Home Commentary BRIDGE BITES: Bad Ass Chefs


by Mark Frano
I want to share something about me that is probably more information than you really want to know—I have a tattoo on my ass of a whisk. How it got there is a bourbon-soaked blur of a memory that I have tried to bury as deep as I could in the back of my mind. But for the sake of your entertainment, I will try to recount how it got there.
I am a simple home cook with delusions of grandeur. My fantasy is to work in a serious, professional kitchen wearing a giant toque and perhaps faking a French accent. My heroes are all fancy-pants executive chefs who transform bones and butter into seductive sauces. I want to be them.
So, recently, I have been fooling around in a couple of well-regarded professional kitchens. Thanks to some close friends who own restaurants, I have found a means to explore my inner chef. The restaurants shall go unnamed to protect the innocent.
For the most part this has all gone swimmingly. I still have ten fingers. Nothing has caught on fire, and most of my restaurant friends are still talking to me. However, I have suffered some rude awakenings that have diminished my enthusiasm some.
On day one, I strutted into the kitchen swaddled in my brand new chef whites and plopped my knives down at my station with authority. The reception from my fellow line-mates, a grizzled battery of suspicious-looking characters covered with scars and burns, was something less than warm. I noticed some raised eyebrows and a couple of rolling eyes. I was undaunted and ready to show my stuff by Frenching a rack of lamb or perhaps whipping up a soufflé, when a 10 pound bag of potatoes was presented to me unceremoniously. Nothing more was said.
As I peeled away, I noticed that there was a clear hierarchy in the kitchen. There was an Executive Chef, wearing a crooked toque, a Chef de Cuisine expediting the orders, and a Sous Chef who was coaxing fire from the range like a deranged pyromaniac. He had no eyebrows. In the corner was a soggy-looking dishwasher with suds in his hair and then, there, just below him on the ladder, was me. I had no title—perhaps Potato Boy?
As time went on I began to notice that all of these kitchen professionals were heavily inked. Their arms and necks were covered with tattoos depicting pigs, knives, a couple of skulls and a serpent or two. It struck me that tats were an important part of kitchen culture. In fact, it seemed to me that there was a correlation between how heavily inked you were and how much “kitchen cred” you had. If you gained kitchen cred, you were rewarded with the most coveted title in the kitchen which, surprisingly, was not Executive Chef, but rather “Bad Ass.” If you became a Bad Ass, you had reached the culinary pinnacle.
At the time I had no tattoos to show off, and I began to feel like my milky white arms were an impediment to being accepted into the crew. I had no chance of rising to Bad Ass status sans ink. Something had to be done.
As I contemplated my bare skin, I wondered what image would be most impressive to my colleagues. What icon could I adopt that would give me some instant kitchen cred and perhaps simultaneously express my inner chef? This is a big decision, I thought. Ink is, after all, forever. Given the pressure of such a monumental decision and the fact that I get a little nervous around needles, a whiskey or two to steal my nerves seemed like a good idea.
With a little, okay a lot, of liquid courage in the tank, I wandered down to the local tattoo parlor. There were boards all over the walls with sample images, but not many options that fit the bill. I was thinking something powerful-looking, like maybe a flaming potato masher or a razor sharp cleaver embedded in a skull. Perhaps a pressure cooker about to blow, or even a nude woman bathing in a cast iron pot would be cool. Maybe a Jolly Roger with crossed baguettes instead of swords would be flattering across my chest.
The tattoo artist was growing impatient as I tried to explain what I was looking for, but the liquor was hitting me hard and I was feeling a little light-headed. He offered his opinions and a swig from a hip flask that he kept in his pocket. I declined, mumbling something unintelligible like, “another whisk and I’ll be on my ass.” After that the only thing I remember was lying down to stop the room from spinning and the buzz of a tattoo needle.
With a pounding head, I awoke the next morning to find the whisk tat where the sun don’t shine. Something got lost in translation, but I concluded that I was one step closer to becoming a Bad Ass Chef.