Cooks, Illustrated: Why So Many Chefs Have Tattoos

A new book “Knives and Ink” examines the reasons our culinary heroes are so into body art.

"Japanese art was omnipresent in my childhood. Now, it's omnipresent on my body," says private chef Brian Grosz.Courtesy "Knives and Ink," by Wendy MacNaughton and Isaac Fitzgerald

When it was time for sailor and cook Mandy Lamb to get a tattoo, she decided on two arrows arranged in an “X” on her forearm. They remind her, she says, of a painful lesson learned on her first boat: “Don’t fall in love with the captain.”

Fishing-boat cook Mandy Lamb

Lamb’s is one of more than 65 illustrated vignettes (and probably my favorite) on display in the artful book Knives and Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos, by BuzzFeed books editor Isaac Fitzgerald and prolific illustrator and graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton, who appeared on our latest episode of Bite. The duo previously worked together on the 2014 book Pen and Ink, which was inspired by their popular Tumblr blog of the same name and portrayed tattooed people of all professions.

“I said, ‘So wait, you actually want me to be doing 30 things at once, and play with fire, and knives?'” -Chef Timmy Malloy

But for Knives and Ink, they zeroed in on cooks and chefs, a breed well known for sporting body art. Fitzgerald, who had a short stint as a sushi chef in San Francisco, says one reason for the propensity for tattoos is that chefs want a symbol for their “dedication to the craft.” Some chefs feel they’ve landed in a career perfectly suited to their talents—and that getting a tattoo is a way of making that clear. Fitzgerald explains:

For a very long time, being a chef is one of the very few industries where you could just be covered head to toe, tattoos on your face, it didn’t matter as long as what you were making is good. It’s this idea of, ‘If I tattoo my neck, if I tattoo my knuckles, I can’t just walk away from this and start selling cars or just go work in a business or put on a suit or sit in a cubicle. This is going to be my life.’

Personal Chef Roze Traore; Chef Timmy Malloy

MacNaughton, who learned to cook while working on a cookbook project a few years ago, points to another reason for kitchen tattoos: “Chefs are preparing food for a lot of people, but it is about their distinct dishes and their distinct flavors and they’re expressing themselves in everything they do,” she says. “I think that the marks on their body are also manifestations of the same thing, the stories and experiences that are meaningful to them.”

The tales in Knives and Ink range from sentimental to flippant, sometimes revealing deep truths about a chef’s past, sometimes simply revealing her favorite seasoning. When asked about the most popular tattoo inked by the cooks they interviewed, Fitzgerald and MacNaughton were unequivocal: the pig. “It seems to be the official or unofficial logo of professional chefs,” MacNaughton says. Sure, the quintessential butchering diagram showing a quartered hog is a favorite, but Fitzgerald found fascinating the extent to which some chefs had “tried to one-up this classic pig tattoo design” with neck tattoos of pig skulls or a gory image of a zombie ripping up a pig from the inside. If that isn’t a reason to check out this delightful book, you’re sure to enjoy the recipes or artistic renderings of favorite ingredients accompanying many of the portraits.

Sous Chef Catherine Doyle

Bite is Mother Jones‘ new food politics podcast, out every other Friday. Listen to all our episodes here, or by subscribing in iTunes or Stitcher or via RSS. Please rate us and write us a review—it helps get the word out!

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