Kitchen Ink: Tattooed chefs in the Twin Cities

Skin art for local foodies

"EVERYONE HAS TO have a vice."

For Geoff Hausmann, the lauded chef now at Travail in Robbinsdale, the vice he refers to is getting tattoos. Hausmann has turned his love of Star Wars into a full arm sleeve of illustrations of Jedi knights, Sith lords, and strange beings from alien worlds.

You'll find plenty more tattoos in the kitchen and the front of the house at restaurants these days than you did even 20 years ago. And not surprisingly, food, cooking, and baking images are often the subject.

"After I got my first one, I found it to be so addictive," says Sheela Namakkal, one of the owners of Minneapolis's Cake Eater Bakery. Many of her tattoos are food related. "I've got a full sleeve of pastries and a whisk on my right leg," Namakkal says. "I like to decorate myself."

Hell's Kitchen's Mitch Omer has taken his cues from a favorite artist, Ralph Steadman, famed for his illustrations of Hunter S. Thompson stories and books.

"The first tattoo I got was the Steadman on my right upper arm, 'Wild in the Bathtub' from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This is my first tattoo and my favorite ink. If you look at that crazed bastard, hair akimbo, wild-assed eyes, and flaying the knife...that's what it feels like to be a bipolar chef."

Omer went one step further with this tattoo—he had Steadman autograph his arm, which he then had permanently tattooed.

Tattoos and baking have long gone together, notes Dan "Klecko" McGleno, the master baker at the Saint Agnes Baking Company in St. Paul. One forearm has a tattoo of Ronald Reagan to commemorate the wild rice loaf he made for a summit between the former president and Mikhail Gorbachev in June 1990. His other forearm has the ISDN number for a book he wrote, K-9 Nation Biscuit Book. McGleno's other tattoos honor his family, friends, and special occasions. If someone asks, he's likely to add it, McGleno says.

Scott Pampuch, owner of the Corner Table and founder of Tour de Farm, has honored both businesses with a tattoo on each arm—one of a "farm to table" series of images, the other a set of knives and kitchen tools. The images are reminders of Pampuch's approach to cooking and food. They also are placed very deliberately.

"All of my tattoos are in places I can see," he says.

At Kings in south Minneapolis, chef Chad Rielander sports plenty of tattoos, including a full sleeve on his left arm that runs all the way to his neck, featuring a spiraling cast of spooky characters leading up to a "big explosion of chaos on the shoulder," he says. "It really celebrates all that is dark and evil."

Top chefs know all about dedication, and many bring the same commitment to their body art. Rielander's tat has taken nearly 30 hours of work—and it's only half done. But he says it's all worth the effort.

"Tattoos are definitely part of the Generation X thing," Rielander says. "I just love to think about having tattoos done."

The Corner Table

Scott Pampuch is serious about food, which is clear by the meals at the much-lauded Corner Table, his restaurant in the Kingfield neighborhood, and with Tour de Farm, which brings diners to local farms—the source of their food—for a four- or five-course, family-style meal. He has honored both of these businesses with his tattoos: a set of knives and other kitchen tools after Corner Table became a Twin Cities fixture, and, once Tour de Farm was up and running, a farmer's table covered with several highly decorated pieces of essential equipment.

St. Agnes Bakery

Dan "Klecko" McGleno has the story of his life tattooed on his body, from highlighting special events in his culinary and personal life to work added at the request of friends. For example, his forearms are tattooed with two pieces of Soviet-era bakery propaganda, commemorating a trip to the former Soviet Union. The master baker at Saint Agnes Baking Company—which offers high-quality breads to wholesale and retail customers—notes that the tradition of tattoos in the kitchen started with ex-military and convicts who, when they got done with their service or sentence, would bring their illustrated bodies with them to the kitchen.

Hell's Kitchen

Mitch Omer, owner of Hell's Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis, isn't someone to do something halfway. That dedication has made the restaurant, famed for its well-made but unfussy dishes and an epic weekend brunch, a top eatery in the city. It also means he—and many on the staff—have taken to decorating their bodies with tattoos. Omer's work includes a pair of Ralph Steadman pieces (including an ink blotch he added to cover a less-successful, earlier tattoo) and others. The dedication to tattoos runs deeper than Omer at Hell's Kitchen. "Tattoos are actually a prerequisite for working here," he says, noting that employees' tattoos include a hot dish, a Land O'Lakes butter container, and one that reads "mis en place," a French phrase for having a kitchen ready for any of the orders on the menu.

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