No matter where nor what kind of kitchen you weasel your way into, there’s always one item of stock you’ll find in surplus—tattoos. They’re uptown, at hoighty-toighty starred experiences that dazzle and delight, and ever-present at the obscure, lower-whatever pop-ups you never hear about until after they’ve sold out. But why are F&B folk so obsessed with covering their bodies in such permanent, oftentimes hurtful ways? Is there an unspoken connection between taste and flavor and pleasure and pain that those of us on the other side of the table don’t know about? Or is it a concerted effort to push back against the formal tradition of chef regalia? Family Style found six beautiful New Yorkers making beautiful food and beverages, and stripped them down to find out more.
At first glance, you wouldn’t realize the extent of tattoos that cover Michelle Smith’s skin—and that’s on purpose. The first job the now-29-year-old had in the Big Apple was working in the front of house at the famed Eleven Madison Park, before going onto other fine dining establishments such as The Finch, The Beatrice Inn, The Four Seasons Restaurant, and Le Coucou—places where letting the food speak for itself was not only encouraged but enforced. “Chefs are visual artists,” says Smith, noting the culture shift that happens steps away from customers’ gaze behind the kitchen door. “They express themselves every night through every dish they plate. So naturally, they are drawn to one of the greatest forms of art and self expression—tattoos.” Out of the 20 or so she currently boasts, Smith’s most special tattoo is a permanent reminder of her father, who passed away last year. “It’s one of the last texts he sent,” she says heartfeltly. “He wished me a good day and said he loved me.”
Each time Luis Herrera gets a new tattoo, it becomes his favorite. That is until the next one comes. The executive chef and partner of Ensenada has been covering up his body nearly half of his life. “It started when a bunch of my close friends were getting into tattooing and they needed skin to practice on,” he remembers of his gateway drug: a giant pirate ship that sails across his rib cage. That was at least 99 tattoos ago. “No one cares if chefs are heavily tattooed,” asserts the 37-year-old. “It’s an outcast profession; we don’t follow normal social structures,” he explains, citing his non-traditional working hours as well as chefs’ inherent nature to go against the grain. But more than that, says Herrera, there is a natural affinity between cooking and tattoo-getting. “There’s a very reciprocal respect between the two crafts,” he says. “I’ve become friends with most of my tattoo artists, so going into their shops is a way to exchange ideas. Many of them come into my restaurant often as well. They love food, and we love tattoos. We work with our hands, have physically demanding jobs, and are always trying to be as creative as we can. We’re also both a little crazy… what else is there to bond about?”
“My first was my half-sleeve,” recalls Sophia Roe. “It was certainly ambitious, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.” That was ten years ago. Recently 35, the chef, producer, host, and Family Style’s food editor has over 50 tattoos now; many of them represent holistic life meanings whereas some are tied to specific personal moments. Others, she says truthfully, are just cute. “Chefs are sentimental people,” continues Roe, who has no doubt her entire body will someday be fully covered. “We dedicate our lives to the people we feed and to the products we use to feed them. I’m not attempting to romanticize being a chef—it’s incredibly challenging work—but perhaps this is exactly why we love the idea of expressing ourselves through ink. There’s a lot of really personal satisfaction that comes from all this hard work that we do, which is a very similar feeling that we get from being tattooed. Having the ability to adorn that very body that works tirelessly to feed people in any which way that we can think? I can’t imagine anything better.”
Misha Chavez got his first tattoo, a grizzly bear on his backside, eight years ago.” I wanted it to be inspired by something that would never change so that I would never regret it,” explains the 26-year-old New York bartender, whose name and the animal share the same word in Russian. It also harkens to his home state of California. Now, it’s hard to keep track of just how many tattoos Chavez has, although he guesses the total work time is somewhere between 80 to 100 hours. Of the various collages on his body, Chavez cherishes a portrait of the devil on his butt as one of his favorites (“the character embodies what it really means to be human,” he explains), and has plans to get Sun Wukong, the monkey king from Journey to the West, tattooed at some point in the future as well as Koschei the Deathless from Eastern European folklore. So why do so many kitchen personnel gravitate towards ink? “Most of us are creative types that like to work with our hands as well as with other people,” thinks Chavez. “But we’re a bit rebellious. We’re also really fascinated by the way things look, otherwise, we wouldn’t spend hours trying to make food and drinks as beautiful as we do.”
Chinchakriya “Cha” Un has at least 30 tattoos, but she’s spent more on her recipes than many of their designs. “They usually come to me the same day I go for them,” the 36-year-old chef and owner of Kreung, a series of Cambodian pop-up dinners that span New York City, explains. That doesn’t tarnish their meaning though. Her most impactful, for instance, is her intricate khmer sak yant, a traditional Cambodian etching that utilizes a combination of Buddhist and Hindu sacred images to represent protection, success, strength, luck, and wisdom. (Un was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and moved to Massachusetts with her parents as an infant before settling in South Carolina.) As for her thoughts on the ubiquity of ink across all sides of the kitchen? Tattoos bring both “individual expression,” the Brooklyn-based chef explains, “and a sense of belonging to a community.”
“Restaurants are home to a whole motley crew of people,” says Christiano Wennmann, who had no specific message in mind when he got a pack of cigarettes chiseled into his skin below his left pec at the age of 15. “It says ‘shit luck,’” he laughs, “I just thought it was funny.” Like many of the ink-covered-creatives featured in this story, Wennmann has since lost count of the markings on his bodies, but every day he walks into Scarr’s Pizza, where he works as head pizzamaker, he is reminded of his favorite: the infamous Playboy bunny. But rather than the ‘50s logo scribbled beneath it, the 23-year-old’s reads “Pizzaboy,” because, well, of course. “There are still stigmas and archaic rhetorics surrounding tattoos,” he continues. “Restaurants seem to be one of the last few places in the world in which how one chooses to express oneself has no impact on their ability to get a job or perform at a high level. Imagine if I tried to roll up to the Goldman Sachs office in a suit and tell them I was an intern there? They’d freak out!”