July 15, 2011 10:12 pm

The culinary art

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Nothing shows chefs’ commitment to the trade like their food tattoos
Nathan Sasi and his tattoo

Nathan Sasi, 27, senior chef at Moro, Clerkenwell. I have a bird with a knife through it on my chest, and an octopus with a fork and spoon on my arm. I get one or two a year – the bird and the skull represent the animals that we kill for food. And the knife, fork and spoon are obviously to do with cooking

“The first 15 minutes are the worst,” says tattooist Bob Done, as his whining needle hovers above chef Charlie Taylor’s ribs. “Then adrenaline kicks in and carries you through for an hour and a half.” Taylor, who works at smart French bistro Racine in Knightsbridge, is lying topless on a massage table in the basement of Magnum Opus Tattoo in Brighton. His food tattoo collection already includes a slice of pizza and a Sabatier knife, and today he’s getting the outline of a huge wild boar across his chest. It will take six hours to complete. “I’ll probably get a steak next,” he says, as Done runs black lines, which become raised and swollen, back and forth across his sternum. “Dude, I hate you so much right now.”

While tattoos are more fashionable than ever, it’s fairly unusual for a profession as a whole to get tattoos illustrating what they do – there aren’t many bankers with pound signs inked along their arms, nor many plumbers decorated with wrenches. Chefs, however, do get tattooed with their tools and favourite ingredients, in a similar way to the only other profession that marks itself with its insignia, the military.

There are a number of parallels that explain this. Auguste Escoffier’s 19th-century brigade system, still widely used in the kitchen, is based on military rankings. Both professions require uniforms, falling in line under seniors (“Yes, chef!”), and what outsiders consider huge, sometimes physical, sacrifices to be part of a team. Talk to any scarred brigade chef about what they do and why, and two attributes come up again and again: “I’m passionate” and “I’m crazy.”

And nothing illustrates chefs’ single-minded commitment to their trade like their food tattoos: José Pizarro, of Bermondsey’s José, was missing Spanish food when he got a bull on his back. “It reminds me of my country and my job – a bit crazy, but I wanted to put all that on to myself.” At Sketch in Mayfair, the goblin chef on Marco Lagrimino’s arm reflects why he works so hard: “If I have a long day, I just look down at it and it reminds me of my dedication to my job,” he says. As Nathan Sasi, a senior chef at London’s Moro restaurant explains: “We’re so involved in our work that it comes out in the art we like.”

Lee Tiernan and his tattoos

Lee Tiernan, 35, head chef at St John Bread and Wine, Spitalfields. I love globe artichokes and have one tattooed on the inside of my bicep. It’s part of a William Morris design – the William Morris factory is near my old house on the river Wandle. I’ve got an empty martini glass with olives on my leg as well. I had a few too many martinis at the Four Seasons in New York and the morning after, I got the tattoo

From the outside, that art can seem extreme. In the United States, where the trend gained momentum, there are some extraordinary pieces. Chef Nino Mancari has the revered San Franciscan chef Alice Waters’ face on his arm alongside a butcher’s pig diagram. Jesse Schenker, once a chef at Gordon Ramsay’s The London NYC, has caul fat (natural sausage casing) drawn around his forearm. Carolynn Spence, executive chef at LA’s Chateau Marmont, is covered in food tattoos, including a Japanese Kikuichi knife, the word “terroir”, an anthropomorphic onion, carrot and celery, half-inch portion marks along the side of her hand (which she uses) as well as tablespoon and teaspoon measures on her palm. “Cooks are a driven, passionate, artful, moody and overworked lot,” she says. “The kitchen accepted me into its world when I was young and into punk rock. It accepted me for my quirkiness and egged it on, if anything.”

Matt Bishop's tattooed arm

Matt Bishop, 33, head chef, Maze Grill, Mayfair. Cooking is my absolute everything and I have five food-related tattoos. One is a chef’s mise-enplace [or prep] list on a piece of parchment. Then I have four fruit weapons – a pineapple hand grenade, a cut-throat courgette razor, a banana flintlock pistol and a cherry bomb. I’m thinking about also getting a set of cucumber nunchucks. I feel like food is the weapon of my trade.

Britain’s chefs have taken the trend and run with it. As well as the chefs photographed here, junior sous Alex Bond from Sat Bains’s eponymous restaurant near Nottingham has Heston Blumenthal’s signature scrawled up his torso. “Heston was at the restaurant,” he says, “and I said to Sat [Bains] that if he could get Heston to sign me, I’d get it tattooed”. Why? “Because it’s Heston. He’s a legend. And he’s got a really cool signature.” Glynn Purnell, chef-patron of Purnell’s in Birmingham, inked a Michelin star on his thigh in celebration of receiving one, and Russell Norman, owner of Polpo, Polpetto, Spuntino and Da Polpo, got an octopus on his back to celebrate opening his first restaurant. “Although tattoos are non-conformist,” says Norman, “they are also very conformist. It’s a way to show other like-minded individuals that they will understand you and your ideals. When chefs get tattoos of knives, food or kitchen equipment, it shows a sort of tribal allegiance.”

Dario Sutera and his fish tattoo

Dario Sutera, 28, chef de partie, Locanda Locatelli, Marble Arch. I cook a lot of fish, and so I love that I have a fish tattoo that symbolises strength and power but is also what I live off. It’s a sign of respect, in a way. If I have a bad day, I look down and there it is (it’s quite big so it’s hard to miss) and it reminds me that perseverance is a strength, a great quality and very necessary for a chef.

There’s a long, if obscure, history of marking yourself according to your profession, says Alex Binnie, founder of Into You Tattoo in Clerkenwell, where lots of London chefs get their tattoos. “George Burchett, king of the Victorian tattooists, tattooed a Piccadilly sommelier’s chest with his restaurant’s entire wine list, at the beginning of the last century. It’s about declaring what it is that you do and identify with.”

Back in Magnum Opus Tattoo, Charlie Taylor is settling in for a long afternoon on the table. “We’re a weird bunch, chefs. Pretty much everyone I work with is heavily tattooed. It’s a job where you’re hidden away from the public, and it’s a form of self-expression in a job where almost everything personal about your appearance is stripped back.” He braces himself, as the needle whirs back and forth across his skin.

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Charlie Taylor's tattoed arm

Charlie Taylor, 23, Racine, Knightsbridge. I sometimes think I look like a race car, sponsored by nonsense. I have a lot of tattoos, including a pizza slice that was done after a night out because I fancied a slice of pizza. The chef’s knife on the side of my hand is an old, French-style Sabatier knife and I’m part way through getting a wild boar on my chest. They are illustrations of my profession

Marco Lagrimino's tattooed arm

Marco Lagrimino, 26, chef de partie, Sketch, Mayfair. I happen to like goblins, and I got this one, wearing chefs whites, when I came to London about a year ago. I got it to celebrate cooking. It wasn’t particularly painful and took about two and a half hours to do. I’ve only had positive comments about it, especially from chefs in the kitchen. I don’t plan to have any more

José Pizarro's tattooed back

José Pizarro, 39, chef-patron, José, Bermondsey. I had just arrived in London when I decided to get this done, and I was missing Spain, my culture, food and wine. It’s a Spanish bull and it took about three hours. I love it. I’m not going to have any more though, I’m too old now. It’s a little bit crazy, but then, chefs are all crazy

Viktor Sundstrom's tattooed feet

Viktor Sundstrom, 33, demi chef de partie, St John Hotel, Leicester Square. I use garlic and shallots a lot in the kitchen and I felt that as tattoos they were pretty unique. I have one on each foot. The one on my calf took about five hours and is me aged three, in a chef’s hat, with thyme, rosemary and a crossed butcher’s knife and fork. Next I am going to get some Swedish berries – I am Swedish – on my arm, then a pin-up baker girl

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