Since the beginning of chefdom, the cluttered, humid, and pungent confines of the world's best kitchens have been populated by a rogue's gallery of misfits and hedonists. And chefs have always been easy to spot thanks to their uniforms, guts, callouses, sugar burns, and – more recently – tattoos. Today, it's almost unheard of for an American cook to not have an ink tribute to their work and a crazy story or recipe to go with it. That proliferation of body art is what inspired photographer Daniel Luke Holton and writer Birk O'Halloran to create Eat Ink, a cookbook focusing on tattoos.
O'Halloran says the first tat that struck him was on Jill Barron of Chicago's Mana Food Bar, who pulled down her lower lip to reveal the word "PORK!" etched into the wet fold of skin. "It's funny because Mana's a vegetarian restaurant," O'Halloran says. "It was kind of like, 'Why would someone who owns a vegetarian restaurant get the word 'pork' tattooed on the inside of their lip of all places? So you just start to get obsessed with it." Fortunately for O'Halloran, it was an obsession he shared with Holton, who is his cousin.
"This book was really a chance to create a body of work with people I really connect with personally," says Holton, who started getting tattoos at 17 and dabbled in the chef lifestyle as a snowboarder in Colorado. "A lot of my friends growing up, they were working in kitchens, just paying for our ski days. We'd work in kitchens at night and go out and snowboard during the day. Getting back to that with my photography was something I jumped at."
It didn't hurt that he got to eat everything he photographed. "I ate very well for about two years." He also heard a lot of stories, like the one about the time Gabrielle Rucker, the owner of Portland's Le Pigeon, got an intentionally bad shark tattoo to commemorate his sous chef's near death in a cliff jumping accident and the simpler one about Derek Simcik of Chicago's Atwood Cafe getting the egg he dropped on his foot tattooed there permanently.
O'Halloran's favorite tattoo belongs to Tony Marciante, who runs Chef Tony's in Bethesda, Maryland. "He has a full back piece that says 'Chef Life,' s a play off of Tupac's 'Thug Life,'" he says. "I found a picture of that randomly on the Internet and I remember thinking: 'We have to find him.'"
Here are some most interesting chefs O'Halloran and Holton met on their journeys showing off their tats and favorite recipes.
Tomas Curi is passionate about three things: jellyfish tattoos, pork, and Corsino, his restaurant. His recipe relies on the ultra-fatty belly of a mangalista pig, which was originally bred for its lard before the invention of synthetic lubricants. The dish contrasts the fattiness and unctuousness with a crispy skin and side of acidic bitter greens. "It's kind of like the same sensation you get with you eat a Kit Kat," he says. "There's that crunch, then there's richness, then there's a little bit of savory in there too. And the sweetness too from the actually braising. So if you want to call it a pork candy bar, you could."
Crispy Braised Mangalitsa Belly with Bitter Greens and Citrus
Ingredients (Yields 6 servings)
- ½ cup mustard seeds
- 1 cup sherry vinegar
- 1 ¼” piece of pork belly, the meatier the better, skin-on
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 oranges
- 2 lemons
- Olive oil
- 8 cups of bitter greens, such as dandelion, mustard, radicchio
- Lemon zest, for garnish
1. In a saucepan, combine mustard seeds and sherry vinegar. Bring to a boil and remove from heat.
2. Clean belly of all sinew and excess fat; it should be nice and smooth. Aggressively salt and pepper it. Let it sit at room temperature until it starts weeping, about 20 to 25 minutes.
3. Preheat oven to 300°F. Cut oranges and lemons into ½” slices and reserve.
4. Place belly, skin-side up, in an ovensafe pan just barely big enough for it. Add enough olive oil to cover it by ½” and the citrus. Place in oven uncovered and cook for about 3 hours or until tender. (The citrus will caramelize and turn brown. That’s okay.) Remove belly from the oil and let it rest, for about 30 minutes. Then, place in another shallow pan, skin-side up, and crank the oven up to 500°F. Cook the belly in the oven until the skin starts to blister and become crisp, about 10 to 15 minutes longer. Remove from oven, let it cool a little, and cut into portion sizes.
5 Saute the greens in olive oil over high heat until they wilt, about 1–2 minutes, remove from heat, and add a spoonful of the mustard and sherry mix. Plate the greens, place a piece of belly (best if warm, not super hot) on top, and drizzle with the mustard-sherry mix. Grate zest of lemon on top to garnish.
Credit: Courtesy of Daniel Luke Holton