Growing up in and around a restaurant kitchen (my dad owned a fried chicken joint) and now spending much of my career writing about food and the people who make it great, I always like to hear chefs talk about their tattoos.
Being a chef of any kind is intense as all hell. But it’s also an art that requires a free-roaming, slightly unhinged frame of mind. They’re sensitive beings with complex emotions and fabulously twisted senses of humour, so naturally they have rad tattoos.
For the past week I’ve been emailing with 13 East and West Coast chefs to find out the backstories of their tattoos. What I ended up getting went so much further than why and when.
1. JESSE SCHENKER
Author, “All or Nothing: One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme”
I got it in 2005, while I was in a work release program, newly sober and cooking my heart out.
“My left arm is tattooed with the words ‘ALL OR NONE,’ written in my own handwriting. It’s inspired by the Pearl Jam song that reflects my mentality for the extreme, whether it be my dark past with drugs or intense passion for cooking. The words are surrounded by a piece of caul fat — the membrane surrounding a pig’s internal organs — wrapped around a piece of meat and punctuated by a slicer from Japanese knife-maker Misono. I got it in 2005, while I was in a work release program, newly sober and cooking my heart out.
I’m a longtime Pearl Jam fan and the band has been a big part of my life through thick and thin. Serendipitously, the song “Alive” even came on in the back of a cop car after my final arrest, which signified a moment of life-changing clarity.”
2. MARC FORGIONE
“I use [tattoos] almost like a roadmap of my life. They all have their own little story. It’s a badge of memory. The wild turkey feathers are a sign to the great spirit that I’m always listening and paying attention to the simple gifts in life.”
Editor’s note: Forgione is really into Navajo art — it’s what inspired him to open his first restaurant. The “1621” on both of his biceps represents his 2010 win on “The Next Iron Chef,” for which he recreated the first Thanksgiving meal.
3. STEPHEN COLLUCCI
Pastry chef, Colicchio & Sons
“I wanted to get a tattoo that reflected my love of the craft but wasn’t feminine. The tattoo [the Italian word for sugar] is meant to express my dedication to my art and pay homage to my roots, which inspire me on the daily.”
4. LUKE WALLACE
Chef de cuisine, CraftBar New York
It stands for act 3, scene 1, lines 58-92 … the ‘to be or not be’ speech from Hamlet.
“My father was in the navy and served in the Vietnam War. I always loved his stories of travel, food, and excitement in Southeast Asia. He had a similar tattoo of an anchor that he got in the navy, with ‘made in Brooklyn’ written underneath it. By the time I was born it was already a blurry mess, but I still remember thinking it was so cool.
When [my father] passed away from cancer a few years back, this seemed like a good way to honour his memory. I also took my first Southeast Asia trip to Vietnam shortly after.
The banner at the top is a part I added — it stands for act 3, scene 1, lines 58-92, probably one the most famous speeches ever written, the to be or not be’ speech from Hamlet, a classic tail of life, death, and loss of fathers.”
5. MICHAEL CHERNOW
Owner, Seamore’s (coming summer 2015)
Co-founder, The Meatball Shop
“On my left arm I have a tattoo of my first dog, Duke. I got him when I was 18 and he was truly like a son to me. My right arm is tattooed with orchids because they are my mother’s favourite — and now I can give her flowers every time I see her.
Basically, every tattoo I have represents something that is very near and dear to my heart. They keep me grounded and remind me what matters most in life.”
6. ADAM GERINGER-DUNN
Executive chef/owner, Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co.
Being a pescatarian, I believe oysters to be a perfect protein.
“My first and only tattoo is of Wellfleet oysters. I’ve been going to Cape Cod with my family for 25 years. I think Wellfleet consistently produce some of the best oysters in the country.
Being a pescatarian, I believe oysters to be a perfect protein. They have a net positive effect on the environment, [they’re] totally sustainable, incredibly healthy, delicious, and [don’t] need any cooking or significant preparation to eat.”
7. JEFF MAHIN
Chef/partner, Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants
My first tattoo I got when I was 16 — that my friends and I did to each other — probably wasn’t the best idea
“My first tattoo I got when I was 16 — that my friends and I did to each other — probably wasn’t the best idea.
I met a guy when I was 18 who was totally covered in tattoos, and he was 75. I randomly talked to him and he told me a story that I still remember to this day. He always wanted tattoos but his wife didn’t really like them. When she died, he decided to move to Japan and find the best tattoo artist and do a full body tattoo.
Japanese artwork has always been a big part of my life, as my dad was an engineer.
8. EMILY CHAPMAN
Sous chef, Louro
RIGHT: “I got this tattoo on the second year anniversary of Louro. Some restaurants really change you as a chef and person, and I wanted to carry those lessons with me always.”
LEFT: “These are all warriors from ancient history, what I used to study before culinary arts. They help support my inner warrior and remind me of my love of history.”
9. KEVIN ADEY
RIGHT: “‘Commis’ represents the lowest/least experienced person in the kitchen. It’s a symbol that we are always learning.”
LEFT: “[Called ‘Pig Arthur’] this represents that the meat I cook came from animals that had to die — so don’t mess it up!”
10. SEAN OLNOWICH
Chef, Bounce Sporting Club
“The one large tattoo I have stems from my studies of Eastern cultures and, more specifically, the way of the Bushido and Japanese ideology in general. There are three major components to the tattoo: The most prominent is the dragon, which represents wisdom, strength (for the good of mankind), and generosity; next is the koi fish, which represents courage, desire, and determination; and last is the cherry blossom tree and petals, which represents beauty, love, and the essence of life.”
11. RAYMOND ALVAREZ
Executive chef, Toca Madera
“This tattoo serves as a thank you to my mum for all she has done, and for making me who I am today.”
12. SAM MASON
Chef/co-owner, OddFellows Ice Cream Co.
I actually have no reason or inspiration behind my tattoos.
“Believe it or not, I actually have no reason or inspiration behind my tattoos. I don’t give a concept to the artist.
I just seek out great artists that I trust and give them free reign to do what they do best. All of my tattoos are original work that I’ve consented to right before going under the needle. So far, so good!”
13. LUIS JARAMILLO
Executive chef, Blue Water Grill
RIGHT: “The Inca god Viracocha represents the heritage where I come from, Ecuador.”
LEFT: “It is a philosophical way of not being afraid — freeing your thoughts, mind, soul.”