Centuries ago, Ancestral Puebloans settled and farmed the land near what is now Alcalde, establishing two nearby pueblos. Now, at New Mexico’s newest designated historic property north of Española, the Los Luceros Grain Team is working to bring back the region’s ancient, heirloom, and local grains.
What is it about the restaurant industry and tattoos? Google “chefs tattoos” and you’ll get more than 3 million results. And there are books out there about the trend, which has gained traction over the past 10 years or so. Among them is Knives and Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos (with Recipes) by Isaac Fitzgerald and Wendy MacNaughton (2016); another is Eat Ink: Recipes. Stories. Tattoos. by Birk O’Halloran and Daniel Luke Holton (2013). The fashionistas at Vogue produced a photo spread of celebrity chef Sean Brock’s full sleeve of brightly colored heirloom vegetables in 2012. Two years later, Starbucks lifted its corporate ban on visible tattoos on employees (although they can’t be on the face or throat).
Once considered the province of soldiers, sailors, bikers, jailbirds, rock stars, and other rebels, tattoos have slowly been making their way into mainstream American culture as well as the hospitality industry. Historyoftattoos.net estimates that 36 percent of Americans between the age of 18 and 29 now have at least one tattoo and 11 percent of people with tattoos fall into the 50-64 age range — statistics that are backed up in medical journals. As tattoos are becoming less taboo, studies say that almost as many women as men are now going for the ink.
Mark Oppenheimer, a local private chef whose arms are covered with traditional imagery from different cultures, sees tattoos as signposts — “a way of wearing your insides on your outside.” In that spirit, Pasatiempo recently asked a handful of Santa Fe chefs and a former bartender to share some of the commitments, experiences, and inner worlds their tattoos illuminate. This is what they had to say.
Chef/co-owner, Fire & Hops, and chef/owner, La Lecheria Craft Ice Cream
Joel Coleman, widely considered one of Santa Fe’s most heavily tattooed chefs, began collecting ink when he was in his teens. He asked his mom — who had a few tattoos of her own — for permission to get his first design, and she agreed. “Her only condition,” he said, “was that she didn’t want to hear about it if I regretted it later.”
Twenty-two years and dozens of tats later, Coleman has no regrets and no plans to stop adding more ink to his body. Among his most complex is an ode to Hawaii, where the chef spent most of his formative years and developed his love of cooking. The panorama includes a volcano (representing Pele, the goddess of fire), a large hibiscus, a tourist-style tiki hula girl, and a ti-leaf-wrapped offering for Pele. A monkey eating a bowl of noodles commemorates another trip to the islands when he visited a particular noodle stand multiple times. “People tell me it looks like me,” he said, laughing.
A more recent storyboard is anchored by a distinctive octopus. “It’s like a deconstructed poke,” Coleman said, referring to the diced raw fish traditional to native Hawaiian cuisine. Here, the cephalopod is decked out with chopsticks and surrounded by bottles of soy sauce and fish sauce, some of his favorite ingredients.
While he is comfortable covering his arms and legs with ink, Coleman has avoided tattooing his neck. “I like to know I can put on a long-sleeved shirt and cover up if I need to,” he said, adding that he once did this to apply for a loan. When the loan was approved, he went back to the bank in a short-sleeved shirt to see if there would be any difference in how the bankers looked at him. And there was. “Even though it’s 2019 and tattoos are much more common now,” he said, “there’s always going to be some preconceived opinions.”
Coleman is thinking about adding more food stories to his tattoo collection — his back is a large, as-yet-untouched canvas — but he hasn’t decided on a theme. “I’ve thought about doing the Fire & Hops or the La Lecheria logos,” he said. “But I’m not sure I want to brand myself that way.”
Chef/proprietor, 315 Restaurant & Wine Bar
Louis Moskow, who helms of one of Santa Fe’s longest-running restaurants, waited until he was 35 before getting his first tattoo: a still life of a stockpot, on his right calf. It meant “my body wasn’t going to stay pristine forever,” he said. “I was getting older and needed to accept my own mortality.”
To design it, he picked up a copper stockpot, bought enough carrots, onions, and celery to fill it, photographed it, and gave the photo to artist Mark Vigil at Four Star Tattoo. The stockpot showcases the ingredients for a traditional mirepoix, a flavor base important to French cooking and to the classically trained chef. “Where would we be without mirepoix?” he asked. “It’s the foundation of soups, sauces, stocks — almost everything we make.”
A bright red lobster inhabits his left thigh. “I should have specified the size,” Moskow said. “I think of a lobster as being about 1.5 to 2 pounds. This one is at least 5 pounds.” His newest tattoo is a mayfly on his arm. It’s a nod to his passion for fly-fishing and another symbol of the ephemeral nature of life: Mayflies rarely live for more than a day.
Is he thinking about more ink? Of course, Moskow said — maybe a basket of mirepoix ingredients on the other leg. “Tattoos are like potato chips. You can’t just get one.”
Chef/partner, Coriander Catering, and “lunch lady,” Monte del Sol Charter School
Local artist Dawn Purnell at Dawn’s Custom Tattoo designed a tree that is spreading its branches around Leslie Chavez’s right arm. “An elemental tree of life is what I call it,” Chavez said. “It represents land, water, fire, and earth.” Buddha’s face is ingrained in the trunk, and three lotus buds, representing her three daughters, are at the base. “I’m not a religious person, but I am a spiritual person, and my spiritual connection is through the earth and my family.”
Family, food, and tattoos are all connected for Chavez, who trained in the Santa Fe Community College culinary arts program and taught pastry and baking there for about four years. She grew up in Aztec, where she began helping her mother in the kitchen when she was very young. “She had a food truck when I was little to help make ends meet,” Chavez said. “So we would make burritos every single night.” Her beloved grandmother, who had to feed 16 children, is also remembered in her primary tattoo.
Her brother, who is heavily inked himself, bought Chavez her first tattoo — a sea turtle on the back of her neck — for her 21st birthday. “To me, it represents longevity and stability and the ability to adapt and change,” she said. Her daughter, the pastry chef at Restaurant Martin, also has tattoos designed by Purnell.
In addition to her work as a caterer, Chavez is the “lunch lady” at a public charter school where she feeds fresh, house-made breakfasts, lunches, and snacks to hundreds of children five days a week. She and chef Michelle “Mica” Chavez, her partner in life and work, have also taken over the school’s garden.
She is thinking about adding some ink that would connect the tree, Mother Earth, and the turtle. “I think food is an art form,” Chavez said, noting the wide range of both plating and tattoo design styles. “And so are tattoos. They are just a different medium.”
Executive chef/co-owner, Market Steer Steakhouse
Kathleen Crook’s tattoos celebrate both her profession and New Mexico’s agricultural heritage.
Black outlines of a chef’s toque, a knife, and a sharpening steel march down the inside of her right arm, where they are met by a chicken, a steer, and a pig, their basic butcher cuts marked with dotted lines. Far from being grim, the ink makes her laugh, she said, when her visiting nieces point to the animals and moo, oink, or cluck.
The chef’s hat was Crook’s first tattoo, acquired when she was working in Aspen, Colorado, in 2011. The others were added over the next five or six years. “It’s been a slow progression, she said, “but I only want to get something that has meaning. I want it to make sense and tell a story.”
Alfalfa and cotton tattoos tell another side of the chef’s story. Crook comes from a farming and ranching family in Artesia, where her grandfathers grew both crops when she was growing up. She’d like to get some additional imagery to tie the work side and the family side of her arm together. A rendering of the restaurant’s logo — the number seven intertwined with an open “A,” which is also her father’s livestock brand — could make that connection.
Crook, who opened her restaurant in Santa Fe in 2018, doesn’t regret her tattoos. “They remind me of my hard work. This is a tough profession,” she said, adding that it seems like everyone in the profession has a tattoo now. “It’s a time when people may be more comfortable in their own skins and have something to say.”
Beverage manager, La Fonda on the Plaza
Carla Gilfillan, a bartender who transitioned to management when her body began objecting to the standing, twisting, and turning the profession requires, chose a large, colorful pineapple for the first tattoo on her right arm.
Both the arm and the pineapple are meaningful, she said: the fruit because it’s a “universal symbol of hospitality,” especially in Hawaii and the American South, where she grew up; the arm because it’s the one she uses to serve guests. “Even if I have it covered up at work, when I hand someone a drink or some food, the pineapple is there.”
Her left arm is inscribed with a half-dozen botanicals often used to flavor gin — juniper, fennel, grains of paradise, elderberry, and iris. While it’s iris root (known as orris) that is used to flavor gin, Gilfillan said, “The root isn’t that pretty, so we used the flowers instead.” Sprays of chamomile wrap around the back of her arm. The pineapple and botanicals were designed by Gina Marie Medlock at Albuquerque’s High Hands Tattoo and created one at a time.
Gilfillan has two additional tattoos on her arms. These signify personal heritage rather than professional interests. A ram’s head that incorporates the North Carolina state motto — representing the mascot for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels — covers one arm, while a bloody severed head, an adaptation of her family’s Clan Macnab Scottish Highland crest, dominates the other. Both are quite large and demonstrate the strong line work and bright, vibrant colors of the neo-traditional tattoo style she loves.
Gilfillan, now the beverage manager at La Fonda on the Plaza and vice president of the New Mexico chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild, is passionate about hospitality and making connections with all kinds of people, which is why she said she usually covers her ink when she is working. Older people often associate tattoos with negative things, she said. Showing them could limit the kinds of people she is going to interact with. Covering up is “not La Fonda’s policy. It’s a personal thing. My tattoos are personal,” she said, “and I don’t always want to talk to people about my pineapple.”
But her reluctance to show and tell doesn’t mean Gilfillan has finished decorating her body. Next up may be a tiki version of a traditional Japanese mask. “Tiki has been a big part of my personal style as a bartender.” First created at Don the Beachcomber, a Hollywood tiki bar that opened in the 1930s, it’s a category of drink “that transports you to a totally made-up place ... a uniquely American fantasy of what escaping to an exotic place might be like.”
Gilfillan used to be really proud of not having tattoos, she said, but once she gave in, she went all the way. “Once you get over that initial fear of the pain — or the permanence or whatever it is you’re afraid of — and embrace it, why not get more?” ◀