Dallas' Top Chefs Express Themselves Through Something Other Than Food: Their Tattoos

It's a stunning contradiction of beauty and violence.

There is color, texture and tension, presentation, passion and puncturing, cleansing, bleeding and pain in both the culinary and the body arts. Cooking and tattooing are art forms created in the chaos of the kitchen and the aesthetics of the parlor, and then sent out into the world to incite and sate the senses.

Not surprising that the two should meet, that some of the best chefs in Dallas also play canvas to reams of tattooed art. Not an irony that the crafters of the culinary might look more like ruffians best not to mess with than artists of the most delicate kind. "It just kind of seems to be a thing, chefs and tattoos. We're burned and cut all the time. So, chefs probably have a pretty high pain threshold," says chef Nicole Gossling of Bolsa. "Chefs just get down and dirty."

Old perceptions are fading. Having a tattoo no longer signifies someone whose criminal background should be checked. And chefs no longer have to look like Jacques Pépin. No silly white toque. No double-breasted chef's jacket required. Chefs have TV shows, book signings, cult followings. So why shouldn't they reveal themselves through ink?

And yet there is still a bit of outlaw in many chefs who want to stand out, rock tradition, change the world to suit their ingredients. Ink marks them as iconoclasts. James Robert, a chef at Eddie V's, points to Anthony Bourdain's book Kitchen Confidential as best describing this phenomenon. "[Bourdain] says that in any professional kitchen, you look around and the chef and his staff are a bunch of hooligans," Robert explains. "It's people who are sweating and carrying around knives and swear a lot and have scars. We're a bunch of pirates. We go out drinking and picking up women. It's a collection of the strangest personalities with one common goal."

Then, of course, there's the rock star connection. With the explosion of the Food Network, chefs have become as much personalities as they are artists. Musicians, being creative types, are often drawn into the world of tattoos. Randy Morgan of Hibiscus says that certainly explains his choices to become a chef and to get tattooed. "I grew up wanting to be a rock star and seeing all the rock stars who had tattoos. So, for me, that was something I wanted to be a part of. I think it has to do with a creative thing. A lot of artist types are chefs."

Though some chefs have commonplace tats such as Tweety Bird and the Tasmanian Devil, many are wearing their hearts on their sleeves. "[Chefs] have to add art to our bodies since we are expressing ourselves," explains Tre Wilcox of Loft 610. "We are always putting on gear that makes us chefs, and we take it to the next extreme and make it something that we can always wear and make part of us."

Of course, that can mean different things for different chefs. One chef's tribute is another's folly. That's why Gossling went full-on. She has a wide belt of tattoos that ring her small frame. "My back piece was a little tiny one, a star with angel wings and a halo. But I got tired of hearing [people call it a] tramp stamp. So I decided I would rather be respected and go huge." Gossling's art ranges from the silly (a stick of butter with wings) to the sublime (a massive heart with wings dedicated to her brother who committed suicide).

Because of the fleeting nature of their art, which is, after all, consumed, some chefs are drawn to the permanence of tattooing. "I chose it because it's a tangible way to express myself," says Matt McCallister of Stephan Pyles. "It's part of my expression. It's a reminder of where I've come from."

Many of the chefs interviewed echo similar sentiments. "When something noteworthy or drastic happens, [getting a tattoo] is a way to commemorate it," Morgan explains. Robert has a wrist-to-elbow piece of a tree. "I have a little girl who's four now and her initials are carved into the trunk. Trees mean wisdom, strength, family, life, love and shelter."

Katherine Clapner, of Dude, Sweet Chocolate in Oak Cliff, has a series of pieces representing her connection and commitment to the kitchen. "I opt for designs that are cheerful and remind me of my childhood favorites as well as new favorites," she says. "Beets; well, clearly they are used in my chocolate and represent the first one I did. Honey bees as a shout out to Texas Honey and the Honey Bee Guild. [And] I love Mexican anything, which brought on the sugar skull."

If you're going to get tattooed, Wilcox says, it has "to be something you could explain to your grandkids and not feel dumb." When Wilcox's wife first asked him what kind of tattoo he was contemplating, he told her "It would have to say 'Gotta Have Passion,'" which became his first piece—inked in huge lettering on his forearm. Great tasting food comes from commitment, he adds. "When we put something on a plate, we're putting our heart on that plate."

Not everyone can make brussels sprouts crave-worthy or a series of needle pricks a masterpiece. Whether fleeting or indelible, there is magic involved in engaging the senses, an adventuresome spirit that breaks barriers and damns convention. Maybe that's the connection. Maybe that's why, as Bourdain suggests in his book, chefs all just want to be pirates.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jenny Block