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.