Corby asks culinary professionals about the roots of tattoo culture—and why people who cut flesh are so into marking their own
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."
Husbands was well enough known for his body art that when he was remodeling his restaurant, Anne Barrett, an architect from, of course, Jamaica Plain (no, Tremont 647 isn't in our neighborhood too), together with a Massachusetts photographer named Liz Linder, came up with the idea of inviting chefs and farmers with food-related tattoos to gather in the demolished space and be photographed for a fabric Barrett wanted to create made of the motifs they found. A Facebook invitation yielded what Husbands described as a huge response, and a large square of the resulting toile--the French blockprint repeating-pattern fabric that was very popular in the 18th-century and comes in and out of fashion--now covers one wall of Tremont 647.
For the last word I reached Jamie Bissonnette, whom Husbands calls the "King of Tattoos." Bissonnette is known for his meat of all kinds at Coppa, whose terrific, lard-infused meatballs I swooned over in my review, and also known for his neck-to-fingertip tattoos. He told me that he'd started at the age of 17, when his passion for punk rock made him want to show that he listened to different music and was different from everyone else. While touring with punk bands he was called "Cheffy" for the meals he'd cook them, and got a caricature of a chef on his leg. But when he first got his entire arm, he told me, "Everybody looked at me like I was a freak." Widespread acceptance came later and particularly, he agreed, among professional chefs. "Look at who cooks are," he said. "Most aren't the ones who were mainstream, normal guys. We were all a little bit off, whether it was the music we listened to or the friends we hung out with."
Now, he says, many of the cooks he hires and works with have tattoos--and he's a close friend of Cosentino's, who I don't think can match Bissonnette's mini-ham on his hand with "EAT" on the top of his hand and "OFFAL" on the bottom. But he doesn't make tattoos a job requirement, even if cooks applying for jobs take one look and ask him if it is. "I tell them," he said, "that if your food doesn't taste good, even if you go out and get a tattoo on your face you won't get a job here." It's an attitude about art, and craft, I'll happily get behind.
To submit a food, drink, or restaurant advice question for Corby's next column, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images: Courtesy of Corby Kummer