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.

Emily Moore Harris, Cake Eater Bakery
Kate N. G. Sommers
Emily Moore Harris, Cake Eater Bakery
Scott Pampuch, The Corner Table
Kate N. G. Sommers
Scott Pampuch, The Corner Table
Scott Pampuch, The Corner Table
Kate N. G. Sommers
Scott Pampuch, The Corner Table
Dan McGleno, St. Agnes Bakery
Kate N. G. Sommers
Dan McGleno, St. Agnes Bakery
Dan McGleno, St. Agnes Bakery
Kate N. G. Sommers
Dan McGleno, St. Agnes Bakery
Mitch Omer, Hell's Kitchen
Kate N. G. Sommers
Mitch Omer, Hell's Kitchen
Ruth Menard, Hell's Kitchen
Kate N. G. Sommers
Ruth Menard, Hell's Kitchen
Maurice Evans, Hell's Kitchen
Kate N. G. Sommers
Maurice Evans, Hell's Kitchen

"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.

Travail

Having a giant tattoo of C-3PO from Star Wars on your arm is certainly going to get attention, especially when it's joined by a bevy of other images from the original trilogy of films (Jar Jar Binks need not apply). So Geoff Hausmann is used to being stopped by curious patrons whenever he walks through the dining room at Travail, the recently opened restaurant that has quickly become one of the best in the north metro. While Hausmann's images from a "galaxy far, far away" draw the most attention, chef Kale Thome also sports several designs, from a tiny piece of cash by his thumb to a flying eyeball around the crook of his elbow.

Pizza Luce

When you say "restaurant" and "tattoo," the various Pizza Luce locations jump immediately to mind. It's another venue where tattoos—and piercings—seem to be a prerequisite for the job. Still, you won't find all that many food-related tattoos among the staff. And much of the work is extensive, featuring full sleeves, intricate designs, and images that range from dark to playful.

Kings

Chef Chad Rielander of Kings spends his days preparing potato gnocchi, pot roast, and other delights at his south Minneapolis wine bar and restaurant, but his tattoos are another passion. He has started work on an impressive but still-unfinished full-sleeve tattoo, sporting coils of barbed wire from his wrist through his arm and around his neck.

Cake Eater Bakery

Sheela Namakkal loves to bake, which is a great thing for the patrons at Cake Eater Bakery, where you can choose from dozens of kinds of cupcakes, cookies, muffins, and other goodies. It's also a love she shows on her body, from the "Live by the Whisk, Die by the Whisk" tattoo to a full sleeve of baked goods and equipment (highlighted by a giant mixing bowl). She's not alone in her decorations, however. Emily Moore Harris also showcases plenty of ink, highlighting a love of sewing and a fez-wearing bird.

Grand Café

At this south Minneapolis restaurant, where the brunch landed on Bon Appetit's Top 10 list in 2009, head chef Ben Pichler doesn't necessarily have food-related tattoos, though he does have several saffron lily flowers—a classic addition to many dishes—tattooed on the inside of one arm. Others are dedicated to his wife and kids. Sous chef Jim McIntosh goes for a more whimsical look for one of his tattoos: a coffee pot fully percolating.

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