- Associated Press - Saturday, March 15, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Kitchen life isn’t for everyone. Fourteen-hour shifts in confined spaces with hot ovens and even hotter tempers weed out the weak from the strong.

From late-night greasy spoons to four-star bistros, prep cooks to executive chefs, those who work with food are connected by their passion to put out something of quality that they made with their own hands and that leaves diners begging for more.

And they thrive in high-pressure environments, giving their all to hungry customers six or seven days a week while maintaining the powder-keg environment in the kitchen, where salty language is the official dialect and chaos flares as quickly as a grease fire.

They’re creative and passionate, and they wear their hearts on their sleeves - but that’s not all.

It’s an inked world back there in the kitchen. Food folks and tattoos have always gone hand in hand, but it’s especially so in Richmond. Several years ago, this city ranked third nationwide for the number of tattoo shops per capita - 14.5 for every 100,000 people - following only Miami Beach and Las Vegas.

Couple that with the restaurant blitz happening among Richmond’s dining scene now and you’d be hard-pressed to patronize any of your favorite eateries without finding tattooed skin somewhere in the kitchen.

We asked some local food folks to show us what’s hiding under their chefs’ coats and aprons, and what we found was a smorgasbord of culinary tattoos: kitchen utensils, peppers, doughnuts, chemical formulas, even the primal cuts of animals, both real and imaginary, are immortalized in ink.

Adam Long isn’t a stranger to ink, but his first foodie tattoo was a habanero pepper he grew in his garden. It’s on his inside wrist, just south of a big USDA logo and, above that, a cheeseburger. He also has the rooster icon of Sriracha hot sauce on the same arm, while a naked chef lady in an apron adorns the other.

“We kind of equate working in a kitchen to being on a pirate ship,” said Long, a Richmond native who most recently spent seven years cooking and attending culinary school in Louisville, Ky., before coming back to Richmond two years ago and joining the team at Stella’s.

It’s a mostly male-dominated field in which “nobody has very clean mouths. We don’t have to watch what we say, and even the females that work in restaurants realize that we don’t have filters,” he said.

But when you start cooking at 14, cooking - like tattoos - becomes your life.

“Tattoos are just telling a story,” he said. “It reminds me what I do and what I like to do.”

“Most people that work in a restaurant or kitchen, they can’t get away from it once they’re in it,” said chef Aaron Hoskins of The Rogue Gentlemen. “They love the lifestyle, the long hours. Most of them drink a lot and have fun. They like the extreme part of it,” he said, like any adrenaline junkie.

And getting a tattoo is an adrenaline high just like working a hectic night in the kitchen, he said. On his forearms are the chemical make-ups for salt and piperine, the compound in pepper that gives it its numbing qualities.

“You’re working and working and the dining room is full and you’re going crazy and you hate everybody, but it’s fun,” Hoskins said.

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