Chef Tats

Michael Dei Maggi, executive chef and proprietor of The Rockwood Room, displays his colorful sleeves and fighting chicken tattoos with the kind of cheeky and playful attitude that comes across in his cooking. Click here to view the entire photo feature.
Katharine Shilcutt

"I need four wedge salads — necesito cuatro wedge salads, guys — and dos prime ribs, medium rare, a roast chicken and a chairman. You got all that?" Chef Michael Dei Maggi barked orders cheerfully from his corner station in the open kitchen to a crew of cooks and sous chefs who, like him, were attired in porkpie hats, chef's jackets and tattoos. Plenty of tattoos.

At The Rockwood Room, Dei Maggi's upscale tribute to the Rat Pack, Mad Men and all things whiskey-soaked and retro, a 24-ounce bone-in prime rib goes for $55. A simple endive salad goes for $11. The Galleria­-area crowd that patronizes the restaurant is wealthy, the kind of precisely styled and attired people you see in the pages of glossy society magazines spotlighting the guest lists at charity golf tournaments or benefit galas. Yet the men behind the counter — the ones who create the dishes and cook the food — look as if they'd be more at home in Jesse James's garage, building custom motorcycles and generally raising hell.

The new era of chefs is upon us.

Whether they're simple line cooks or supervising the kitchens at five-star restaurants, the modern chef's appearance no longer corresponds with the antiquated image of a stuffy European man in a starched chef's jacket and bright white toque. Chalk it up to chefs being touted as the new rock stars, with television shows devoted not only to their cooking but also to their madcap adventures around the world, with hardcore followings of swooning fans who swarm book signings and speaking engagements, with magazine covers and multimillion-dollar media contracts. Today's chef is ballsier and brusquer than ever — even the women — and many have an in-your-face style that draws just as much attention as their food (if not more).

Matching that style pound for pound is the increasingly inked flesh of many young chefs. But far from being decorated with meaningless tribal designs or the scrawled names of girlfriends past, these chefs use their skin as creatively as they use their ingredients. After all, not all tattoos serve as a means of showcasing a loud, brash lifestyle; some serve as a way of speaking volumes about their wearer without saying a word.

"There are three basic elements to it, which are the sword, which represents the physical world and the physical body; the snakes are from the caduceus, so they represent the mental being and the mind, which is always living in duality, so there's one black and one white; and then there are seven major chakras," explained L.J. Wiley, executive chef at Yelapa Playa Mexicana, as he slowly and delicately traced the lines on his left forearm. "The triangle is the trinity of the three: the physical body, the mental body and the spiritual body."

Wiley took up meditation in college, and the large tattoo on his arm represents more than just a late-night, alcohol-fueled session in a seedy tattoo parlor. Or, as executive chef Jason Hauck of Soma Sushi, owner of a large piece of artwork on his right calf, puts it: "I was basically waiting until something struck me, where if I was going to get a tattoo and anyone asked me about it, I would actually have a viable story as to why I have this on my body, as opposed to 'I was hammered and got a tattoo because I like butterflies,' or some shit like that."

Most chefs put as much effort into creating the designs on their bodies as they do into their dishes, and end up working closely with one or two very trusted artists who ink their designs slowly and deliberately. Some, like Wiley, draw the designs themselves. James Silk, chef and co-owner of Feast, has even found a tattoo artist who works in trade — ink for sausages — showcasing a mutual admiration between the two creative types.

And when it gets right down to it, tattoos and their bearers no longer represent a wild, possibly unlawful lifestyle — just as a staid, double-breasted chef's jacket no longer represents the modern chef. Or, in the words of Sushi Raku's executive chef Taka Sekiyuchi, as he looks fondly at the Harley-Davidson tattoo he acquired as a 19-year-old at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, "It seems like they're bad people, but — you know — they're actually very friendly. And I just fell in love."

To view the entire photo feature, click here.

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