“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.”
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.”
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.”
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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