Why Do Chefs, and Especially Butchers, Love Tattoos?

Corby asks culinary professionals about the roots of tattoo culture—and why people who cut flesh are so into marking their own

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Q: A reader in Boston writes: What's up with chefs and tattoos? It seems I can't pass an open kitchen, or turn on a cooking TV show, without seeing tattoos, especially for butchers. Is that part of training now? A job requirement?

A: I've wondered the same thing for a long time, particularly as Boston, which you might have noticed, has two early-adopter chefs, Andy Husbands of Tremont 647 and Jamie Bissonnette, now of Coppa, who are almost as known for their tattoos as for their food.

But I really started wondering when I ran into a young woman at Jamaica Plain's gathering place for locavores, City Feed, who works as a hostess at our new Island Creek Oyster Bar (you've been, I hope? The ideal seafood bar and restaurant pre- and post-Fenway, as I wrote in my review for Boston Magazine). She introduced me to the friend she was with, who turns out to be a butcher at Whole Foods.

"Turns out" is mild: the large and colorful tattoos on his forearms, which he happily allowed me to photograph, telegraphed his profession. I didn't quite have the nerve to ask him, "Why did you do that?" We talked job conditions at Whole Foods, health insurance, and the controversy over the opening of a Whole Foods in Jamaica Plain, which has the town in an uproar I'll be writing about soon.

I did get up the nerve to ask Husbands, whose tattoos I first noticed in a food-history class we both took at Radcliffe in the mid-1990s (the class resulted in many wonderful friendships, one of which turned into a marriage, and the conversion of Amanda Hesser to a food writer). I also asked Chris Cosentino, of Offal Good, whom I'd recently seen at the Monterey Cooking for Solutions conference on sustainable seafood. Cosentino became famous first in San Francisco, where he cooks at Incanto, and then on television, for his ways with offal and for his tattoos. His reply by email set the tone for what I heard:

I think tattoos are a very personal thing. Chefs and butchers are very passionate and have very strong beliefs that sometimes translate into their tattoos. All the tattoos I have are personal and have a special meaning.

When I talked to Andy Husbands, the word he repeated most frequently was "passion." "It's all about passion," he told me. "Butchers, for instance, are saying, 'This is what I do. This is who I am. This is how serious I am.'" Husbands got his first tattoo when he was just starting in food, in the early 1990s, compelled by what he described as "a burning creative force that's in you when you're young. I knew I wanted to get some corn on my back, so I did. And now it's part of me. Whether I'm a chef my whole life, or for 20 more years, cooking and food will always be part of my passion."

At first he was cautious, keeping his tattoos above short-sleeve length--like another TV chef, Stefan Richter, who when I recently asked him where his tattoos were lifted his t-shirt and showed me: "My father told me to keep my tatts under my sleeve." Husbands, who needed to raise money for Tremont 647 in 1996, worried that "bankers or investors would think less of me" if they saw any of his by-then numerous tattoos (a cow and a pig soon followed the corn): "Being a good cook doesn't mean you can run a restaurant." But as the restaurant became successful and he opened another next door, Sister Sorel, he put his tattoos on his wrists and forearms--wherever he wanted: "I don't care what people think--and I've got numbers to prove I'm a successful businessman." Just how many tattoos has he got? He didn't even know, because his body, as many fellow cooks would agree, is a work in progress. "Twenty or 30."

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Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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