If there is a universe that relies on rituals as heavily as that of cooking and food preparation, it's probably tattoos. Getting something permanently inked on your body is a physical and emotional rite that spans from original idea to finished result—often with a lot of discomfort. The same can be said of what a good chef goes through each night in the kitchen.
Knives & Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos is a new book that explores the crossover between the two worlds. Chefs with tattoos is a subject that could have easily descended into cliche shots of tatted up "hipster" chefs, but author Isaac Fitzgerald and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton deftly sidestep this.
Instead, MacNaughton pays homage to the tattoo artists' creations in watercolour while, side-by-side on the page, Fitzgerald explores the stories behind them, which go from the profoundly meaningful (like that of a chef instructor who commemorates the loss of a student who took his own life) to the absurd (a chef who sports a huge chest piece because it's "just pretty!"). Released in the UK late last year, Danny Bowien, Jamie Bissonnette, and Dominique Crenn are among the 65-plus chefs who open up about their ink in the book.
Every tattoo offers a glimpse into the minds of those who live through the long hours, burns, sweat, and joys of America's kitchens. Sprinkled with recipes from the featured chefs, the book is a tribute to creativity, both in food and on the skin.
I got in touch with Fitzgerald and McNaughton to find out more about the book.
MUNCHIES: Hello! This is your second book together about tattoos. In the introduction, Isaac, you write that every chef you met was covered in tattoos, be they in a backwoods diner or in a Michelin-starred eatery. And you ask: "What is it about chefs and tattoos?" Did you find out? Isaac Fitzgerald: Yes, it's a few different things! One is that chefs get tattoos for the same reason that we all do, and that's an incredible spectrum. For some, it's to memorialise somebody or a moment. Some of the tattoos are just funny and some exist because of their love for being a chef: you're on your feet all day, you're getting burns, you're getting scars … Pain is something that's not really new to these people. It's part of their art form.
Also there's something to be said about dedication: a lot of chefs get tattoos past the "shirtline" (on their hands or neck). These are places where it's like, "Look, this is going to be the only job I can do. I don't want to be able to get a job in corporate America, this is my dedication to my art."
Wendy MacNaughton: It's a way of personalising. There are different groups of people that are highly tattooed. There's veterans and prisoners, and chefs was clearly one that stood out. Within each of those groups, there are tropes and themes. With chefs, there's the classic pig parts tattoo, which one woman in the book made her own as different parts of a fish. So, we found variations on a theme. Tattoos act as this signifier to the world of who we are and what we do and our stories.
The illustrations are really sensitive and give a very intimate glimpse of the subjects. How did you go about them, Wendy? MacNaughton: Most, if not all, books or magazines that feature tattoos have historically always used photographs, and that's great, because you're looking at the original artwork of the tattoo artist and you're seeing it in the flesh. But what we were interested in doing was focusing on the tattoo itself as the work of art, and having the person be the context for that piece. So I wanted to pay homage to the tattoo art, it was really great to spend a lot of time doing my best to replicate it.
The way that I did it was working from photographs Isaac collected from the chefs. I spent hours studying how these tattoos were originally made, and gained a huge respect for the artist's work that I didn't know about before.
Isaac, you mention that fact that you never really acquired the skill of cooking in your childhood, and that has led to this fascination with food and cooks. Fitzgerald: Yeah, we were a very poor family and raising kids on a budget is hard. There weren't a lot of home-cooked meals, there wasn't a lot of food. It was just seen as energy, something to consume so you could do whatever. It was never this thing to sit down and enjoy or to be seen as an art form.
Then when I got older, I ended up working at restaurants and bars, and all of a sudden I saw how things got made and I started to get fascinated with it. Unfortunately, it turned out I was just not good at it, but it's still something that I'm fascinated by, and that's not just the food, it's also the culture. Chefs, service industry folks, bartenders—all of them have always been the most open, most kind, most generous people in my life.
What about your relationship to cooking, Wendy? MacNaughton: Up until recently, my cooking could be best described as "unwrapping" [laughs]. For me, doing Knives & Ink was a really interesting experience because when we started, I appreciated the chefs because of the food that they gave me, and I wanted to hear the stories behind that.
I was working on a cookbook in parallel, and I always try to draw from real life, so I had to see and do a lot of food prep and I learned along the way. By the end of it, I appreciated their work as an art form, so their stories became more meaningful. And I am proud to say that I could probably prepare almost all of the dishes in this book, if I really tried!
That gives me a lot of hope, as a reforming "unwrapper" myself. Could you talk about the parallels between drawing, telling stories, tattooing, getting tattooed, and cooking? Fitzgerald: My favourite part about the project is just Wendy's art representing art. For me, her artwork, the tattoo artists' artwork, and the reasons why these people got this art on their skin, are all part of a piece. It's all this representation of the different ways we tell stories. And I think that's one of the things that made chefs such a natural next step in this project, because then you're adding this whole other layer of self-expression, which is creating food. The over 60 chefs featured basically wrote micro-memoir pieces in this book.
Well, you know I have to ask … What about your own tattoos? MacNaughton: I have three. I'm a child of the 90s, so the first one I got is indeed a tramp stamp, I will come out about that! I also got it when I was 16, with a fake ID. And it's just everything bad that goes along with that. It's kind of a ying yang … it's just so ridiculous, it really is. It's everything that "16 in the 90s" is. It meant so much to me at the time.
I've got a ton, and I love them all. Just like in the book, I got them for many different reasons. Some of them are very personal, commemorative of lost friends, and some are very silly … like my anchor tattoo—a product of working on a boat and getting drunk on Thanksgiving.
Cheers to that! Thanks for talking with me.