Zazu and Bovolo chef, John Stewart, displays his butchering diagram tattoo
The July issue of Food and Wine garnered more than usual attention and press. On it, the "Best New Chefs" of 2009 were photographed in all their glory--and with all their tattoos. In the "Letters to the Editor" for the October issue of the magazine, a reader objected, noting, "I don't recall subscribing to Sailor's Monthly." Moving on from print, as anyone who tunes in to Top Chef can tell you, tattoos are a vibrant presence in each episode. In fact, Bravo has even put together a slideshow displaying current contestant's ink. From small flowers to intricate sleeves, the aspiring Top Chefs show it all off.
Locally, the Bay Area could host a similar show. A great many chefs have tattoos, and interestingly (although not surprisingly)--many are food related. I set out to take a closer look and found that, while tattoos in general are often thought of as the ultimate form of self-expression, the following food personalities are proving that their alimentary tats are more than that. Part immortalizing a favorite dish, part business inspiration and contract, part celebrating personal success--they all prove that they're in it for the long run.
A Business Contract--With Yourself
Jake Godby, owner of Humphry Slocombe ice cream, isn't technically a chef--although he was a prominent pastry chef before deciding to open his innovative scoop shop. The inspiration behind the 31 flavors tattoo gracing his forearm was completely business related. Jake was having difficulties with PG&E as he worked to open the shop on Harrison St. Things were going slower than he would've liked and he was becoming more and more frustrated with each passing day. He knew that if he did something permanent, if he got a tattoo, it was a contract with himself that he'd stick with it: "There's no turning back now."
Jake Godby, owner of Humphry Slocombe, shows off his ice cream cone tattoos
Self-Identification and Expression
Jake's ice cream tattoo isn't his only food-related ink. He also has a Campbell's soup can, the Pillsbury doughboy, and Elsie the cow. Jake was a double major in art and art history, so the Campbell's soup can is a melding of his interest in both. And the Pillsbury doughboy? Jake laughs, "I'm a baker. It just fit." As for Elsie: he just liked her. For Jake, it was about identifying with an image that was important to him, and that spoke to how he saw himself.
Jake shows off the lesser-known tats
The necessity to express oneself in the kitchen is particularly strong for chefs. "It's a nice way for people who spend an absurd amount of time in the back of a kitchen to express themselves. It's one way to really be yourself in the kitchen without annoying anyone," Richie Nakano, sous chef at NOPA, explains. He goes on, saying "The thing about cooking is it's an industry where you can wear your hair however you want, get tattoos...cooking's about the craft, not about your appearance." So while there is obviously a creative outlet with the food preparation and presentation, most chefs are stuck in a sweaty room for 12 hours a day with the same few folks. Tattoos are a way to stand out, make a statement, and express oneself in a profession where those things are reserved for the product rather than the individual.
Richie spoke a bit about his newest tattoo, a sleeve of the four seasons. He had fall and winter done about a month ago, spring's to come, and he just had the figs (Summer) outlined a few weeks ago. Part self-expression, part celebrating the vibrance of the seasons here in California, and a team effort with his beloved local tattoo artist whom he’s put a lot of trust in conceiving of it.
Richie Nakano, sous chef at NOPA, and his Four Seasons Sleeve
Celebrating Forward Movement in the Kitchen
LewisNewton of Fish and Farm got his first food tattoo to celebrate his moving up in the culinary world. Of it, he says "I got the Oui Chef! / Non Chef! tat after I got my first Executive Chef job. I planned it years earlier when I was a young cook/sous chef. The inspiration was about my progression as a cook in this industry. When you are a young cook, with great respect and gusto you would always answer your superior Chefs with a thundering YES CHEF!!! Now, the cooks answer me with that exclamation."
When I asked him what others may have expected him to get, he said: "A picture of tongs! I do not use tongs in the kitchen as part of my French trained background. At one point I wanted to get a picture of tongs with a red line through it, saying in script below, Frenchie Poo." In talking to each chef, I learned quickly that tongs often signify a newbie cook (whereas more seasoned chefs can use more delicate, less clumsy instruments to handle their food). Chad's comment certainly illustrates how, for some cooks, their tattoo is almost like a trophy, a sign that they've made it and are celebrating in the best, most permanent way.
Richie Nakano has a similar story, and interestingly enough, he mentions tongs as well. Regarding the spoon tattoo on his forearm, he says "It's an Oneida baguette spoon...they're everywhere, kind of your generic spoon. It was perfect for me because I was at the point in my career where my technique had developed and I was happy with it. I wasn't relying on tongs or other clumsy tools anymore." The spoon signified more skill, more finesse, a real coming into his own in the kitchen.
Richie Nakano, sous chef at NOPA, displaying his Oneida spoon tattoo
When I asked John Stewart of Zazu and Bovolo to tell me about his butcher's diagram tattoo, he said that he'd worked with Mario Batali in New York and was living in Seattle at the time. Mario's dad had a place in Seattle called Salumi (and it's still there, currently run by Mario's sister Gina). At the time, John was learning the craft and art of curing meats and began to build confidence and a skill set. "The magic part of it went away and I started doing whole cuts--prosciutto, copas--and demonstrating more of a skill level and curing consistency...at that point, I became a fanatic." It certainly didn't happen overnight. In talking to John, I learned that curing something like prosciutto can take anywhere from 14-20 months, so there was a lot of patience and persistence involved. John had the business card from Salumi laying around and thought, "I should get this on my arm!"
Making a Statement: Why I Do What I Do
As for Chad Newton's other food tattoo, a pig and octopus with the words Break Bread and Le Repretoire, he says: "Break bread is not a religious term--it's about sharing a meal with loved ones. That's why I cook: to feed people in settings where families and friends can all share time together, share food together, eat family style, share stories, catch up on their events, just break bread... As for Le Repertoire, that means a person's set of skills. For example, I am proud that I can butcher efficiently, make traditional pasta, and cook great tasting Vietnamese street food."
Chad Newton shows off his two food-related tattoos
John Stewart echoes this sentiment, appreciating the fact that he has an image that represents a timeless kind of thing: curing meats, something he truly believes in. "It's a very traditional product. There's a shifting focus from mass-produced products back towards things actually produced by people."
Moms never like tattoos much. Chad and Richie can attest to that: "It's always Mom. I have had tattoos since I was 17, but she still cries after every single one and tells me that it is bad for my career," Chad says. Richie says his mom's never fond of his tattoos, but tends to get over them pretty quickly. The other day though, she did warn him "Just don't go tattooing your face!" John’s mother asked to see the tattoo, but wasn't shocked. "We do live in California, after all," he jokes. And Jake's family and friends seem universally accepting of the ice cream: "Even my grandparents like it," he says.
The Big, Bold, Inked Future
As for future tattoos, Richie doesn't have anything planned right away. But in talking to his tattoo artist recently while getting the figs done, the wheels started turning. And although Jake wasn't sure what his next inked move would be, there were long moments of thought and hesitation. I got the sense that there would be another addition at some point. Chad plans to get a large tasting menu down his whole back. It would look like a large hand written menu, encompassing some of his favorite things to eat and cook--in proper tasting menu order. He'd also like to get a symmetrical half sleeve of the pig/octopus, but with different game birds and some more script. And John's looking to get a rooster in a similar 50's style inspired by his trip to Kauai and the plethora of roosters there. After researching this, John discovered that sailors often had tattoos of pigs and roosters because the animals were kept in boxes, so they floated during shipwrecks--a symbol of tenacity and survival. And in these changing and uncertain times, what more could a chef--and we, their faithful diners--ask for?