fork (391 Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn)
The life of a cook is hard, whether he be human or Muppet. Such is the fate of the Swedish Chef, tattooed onto Brian Smith's stomach in 2001, who is depicted juggling his severed thumb along with various vegetables over the words "Born to Cook." Smith feels similarly fated to cook: His whole family was in the restaurant and bar business—his mother was a bartender, his stepfather a chef, his father a bartender, and his stepmother a hostess for 20 years. Smith started in the kitchen washing dishes at age 14, and when he found himself still in restaurants a decade later, he decided it was time to acknowledge his culinary history in ink form. He went to Tim Sellers, a/k/a Timmy Tatts, at Mark's Studio in State College, Pennsylvania, and had it all done in 45 minutes.
"I feel I'm pretty goofy," says Smith when asked if the tattoo reflected his demeanor on the line. "In the kitchen, things get very heated, literally and figuratively, and I see myself as kind of the clown trying to make people laugh and cool situations down."
Brie Huling, bartender B Bar and Grill (40 East 4th Street) and d.b.a. Brooklyn (113 North 7th Street, Brooklyn)
"I've been a vegetarian for 15 years, so my tattoos are about my food politics, but also, each vegetable has a story about a person or experience in my life," says Brie Huling, who is covered just about everywhere with tattoos depicting artichokes, pea pods, horseradishes, and carrots, including one that is piloting a hot-air balloon. She also has "Grown in Oregon" stamped on her rear, a nod to her Eugene upbringing, and a sign of her casual and impulsive approach toward tattoos.
"I get them, maybe, when I'm bored, or when something bad happens in my life and I want to tell the story of whatever happened, but it's never really a premeditated thing," says Huling. "I don't want to get all wrapped up in thinking, 'Oh, this one thing is going to represent me for the rest of my life.' "
The South Williamsburg bartender/poet usually goes to her friend Steve Von Riepen, at Fun City Tattoo on St. Marks Place, to get her work done. Her favorite? A tattoo of martini olives on her collarbone, a tribute to her 90-year-old grandmother, affectionately nicknamed Miss Martini Mae.
Colleen Grapes, executive pastry chef
The Red Cat (227 Tenth Avenue) and the Harrison (355 Greenwich Street)
During his reign as The New York Times food critic, Frank Bruni inspired widely publicized rants from restaurateurs Jeffrey Chodorow and Keith McNally. Who would have guessed that he also inspired a tattoo? I got three pretty good Frank Bruni reviews in two years, Colleen Grapes says, referring to his reviews of Dressler, Irving Mill, and the Harrison (two, one, and two stars, respectively). I was happy and proud of that, so I was like 'Ive got to get something.
What she got was a rendering of the chemical compound for theobromine, the bitter alkaloid found in chocolate, inked about a year ago at Saved Tattoo in Williamsburg. Its only the first part of a two-part tattoo she hopes to complete soon, the second component being the Mayan god of chocolate, bringing together the mystical and scientific origins of chocolate. Of course, as befitting her surname, she has a bundle of Bordeaux grapes tattooed on her back, which she had done by an artist known simply as Bugs at the New York Tattoo Convention three years ago. The family didnt take to her tribute right away, but theyve since warmed to it: Now we go out and [my dad] says, 'Show people your tattoo! and Im like 'Dad! Come on, thats embarrassing!
Chris Leahy, executive chef
BLT Prime (111 East 22nd Street)
Chris Leahy just might have the most unique food tattoo in the restaurant business: a soup bowl with the word Gastronomique written across it and a turnip, Spanish mackerel, and a cows head floating overhead in the soups steam.
I wanted it to be food-related, but I didnt want it to be something simple like a vegetable, says Leahy of the tattoo, which took four and a half hours to complete. I wanted it to be more intricate. I wanted people to think about it, for it to represent multiple layers of flavors.
It has been six years since he bartered food-for-tattoo with a Long Island artist at Calle Ocho, and since then, hes only gotten one more, his family crest on his forearm. But dont worry; hes got another complicated culinary tattoo on the schedule. Hes planning on getting a face completely composed of different types of food in the style of 16th-century Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
And what do his parents think of all his ink? Theyre like, 'How are you going to feel about that tattoo when you are 80? and I said, 'Im going to feel pretty good about it. Im going to look at it and remember living in New York City and all the cool things Ive done here.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to New York dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.