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From toques to tattoos, a kitchen culture change

Stephanie Izard looks like the girl next door, all T-shirt and curly pony tail. Until she wipes the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. And then you see it.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stephanie Izard looks like the girl next door, all T-shirt and curly pony tail. Until she wipes the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. And then you see it.

The fish tattoo.

"Cooking is an art and tattoos are another form of art," says the chef-owner of Chicago's acclaimed Girl and the Goat restaurant, showing off the delicate drawing on the inside of her wrist. Roll up her pants and a pea tendril struggles up her calf, a tiny plant becoming strong. A bright green gecko sits on one hip. A dolphin resides somewhere unshowable. And across her back, the piece de resistance — a blossoming basil plant encircled by cartoonish flying pigs.

"People come into our restaurant and say 'Do you only hire line chefs with tattoos?'" says Izard, the first and only woman to win Bravo's "Top Chef." "No, we just happen to have lot of them covered in them."

Once considered the province of sailors, bikers, ex-cons and, of course, college hipsters, tattoos have become standard attire in professional kitchens, a symbol of culinary culture as surely as a toque. Whether the drawings are egg beaters, lemon meringue pies or ancient tribal motifs, body art in the kitchen is now so mainstream that everyone from lowly kitchen rats to celebrity chefs proudly display their work on television, magazine covers, high-end catalogues and in the pages of their cookbooks, making culinistas ever more like rock stars.

"It used to be those cockamamie chef hats that denoted an expertise with a spatula," says Rocky Rakovic, editor of Inked magazine, a publication dedicated to tattoo culture and that has featured several chefs. "But now time in many kitchens is represented by the amount of tattoos one has."

Meat cutting diagrams — the different cuts of a pig or cow denoted by dotted lines — and kitchen knives done like daggers are popular with chefs, tattoo artists say. Cupcakes, hot dogs, pies, equipment — a stand mixer showing a reflection in the stainless steel bowl receives raves from tattoo connoisseurs — are standard when you're talking food tattoos. Food Network chef Duff Goldman, also known as The Ace of Cakes, has a whisk.

Hugh Acheson, chef-partner of three acclaimed Georgia restaurants, who has four tattoos himself, including the names of his wife and children, as well as a Mayan god he got during a trip to the Yucatan peninsula when he was 16 (he swears he was sober). His favorite is the radish on the inside of his left forearm, which commemorates the first plant he grew at his house more than a decade ago, and which gets the spotlight in his new cookbook's food photos.

But lots of chefs make little or no reference to their profession. In those cases, the ink — and the reasons for getting it — are as individual as the chef.

Bryan Voltaggio, the 35-year-old chef-owner of Volt Restaurant in Frederick, Md., and a finalist (along with brother Michael) on season 6 of "Top Chef," has six tattoos, including a nautical star to guide him. The names of his children and their Chinese zodiac signs celebrate their births. And his lightening bolt — a tattoo he shares with even more heavily tattooed Michael — celebrates their friendship with childhood buddies (who also have the same tattoo).

Marc Forgione's eight tattoos represent turning points in his life or career: the Navajo art that inspired him to open his own restaurant; the "1621" on both biceps documenting his recreation of the first Thanksgiving, the meal that cinched his 2010 win on the Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef"; the tribal infinity symbol his parents gave him on his 18th birthday.

"I use them almost like a roadmap of my life," says the 32-year-old chef-owner of Restaurant Marc Forgione. "They all have their own little story. It's a badge of memory."

Chefs with tattoos are nothing new, Rakovic says. What is new is their emergence from the bowels of restaurant life onto television and into the spotlight. But industry watchers like Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, say the volume of ink has definitely increased during the past five years or so — and it should be no surprise.

"If you look at a chef with beautiful tatts you might also be looking at a chef that presents very beautifully plated food," says Cowin, whose July 2009 cover featured the elaborately inscribed arms of chefs Nate Appleman and Vinny Dotolo and drew fire from a few readers who thought it was in poor taste. "So the opposite conclusion can be drawn: not 'They're heathens,' but, 'They must be appreciators of art.'"

Which is exactly why chefs like them. "Chefs are artistic people who get inspired by things and that has a lot to do with tattoos," Forgione says. "We're kind of artistic, rebellious, a little crazy."

Tattoos also fit nicely into the late night lifestyle chefs lead, with the blazing lights of tattoo parlors offering diversion when other places are closed. And for those who enjoy being adorned, tattoos are earrings and bracelets. "It's an accessory," Izard says. "You can't wear jewelry in the kitchen, but you can wear tattoos."

The current trend also may be partly generational. Over the years, kitchen culture in general has relaxed, chefs say. As the strict French model of the "brigade" became dated, Voltaggio says, toques came off and sleeves were rolled up showing off tattoos that already were there. By the early 2000s, more ink than ever was exposed, inspiring others to get tattoos and reinforcing body art's place in the kitchen culture.

But tattoos aren't for everyone. "I'm tattooed on the inside," jokes Spike Mendelsohn, owner of two Washington eateries. He's known not for his tattoos — he doesn't have any — but for the fedora he wore when he competed in Season 4 of "Top Chef." "I wanted to stand out, so I became 'that fedora-wearing chef,'" he says. "But it comes time to evolve and that's the great thing about having signatures that aren't permanent."

Cowin says she sees things swinging back in Mendelsohn's direction. "I think we're going to see it ebb," she says. "There's been an increasing amount of ink over time, and chefs, who always want to be at the vanguard, will feel like, 'Oh that's something everybody does'. And they don't want to be one of everybody."