Nowadays chefs aren't just dicing, sautéing and braising food. They're immortalizing it by tattooing it on their bodies. Maybe it's the fact that chefs have been elevated to rock-star status in recent years, or the fact that cooking, like tattoos, is an art form. Chef Matt Marcus has another theory. "We're all just modern day pirates - we work 16-hour days sweating with big blades and lots of fire," he smiles.
Regardless the reasons, a growing number of celebrity chefs across the country are getting inked, from Guy Fieri to Michael Symon. Chef Sean Brock of Charleston's McCrady's has an entire sleeve of vegetables.
Chattanooga chefs are no exception, displaying everything from a vibrant red beet with beautiful green leaves curling up a forearm to an AK-47 comprised of kitchen implements.
Tattoos have become so popular among food professionals that some view it as rite of passage, much like earning one's stripes under the French brigade system. (The tradition awards chefs blue aprons with white stripes once promoted to an overseeing position.) Food tattoos represent a small percentage of the body art seen in professional kitchens, but it's often the most talked about.
"I think it relates more," says Marcus. "I have more elderly people come up to me and say, 'Cool tattoos.' I think if it was a skull and cross bones or the grim reaper, they wouldn't feel like they could approach me. So it definitely creates a talking point for everyone just because how food is."
We caught up with six area chefs to see what's freshly inked in their kitchens.
Chef de Cuisine, St. John's Restaurant
Total Tattoos: 4 • Food Tattoos: 2
First Tattoo: My husband and I got matching tattoos instead of rings when we got married - Egyptian Ankhs on the backs of our necks. He's a farmer so we're not big on jewelry at work.
Food Tatt Stats: MOREL MUSHROOM: My husband and I go mushroom picking. It was the first wild mushroom I found and identified and I really like them - they're really pretty and delicious. They usually signify springtime. It symbolizes for me looking for things that are hidden. BEET: A long time ago I really didn't like beets, and they were something I really wanted to like because I always thought they were pretty. My dad's Jewish so I grew up eating borscht. So I pretty much forced myself to eat them for about three years and I started liking them. Now I love them. It reminds me you can teach yourself to really love healthy food, not just be OK with it.
Why Food Tattoos? I think it's because we can get away with it, especially in the back of the house. It doesn't matter how we look, it's all about your work ethic.
Grill Cook, St. John's Restaurant
Total Tattoos: 1 • Food Tattoos: 1
First Tattoo: This is my first one. I got it about three days ago. It's just something I've always wanted to do.
Food Tatt Stats: MEAT TEMPERATURE CHART: It's something my old sous chef drew for me about a year ago. We were working a party together. He was asking for well done steaks and I was sending them out with little lines of red, which technically is not well done. The next day I walk in and he's drawn this meat chart. The way he laid it out was so basic when it's not basic at all. There's chemistry going on between rare and well done and I think it's funny how someone can draw it out in three squares and have somebody else understand it, while a culinary student may try to make it more difficult. It's just three squares - that's all you need to know. I don't like to take myself too seriously but I like being serious at what I do. I like the intensity of being in kitchens and it's something I want to keep with me always, whether I'm professionally cooking or not.
Why Food Tattoos? I think they catch your eye more. It's not something you see every day like an armband or a cross. You see a piece of bacon running down someone's arm and you're naturally going to be curious about it.
Head Chef, Hennen's
Total Tattoos: 16 • Food Tattoos: 7
First Tattoo: I got my first tattoo when I was 17 years old. I got it in France and it was done with a hammer and needle. It was a question mark with the all-seeing eye as the dot.
Food Tatt Stats: JOHNNIE WALKER LOGO: I got this when I received my stripes for the first time. I was at Chops Restaurant in Atlanta. He was a very close and personal friend of mine at the time. CHEF KNIFE: The quote with this one is "my knife is an extension of my hand." The reason it's my chef knife - and it is my chef knife because the dings are in it - but when I was learning my knife skills early in my career I was taught that you should be able to do every task with one knife, all the way down to the smallest dicing and peeling. SPOON: The spoon was done for free by some crazy guy. It doesn't look that good and it needs to get fixed. It's been there ever since. TURNIP: Everyone who cooks French food knows that the turnip is one of the most simplistic things but at the same time it's one of the hardest things to make taste good. A good chef can do 30 things with a turnip; a great chef can do 300. CARROT: The carrot to me is the root of everything. Anytime I do something that involves a significant amount of depth of flavor, I generally start with a carrot. It has the most added value to me of any root vegetable. MISE EN PLACE: Another one that is extremely close to me says Mise en Place right on my veins, and it's French for "everything in its place." It's the common organization of life basically. [It's used in professional kitchens to refer to the arrangement of ingredients that a chef will require during their shift.] AK-47 OF KITCHEN IMPLEMENTS: This is the newest one. It's the coolest one I've gotten.
Why Food Tattoos? The food industry seems to attract a lot of people who make interesting life choices. It takes a certain level of commitment. If we put this much passion into what we have on our bodies, imagine the amount of passion we're putting into the food we're producing.
Sauté, St. John's Restaurant
Total Tattoos: 15 • Food Tattoos: 1
First Tattoo: I got my first tattoo when I was 19 of the California Flag. I was born in Oakland and lived in San Francisco when I was young.
Food Tatt Stats: BACON AND BLUE ROSE: It's actually a cover-up tattoo and flowers are some of the best for cover-ups because there are so many folds. As for the bacon, pork is my favorite. I love cured meats and bacon was my first choice for a tattoo. It's an idea the artist and I came up with.
Future Plans: I plan on getting a fennel bulb on my chest. A fennel bulb whole looks kind of like a heart with blood vessels coming out of it. I have an appointment with a guy in Athens, Ga., right before Christmas.
Why Food Tattoos? It's a profession that accepts a wide range of people. I feel totally accepted with tattoos and piercings - some jobs wouldn't be as willing. It's just a really diverse group of people who work in kitchens.
Chef/Owners, Heirloom Catering
Total Tattoos: 3 • Food Tattoos: 1
First Tattoo:I got my first tattoos when I was 17 - a sun on one arm and a moon on the other. It was one of those things you just did.
Food Tatt Stats: CHEF'S KNIFE: We'd been in business about a year when we got matching tattoos. It was a celebration of our first year but also symbolizes what we've done our entire lives. It's a bond we have now even more than being brothers. Also, a chef's knife is the first thing I bought Ryan when he went to culinary school, and it's the first thing he bought me when we started this business - I'd been on the management side a while. It's your most important tool.
Why Food Tattoos? Tattoos and the restaurant business go hand in hand - they're just part of the culture. It's right up there with being a rock star. You stay up all night (whether working or playing), sleep all day, get up and start all over again. Still, I've been working in the food business since I was 15 and I can't recall seeing food tattoos until the past few years. I think working in kitchens wasn't necessarily a position people thought had any clout but with Food Network and other programs like that, it's more glorified than it's ever been.
Total Tattoos: 1 • Food Tattoos: 1
First Tattoo: I got the chef's knife about eight months ago; it's my first and only tattoo. I've been thinking about it for years but wanted to make sure it was the right time. Healing time is a factor.
Having your hand over a hot sauté line with a fresh tattoo is not really comfortable.
Food Tatt Stats: CHEF'S KNIFE: I've worked in restaurants my entire life. I love the knives so it's something I've always wanted to get. Plus the chef's knife is the logo to our business. My brother and I got the exact same tattoo on the same place on the same day, so there are lots of different meanings.
Why Food Tattoos? In the culinary world we are artists, and tattoos are just another expression of art. Also it's just part of the lifestyle. It's kind of like a rite of passage. Working in an industrial kitchen, you grow a passion for making food people will enjoy but you also grow a passion for the craziness. To willingly wake up six days a week, work 14 hour days in a confined space, in 110-degree heat in long sleeves with the exact same people every night - you've got to be a little crazy to want to do it.