The first inked up chef I became aware of was the chef in either season one or season two of "Hell's Kitchen" on Fox. And he won.
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If chefs are the new rock stars — and by all accounts they are, considering all the splashy, chef-centric TV reality shows, the rise of Internet "food porn," and breathless magazine coverage — it's no wonder they're starting to look the part.
These days, some kitchen professionals express themselves as much with their tattoos as with their artfully plated food, often wearing shorter sleeves to show off intricately inked skin. While uniforms are still de rigueur in kitchens, the iconic, formal toque, long-sleeved double-breasted white jacket, and neckerchief have become remnants of a faded, genteel past.
The image-driven restaurant world was slow to budge on the tattoo taboo, stereotypically associated with bikers, criminals, and other so-called unsavory characters, but given the intense lifestyle of these food-obsessed adrenaline junkies — with their long hours and occasional late-night debauchery — it was only a matter of time before somebody would glamorize them.
"Tattoos didn't become acceptable until the last few years — especially after Miami Ink came out, and (after) food shows like Top Chef, where all the contestants are inked," says FnB owner Pavle Milic, who was accustomed to wearing a sharp two-piece suit in previous jobs as a mâitre d'. He started getting tattoos at 18, and is currently planning the design for his next piece.
He recalls his early years working at restaurants in the late '80s and '90s, when tattoos had to be strictly hidden from potential employers as well as customers. But now that he's become an entrepreneur, Milic is proud to show off FnB's tattooed crew, which includes chef-owner Charleen Badman and sous chef Sacha Levine.
"I was trepidatious because you're also putting yourself out there — tattoos are a very strong statement," he says. "You're in front of people so much, and people can make judgments. But the beauty of tattoos is that they don't always need explanations."
At FnB, as well as many other restaurants, the increasing popularity of open kitchens gives diners yet another chance to interact with chefs. And rather than tone down their individual tastes for the customers, they're only becoming more expressive.
"It was Tony Bourdain who said once that this business attracts unusual characters. He called them 'misfits.' I wouldn't necessarily call them that," Milic says, "but this business attracts people who are a little more creative — not conventional nine-to-five folk. There is a little bit of a counterculture."
Whether it's for sheer rebellion, a rite of passage, to tell a story, or to document a time of one's life, for Milic, ink represents one thing.
"It's the freedom to be who you want to be."