The Mark of a Chef

by Steve Wilson • Photography by Alison Narro

Please don’t call them badasses. Chefs in the Austin food scene may have a thing for show-stopping, industry-related tattoos, but they’re not getting under the iron simply for some extra swagger behind the line. For many, a little special sauce in the skin is an artful way to express their serious dedication, deep respect and love for the world of cuisine, as well as a unique way to honor their individual paths and personal philosophies about their chosen field.

Chelsea Fadda, cook, Dai Due

chefchels

Chelsea Fadda works for Dai Due, a butcher shop, so naturally she’s covered in tattoos of fresh vegetables. “I got them when I was a vegetarian,” she says. “Obviously, I’m not a vegetarian anymore.” It started with a bunch of celery stalks, carrots and onions swathed in a banner reading “Mirepoix” on her right bicep. She sketched the tableau herself before handing it over to her tattoo artist, “which is why it looks like a child drew it,” she says. For her later tattoos—a fennel bulb on her calf and a kale leaf on her thigh—she used a lavishly illustrated Alice Waters cookbook for reference. Fadda says she’s been ribbed a few times about the “nerdiness” of wearing vegetables on her body, but she finds inspiration in their beauty and, in the case of fennel, their deeper meaning. “Fennel is the base for everything.”

Casey Wilcox, executive chef, Justine’s Brasserie

chefcasey

When Casey Wilcox tattooed “CAN’T FAIL” across his fingers, he expected some people might find it a little cocky. But he never anticipated being chased out of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul by a zealous spice merchant. “Only God cannot fail!” screamed the merchant. “You’re not better than God!” It wasn’t exactly the best time for Wilcox to explain that he sees the words as more of a humble prayer inspired by long-ago sailors who tattooed “HOLD FAST” on fingers trained to cling tightly to the rigging during storms. “It’s a reminder to appreciate what my hands can do and how valuable they are in my life,” says Wilcox. He’s driven home the point by adding a knife on his index finger, a fork on his middle finger and a spoon on his ring finger, but he’s not overly fussy about his body art—this is a man, after all, with a chicken foot of his own design inked into his elbow. “Once you’re tattooed up enough you can get a little whimsical with it.”

Kristi Sparks, cook, Juniper

chefkristi1

If you’re a former pastry chef, the design for your cupcake tattoo better not be half-baked—make it too cute or precious and people might think you’re just somebody with a sweet tooth. Kristi Sparks left strangers with no room for doubt when she chose electric orange and lime green for her cupcake and set it in front of crossbones made with a whisk and spatula. Her left hand bears a teacup with lemon and sugar cubes to honor her English heritage, while her right depicts a mouse in an apron holding one of her favorite ingredients: a strawberry. And just to make sure it’s very clear where she stands regarding the great white god, “MORE SALT” yells from her knuckles in a typewriter font that mimics old-school recipe cards. So where does the Tokyo turnip on her calf fit into all this? “They’re #&%@-ing delicious,” she says.

Zack Northcutt, executive chef, Swift’s Attic 

chefzack

If gluttony truly is a sin, then the pig on Zack Northcutt’s calf has died for it. The swine hangs crucified on a cross over the words “Praise the Lard,” but Northcutt says it’s not a religious thing—just something he dreamed up to give props (chops?) to a beast he loves to cook. “It’s a magical animal; you can get so many tasty things from it,” he says. Before he put the image on his body, he tagged it—along with his take on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: powdered gravy and pre-diced vegetables—using spray paint on the dumpsters of his favorite restaurants around town (a foodie Zorro, if you will). While Northcutt says he’s well aware that he’s “probably pissed off at least five religions with one tattoo,” it was a different kind of belief system that clashed with his own when he went to get inked. The tattoo artist waited until the needles were loaded and poised over Northcutt’s leg to say, “Just so you know…I’m a vegetarian.” “Oh man!” cried Northcutt. “Don’t take it out on me!”

Elyse Hoang, cook, Barley Swine

chefelyse

Elyse Hoang says that strangers must assume she’s a serial killer, and that her parents have no idea what she was thinking, but she’s gotten fairly used to the behemoth chef’s knife taking up two-thirds of her forearm. “When I first got it, I stared at it all the time,” she says. “It was motivation for me to do even better, because I’d made a lifetime commitment. Now, I never notice it anymore.” The tattoo isn’t of just any old knife, though; it’s a blade near and dear to Hoang’s heart: the $200 Japanese Shun Santoku she bought while still in culinary school. Sure, other chefs have knife tattoos, but Hoang says, with a laugh, that she has something that sets her apart from the culinary crowd: “You’re unique in the food industry if you only have one [food-related] tattoo.”