Knives & Ink takes the clichéd story of the tattooed chef and turns it on its head. Authored by Isaac Fitzgerald and coupled with Wendy MacNaughton‘s winsome illustrations, the book delves into the lives of 65 chefs from diverse kitchens, and unravels the stories hidden in their tattoos. The ink they sport often talks of untold stories, of best-kept secrets and the little things that shaped their lives. With every turn of the page, the tattoos become doorways into the lives of the chefs. These are memories on skin – of milestones, of friends lost, and gut-wrenching hardships. Sean Packan’s phoenix tattoo reminds him of the time he was stripped down to nothing and forced to rebuild himself from ground up; for chef Mandy Lamb who’s been cooking at sea for seven years, her tattoo is a simple reminder from her first boat – ‘For me it mostly symbolises a painful lesson: don’t fall in love with the captain’. I can’t help but smile when chef Sean Thomas sums up his floral sleeves in three words. ‘They’re just pretty,’ he says. It’s the people and their humane stories that makes Knives & Ink such a riveting read. I connect with Isaac across time zones, and together we explore the little nuances shaped the book.
What inspired Knives & Ink?
After the success of Pen & Ink, Wendy and I knew we wanted to do a second book, but it was important to us that it wasn't just a rehash of the first book — none of this Pen & Ink II or 2 Pen, 2 Ink business. In the first book, we covered folks from all walks of life, from writers to bartenders, vets to prisoners. For the second book, we decided we should focus on just one group of people. Chefs seemed like such an obvious choice. I had worked in the service industry for years and saw for myself how so many of our friends and other people who worked in the culinary arts had fascinating tattoos.
How did the book come together? Take me through the process.
For Pen & Ink, Wendy and I found many of the contributors through our Tumblr, where this whole project started. But with Knives & Ink, we quickly found that chefs weren't sitting in front of their computers all day; they're not on Tumblr 24/7, to say the least. For chefs, time is money, and they're on their feet most of the day, prepping and cooking. So Knives & Ink was a much more journalistic endeavor, with Wendy and I seeking out chefs we wanted to include in the book, often relying on a network of friends and word of mouth to get contributors excited about the project.
Out of all the stories featured in Knives & Ink, is there a particular one that has stayed with you?
All of the stories and tattoos included in the book are there because Wendy and I loved them, and so all of them still stay with me to this day. One that I especially loved, though, was from Timmy Malloy, a chef now based in the Pacific Northwest. His tattoo is of a snake wrapped around a knife, on his neck. What I love about his story is the way he talks about what drew him into being a chef, and how the aspects that might make it hard for other people—being on your feet 14 hours a day, playing with fire, dealing with about fifty things at once—were exactly what he loved. Timmy had found his niche in the kitchen; it was like a calling for him.
You must've met a lot of chefs while researching. Did most of them have tattoos? How hard or easy was it to hunt down these chefs from so many different parts of the world?
Not just while working on Knives & Ink, but in all my life and time in the service industry I'll say that discovering chefs without tattoos is much more uncommon then coming across chefs with tattoos. But maybe that just says more about me and where I hang out than chefs in general. That said, finding chefs with tattoos wasn't difficult, but gaining trust and working with so many chefs to tell their personal stories was no easy task.
By casting an inquiry into their tattoos, you reassert the chef as an artist on a quest. Is that the larger message to take away?
I very much believe that chefs are artists. We all tell stories in different ways, whether with words or images, food or fire. To me, cooking is a form of alchemy that I very much admire.
Were they all happy with their illustrations? What made you decide against featuring their smile-perfect pictures as we see on TV instead?
They were, very much so. Of course, the tattoo artists and their shops were credited whenever possible, and I think they appreciated the ways in which Wendy's art interpreted the tattoo artists' art, which in turn was a representation of the stories our contributors shared with us. It's layers upon layers, with artists in different mediums paying homage to other forms of art while making it their own.
And tell us the truth -- how much free food did you find on your platter after the book?
Hahaha! Fortunately for the book but sadly for my belly, the chefs are from all over the place, so there are many restaurants I didn't get a chance to visit. That said, I do hope to stop by some of the restaurants whenever I'm in town. I'll keep you posted!
You sport twelve tattoos yourself. Tell me about the one that means the most to you.
I’ve got a ton, and I love them all. Just like in the book, I got them for many different reasons. Some of them are very personal, commemorative of lost friends, and some are very silly (there's literally one I got on a dare). I can't choose a favorite. But there is my first, which is a Celtic tree inside of a tribal sun on my right shoulder. It looks like the cover of a Godsmack album, or like Spider-Man getting his spidey sense. It's terribly ugly, not to mention blurred and faded, but I love it, because it was my first tattoo. A mentor of mine had paid for it as my reward for graduating high school, which was not something that was always a given for me. The story means a lot to me, so I love it, even though the tattoo is ridiculous.
What’s next for Wendy and you? Is there another book in the pipeline?
Wendy and I both have some exciting projects that we've been working on separately. Wendy illustrated this incredible, giant cookbook called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat, which is hitting shelves this spring and going to be a huge hit. I recently sold a YA novel based on an essay I wrote called Confessions of a Former Former Fat Kid, so that's what I'm working on currently.
As for doing another book together, we don't have anything in the works, but we've been collaborating for almost a decade now, so I'm sure it's only a matter of time before we have another excited conversation in a bar and emerge with a napkin scrawled with ideas for a wild new project.
Text Ritupriya Basu
Photo: John Midgley
Photo: Leslie Lindell