The kitchen is full of stories. And many chefs today are choosing to ink these memories on their bodies--an ode to their journey in the exciting world of food. We asked some chefs to share their food-inspired tattoos:
No more monkey business
At 17, chef-owner of Americano Alex Sanchez got Curious George, the monkey character, with a chef’s hat tattooed on his back. He also has the landscape of San Francisco across his stomach and an abstract design on his arm. All of his tattoos are somehow connected.
It was only after Sanchez won a cooking competition in college in Santa Cruz, California, that he realised that the kitchen was his true calling, “I had been taking courses to figure out what I wanted to study in college but was pretty lost during the phase.” The winning dish was grilled lamb chops, with goat’s cheese and mashed potatoes, just the way his grandmother made it. “I always want to remember where I come from. The monkey reminds me of my mischievous mind frame and I have come a long way. I thought I knew everything but that has changed,” he explains.
The first knife is always special
As executive chef at Mumbai’s O Pedro, Husain Shahzad is usually on the pass. “I am not on the line often so the use of your knife drops drastically. But in my kit, I have eight knives that are my personal treasures, especially the first Zwilling, which is also tattooed on my right forearm,” he says, who got it in 2013, after he bought his first knife from Dubai. “I had just quit Trident Mumbai and was on my way to moving to New York to work at Eleven-Madison Park. It reminds me of why I cook. A sharp knife means a good day!”
What’s on the menu
A boombox across his stomach, captures the first phase of Chef Priyam Chatterjee’s artsy life as a drummer and making music: “I have been playing drums for about 16 years.” His left arm is completely tattooed with ingredients and a menu card as an homage to the first time he was called a chef at Park Hyatt Hyderabad. “You have to earn the title of a chef and I can never forget that beautiful moment. I also have goddess Tara, which connects me to my feminine energy,” says Chatterjee who recently won the honour of Chevalier de l’Ordre du Mérite Agricole by the French embassy. He is the first Indian chef to earn the honour.
L: Chef Rakesh Talwar and his Hot Stuff, The Little Devil tattoo; R: Chef Priyam Chatterjee's tattooed arms.
Devil in the kitchen
What happens when a chef resonates with the comic book character—Hot Stuff, The Little Devil? If you’re unaware of the legend, known for his red spear and white diaper, this red creature of the underworld was part of the Harvey Comics universe along with Casper The Friendly Ghost and Wendy The Good Little Witch.
Chef Rakesh Talwar gave the little devil a rolling pin and a frying pan, instead of his trademark spear. Eight years ago, he got the tattoo rising out of his chef’s coat on his neck. “I used to be pretty hot headed in the kitchen. This was a sign not to mess with me,” says Talwar, who is a Patron Chef of 14 restaurants across the world including South Bombay Bar and Wok This Way. Today he is as cool as a cucumber, but, “The devil is watching,” he quips.
I try to balance between Pablo and Chef Pablo
Pablo Naranjo Agular, who was executive chef at Le 15 Café Colaba and now presently shooting his YouTube channel Eating Around with Pablo, has five tattoos—each that tell a story.
Agular left home at the age of 18 for Paris, and a decade later made Mumbai is home for four years. On his left scapula, is tattooed a human heart, with a Misono knife pierced through it. “It represents passion and discipline. If the knife is not sharp enough, it will spoil the most expensive ingredient. If you are not careful, you can injure yourself, but if you learn to use it skilfully, it becomes your art,” he explains.
On his wrist is a sunny side up in a pan. “It is the first thing I learned to make for my sister when I would baby sit her,” he says.
On his chest, right next to the shoulder is half a lemon split into two—“My last name literally translates into ‘orange tree’ and citrus is my favourite flavour. The two halves represent my roots and who I have become as a chef. I am trying to find a balance between the two.” He confesses to being a reticent chef, “I am not happy with this, but I am a work in progress.” He points to a chilli behind his left year, “I got it after my trip to the north East in India. Every time I felt I know everything about chillies, I learn a new facet.” A reminder that there is always something new to learn.
Not without my Mise En Place
The word Mise En Place is inked on the arm of Akriti Malhotra, owner of Aku’s Burger in Delhi, since October 2016. Shaped like a santoku knife, the word means to ‘everything is in place’, in French. It is also a critical process in a chef’s life. “You’re only able to execute things to the best of your ability if you have your Mise en place sorted. It signifies my first few years of struggle and learning to be disciplined in the kitchen. Mise en place helps you be more organised in life as well,” she says.
Kitchen essentials and my coffee mug
Chef Anuj Wadhawan’s first ever tattoo was his father’s name. In 2012, he added a chef’s toque with a fork and spoon to his right forearm. In April 2019, he added a coffee mug, a mortar and pestle, a whisk and a garlic bulb to it. “All the tattoos have a special meaning. While the earlier ones are kitchen essentials, the mug represents my addiction for coffee, garlic is my favourite ingredient and the mortar pestle reminds me of my time at Olive Delhi. On every table, we placed a mortar pestle as a centrepiece,” says Wadhwan, who is now the executive chef at Roseate House, Aerocity in Delhi.
In search of flavour
Chef Shaun Kenworthy swore never to get a tattoo. In March 2019, Kenworthy, who first came to India 17 years ago as executive chef at Kolkata's Park Hotel, succumbed to the urge and got the Japanese word ‘umami’ inked on his upper arm, along with its chemical formula; the term was coined in 1962 and translates to delicious taste.
Kenworthy works as a consultant chef and trainer. “I work with a lot of young chefs, and I am always telling them to focus on flavours. The youth today focuses too much on plating. As chefs, we are always in search of great flavours,” he tells us why the flavour holds such an importance for him.
Tattoos show my struggle to find a place in the hot kitchen
When Chef Parul Pratap, executive chef at Music and Mountains in Delhi’s Greater Kailash, M Block 1, decided to get inked, she knew she wanted to encapsulate her struggles to find her place in the hot kitchen—“The arrow on my forearm was a symbol of my struggle to find my place as a hot kitchen chef in the culinary landscape of this city!”
She has the word ‘mother’ in Japanese Kanji script, and the alphabets of my daughters’ names in a stylised vintage font. Two lines from Pink Floyd’s song Breathe! Reads: And all your touch and all you see is all your life will ever be. “My mom always wanted me to be a chef but passed away two months before I graduated from culinary school. The Floyd lyrics brought me clarity to have perspective in life. My tattoos represent my journey to finally finding a restaurant kitchen that was meant for me after 17 years of food styling, food writing and being a chef consultant,” she signs off.
L: Chef Tenzin Phuntsok's tattoos are about his Tibetan roots; R: Chef Praful Pratap's arrow tattoo symbolises her struggle.
Our hearts should be pure while cooking
Chef Tenzin Phuntsok got his first tattoo at the age of 16 when he was starting off as a commi chef in Guwahati. “I am a migrant Buddhist from Tibet and I wanted to get the ink which reminds me of my roots. I use [tattoos] almost like a roadmap of my life,” says the Chef De Cuisine Tao of Peng at InterContinental Chennai Mahabalipuram.
“My family migrated from Amdo Region in Tibet to Arunachal Pradesh and I grew-up listening to my elder sister’s anecdotes on the ‘Peaceful Ways of My People’ where she would tell me that ‘Our heart has to be pure and calm while we are cooking because it reflects on the food and energy of our household’. I would see her follow a serene ritual of singing Buddhist prayer songs while cooking for our family,” he says of the tattoo of ‘Buddha in the state of Harmony’ that reminds him of his culinary heritage while cooking.
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