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Restaurant work, tattoos go together in Richmond

- 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.

And as quickly as it arrived, the evening rush is over and the last table has left.

"Everyone's grumpy and then the night's over, and it's like none of it happened," he said.

"We all really care, and we work really hard. Most of us are so passionate about (cooking) that that passion translates into getting a tattoo."

As a touring chef, Dave Perry goes on the road with bands, preparing meals for the band members and their crews. Most recently, he was on tour with Paul McCartney.

While he calls Richmond home for now and can be found helping out at places such as Belmont Butchery and Proper Pie Co. when he's not on tour, he's heading back to his native South Carolina later this year.

"I got into kitchens because I didn't want a real job," said Perry, who began college with the intent of becoming a history teacher and was working in kitchens to pay the bills.

"I was having more fun at work than I was at school." So he switched gears and went to culinary school instead.

Among his food-related tattoos: the French word for pig - cochon - runs down the back of one arm; the Klondike bar polar bear is a nod to his family's favorite vacation treat; a chef's hat with flames; and two animals - a pig on one bicep and a unicorn on the other - each dissected into primal cuts.

(In case you're wondering, the primal cuts of a unicorn are wishes, giggles, magic, hugs and - the underbelly section - superglue.)

"A lot of chefs are artistic," Perry said, though not necessarily in the classical sense.

For them, "your plate is your canvas."

John Maher went with something near and dear to his livelihood: spoons.

Maher, who opened The Rogue Gentlemen in Jackson Ward last month, said that unlike tongs and other kitchen utensils, "spoons are the tool of finesse in the kitchen" for plating and saucing dishes and tasting as you go.

"The kitchen world is very strange," he said. "It's all very individualistic, but you're working as part of a team, part of a machine.

"It's fast-paced, 18-hour days in front of a stove where it's 120 degrees. But you live for that adrenaline rush, and (tattoos) just extend it. I get these for how I feel about my career and my craft."

Steven van Horn grew up cooking and eating home-cooked meals with his mother in Virginia Beach and watching "old-school" cooking shows featuring chefs such as Julia Child.

"I always knew I'd end up cooking," he said, though he finally got the chance by answering a Craigslist ad for a dishwasher at Deep Run Roadhouse in Henrico County. He now runs the line at the restaurant.

Ironically, he got his tattoo - a stick-figure chicken with a question mark over its head - long before he knew he would be chopping chickens for a living.

Cooks "are a tight-knit group," he said. "We all work insane hours and deal with high-stress situations."

But "we're all one in the same" when it comes to that passion for cooking, he added. His goal: operate a food truck that roams the country.

Robyn Comer went straight from high school to Stratford University's culinary arts program. She's working at the Yellow Umbrella in Richmond.

Her tattoo, which she got last year, is a pinup girl chef holding chef's knives. It sums up her feelings toward cooking, she said. "I'm in love with it."

Her cooking memories involve working with her grandmother and making home-cooked Southern-style meals. Those days, however, are nothing like the reality of working in a kitchen where most of her co-workers are men.

"It pushes me a little bit harder," she said. But "I'm one of the biggest trash talkers" in the kitchen.

Ian Kelley has been cooking since he was 15, working everywhere from the ski slopes of Vail, Colo., to the beaches of sunny Florida. It's there that he came up with the idea for Sugar Shack doughnuts.

Kelley said he earned his "dough background" while working in Seattle where he was making pasta dough, noodles, pastries and desserts from scratch.

Among his food tattoos: a butchered pig, a Betty Boop doughnut, a chef's skull - a nod to chef and Travel Channel star Anthony Bourdain - and a logo found on one of his earliest cookbooks, as well as the number 33. The number represents the employee table at Richmond's Kitchen 64 restaurant where staff gather at the end of a shift to wind down.

Cooking "is one of the only industries you used to be able to have tattoos without any persecution for it," Kelley said, "but that's changing."

"At the end of the day, for the people who are eating your food, if the food is good, they don't care if you have a tattoo," he added.

"They're not hiring you to be their doctor. They're hiring you to cook a good meal."

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com

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