Watch any episode of “Top Chef” and one thing becomes abundantly clear: Chefs like their ink. “We’re really artistic, and tattoos are one way of showing that,” says Hamilton Johnson, chef de cuisine at Vidalia.
Johnson has “over 100” tattoos, depending on how you count (“My left arm is all together, but it’s numerous tattoos”). Seven of Johnson’s tats are related to food, assuming you count a California raisin singing into a microphone; the others are a peach, a lemon, a piece of key lime pie, a waffle fry with ketchup on it, a cherry and a Vidalia onion.
The onion came with a condition: Staffers at Vidalia are allowed to get the restaurant’s logo tattooed on their bodies, but only after they have put in a year’s work. “You don’t have to get it,” Johnson says. “But you can get it anywhere, any size.” This isn’t a benefit covered by HR. “The restaurant doesn’t pay for it or anything.”
Johnson isn’t done yet. “I’d like something dealing with bacon or pork,” he says. “But I don’t want to get the cliché section of cuts. I want something no one else has.”
On the Sweeter Side
Rodney Henry, the founder of Dangerously Delicious Pies, may or may not have a tattoo no one else has: a large pie across his upper back. “I’m not sure what kind of pie it is,” he says. “But in my mind, it’s apple.”
Henry got the ink in 1998 (it took about six hours straight) before opening his business: “I was in the pie underground.” Chefs get food tattoos, he theorizes, because “it’s their passion. People who dig girls get tattoos of pinups. People who are into music get guitars or Johnny Cash or Jimi Hendrix.” Out of Henry’s “25 or 30” tattoos, most are “whiskey-related. Whiskey and music and religion.”
Trick Up His Sleeve
Confined to the kitchen, most chefs don’t get to show off their ink to customers. But Andrew Myers, sommelier at Cityzen, and his 35 to 40 tattoos are front and center — kind of. “The edges of my sleeves tend to poke out a bit” from the suit he wears, he says. “I do get comments from time to time. Never anything negative, which shows how far being a tattooed member of society has come, thankfully.”
In fact, Myers thinks a little ink actually takes the edge off his job. “Fine dining can be a bit intimidating for guests sometimes, so I like to think that tattoos on the sommelier — a position once only populated by stuffy Frenchmen — puts some people at ease.”
Myers sports three to five food-related tattoos (“depending how you count them,”) most concentrated on the “garden sleeve” on his left arm, which also features flowers, bugs and critters. “I knew I wanted to do something food-related and had the idea of the radish, which reminded me of my grandfather’s garden, where he and I used to spend time when he was alive.” His favorite, though, is a “cubist take on a carrot. You don’t see lots of orange in tattooing. The lines are bold and exciting and, given that I’m nearly blind without my glasses, its placement [on the inside of the upper arm] makes it the first thing I see every morning.”
Myers thinks tattoos and food workers go together like, well, bacon and pretty much everything. “Unless you’re just working restaurants for a short pay-for-college-type stint, there’s probably something about you that’s not quite right,” he says. Moreover, “we take pain to and from every shift. So, if you take pain because you feel that you have to professionally, it can be nice to take an equal measure of pain because you want to.”