Chef Tattoos

Published in Gourmet Live 10.05.11
Emily L. Foley looks at the crazy, cutting-edge, and even cute culinary body art inked on chefs like Rick Tramonto and Sean Brock

The restaurant industry has always attracted renegades, outsiders, and creative types. And no boardrooms or client meetings means no dress code, so a chef’s body is an ideal canvas for artistic expression. You’ll see plenty of tattoos of cutlery or the classic pig-butchering diagram in restaurant kitchens, but the following chefs have upped the ante on culinary body art.

Rick Tramonto, Culinary Director of Tramonto’s Steak & Seafood/RT Sushi Bar & Lounge; Chicago
Rick Tramonto has written seven cookbooks, served as the executive chef and partner of Chicago’s famed Tru restaurant for ten years, and opened several other highly acclaimed eateries in the city and beyond (his latest venture is a partnership with John Folse, Restaurant R’evolution, which is scheduled to open in New Orleans this fall). He’s won a slew of awards, including the 2002 James Beard Award for Best Chef Midwest, and is widely recognized as a guest judge on Bravo’s Top Chef. He’s also completely tatted up. In his memoir, Scars of a Chef, Tramonto compares the inevitable burns and cuts on a chef’s body to tattoos—permanent markings that tell stories about a person’s life. His life story has two primary themes: food and faith. “I knew there were two things I was always going to be clear about—my love for food and my love for God,” he says. “There are many things I wish I would have put more thought into in my life, but tattoos are not one of them. I have no tattoo regrets.” Of his 30 tattoos, including the words chef and faith—along his right and left forearms respectively—a cross, and a fleur-de-lis, perhaps the most impressive work is his “knife kit,” which is inked in life-size form around his calf. The piece depicts seven knives, including sashimi, serrated, and boning knives, and took nearly four years to complete. “After all these years, I have so many tattoos, and they have so much meaning to me,” he says. “They all represent a time or season in my life, good or bad.”

Lisa Higgins, Owner, Sweetpea Baking Company; Portland, Oregon
As a vegan baker, Lisa Higgins is used to turning conventional recipes on their heads. So the fact that she’d add a healthy dose of whimsy to the typically serious art of tattooing is no surprise. The owner of Portland’s first vegan bakery, Higgins comes from a long line of bakers—dating back to her great-grandfather—so you could say a sweet tooth is in her genes. To celebrate her inheritance, Higgins decided to add a candy land of cartoon delectables to her already extensive collection of tattoos. Her left leg now depicts a sugary playground complete with two gingerbread men having a frosting fight, a strawberry and blueberry riding a watermelon seesaw, cupcakes and cookies swimming in a pool of icing, and a blueberry riding a donut tire swing. It’s impossible to see the sweet tattoo and not crack a smile—even for Higgins herself. “I have so many tattoos that I got to the point that I stopped caring about it,” she says. “But with this one, I was excited to see the progress, and it really brought joy back to the tattooing experience for me.”

Sean Brock, Executive Chef, McCrady’s/Husk Restaurant; Charleston, South Carolina
The extensively tattooed are accustomed to sideways glances and whispers, but in Sean Brock’s case, the attention is more about intrigue than disdain. “I have old ladies come up and tell me, ’That’s a beautiful tattoo, young man,’” he says with a laugh. The tattoo getting these positive reviews is Brock’s vegetable garden—a full sleeve that is both expansive and extremely detailed, and which took roughly 90 hours over the course of a year to complete.

The inspiration for the chef’s ink is obvious: Known for their passionate use of local foods, Brock and his staff maintain a 1.5-acre garden on Thornhill Farm in McClellanville, South Carolina, where they plant and cultivate heirloom crops, including many varieties that had been on the verge of extinction. The vegetables on his arm include some of his favorites from the garden, including candy-striped beets, five varieties of heirloom carrots, purple-top turnips, radishes, Jimmy Red Corn, red onions, pea shoots, and pea flowers. “Having the red corn on my arm is very sentimental, because I helped bring that back a few years ago,” says Brock. (He worked with other seed savers, including Anson Mills’ Glenn Roberts, to rescue and plant the James Island Red—Jimmy Red—strain.) “All the things I love to grow and use in the kitchen are represented, and many of them, people have never tasted or seen before, so my arm becomes a visual aid at the table.”

Michael Dei Maggi, former partner at Delicious Concepts; Houston
Michael Dei Maggi is another chef who’s pretty well covered in tattoos. He says, “Historically, tattoos told the story of the wearer, whether it was sailors or the Maori of New Zealand. Today, the same thing is true.” Dei Maggi’s is a culinary story, and it’s laced with a strong sense of humor. After working in fine French restaurants for much of his career, Dei Maggi moved on to helm an American comfort-food restaurant where he cooked a whole lot of eggs and bacon. That chapter of Dei Maggi’s story comes to life in a pair of tattoos on the back of his hands: His right hand depicts two sunny-side-up eggs and the words Waky Waky, while the left hand shows two strips of bacon and “Eggs & Baky.” Such a comical and predominantly placed tattoo certainly garners curiosity, which Dei Maggi laughs off. “While having visible tattoos is common for culinarians, having a sense of humor about it is less common,” he says. “I decided to take something that is generally darker and make it more playful. It’s never a good idea to take yourself too seriously.”

Emily L. Foley is an Atlanta-based freelancer who writes about the most important things in life: fashion, beauty, and food. Her work has appeared in publications such as Food Network Magazine, US Weekly, and Hemispheres.

Subscribe to Gourmet