A few years ago, Birk O’Halloran was clicking through an online New York Times gallery of chefs with tattoos when something struck him. “I remember thinking, that’s a book. This could be so much more than just a simple gallery. There’s a full story behind it,” recalls the Brooklyn-based author, who also cofounded the Napa, Calif., boutique company Iconic Wine. In November, he released that book with the help of his cousin, photographer Daniel Luke Holton. “Eat Ink: Recipes. Stories. Tattoos.” draws parallels between chefs expressing themselves as much through their body art as through food, with recipes and profiles of notable inked-up locals like Andy Husbands and Alina Eisenhauer. O’Halloran, 30, and Holton, 36, are already working on their next project, “Drink Ink,” featuring tattooed mixologists and sommeliers.
Q. When you’re looking for tattooed chefs, how do you scout for them?
O’Halloran: I joke that I was basically a very creepy online chef stalker for about a year, looking for chefs on Facebook and seeing if I could find pictures of them in Speedos on the beach to see if they had any tattoos. But a big part of it was from the wine connection, working with the sommeliers in [New York City]. They were the ones who were able to connect me to the chefs and those were the initial names we were able to draw on to put a pitch together and get a book deal. After that, it was like building a snowball, the more people hear about it, the more people come out of the woodwork. We had to cut some people at the end just to make our deadline.
Q. Are there an increasing number of tattooed chefs?
O’Halloran: Next to pirates and bikers, chefs are one of the most tatted professions. The older chefs [in the book], a lot of them have maybe not food-related tattoos, because a lot of these guys kind of lived a lifestyle where they had to become a chef because there wasn’t a whole lot else for them. But now, with the rise of the Food Network, the stardom, everything that’s changed over the last 15 to 20 years, now you hear of rock star chefs. It’s kind of morphed into this thing where it was kind of underground before, but now, you’re on a stage, so you’re seeing a lot more culinary tattoos on the younger guys.
Q. What do tattoos say about the chef’s experiences?
Holton: It’s their personality on their body. It helps them differentiate themselves from others. In this day and age where there’s so many chefs, it’s a way for the chefs to express themselves in a way that a lot of people say is art. It’s a way to turn your body into a gallery.
Q. How does that relate to chefs expressing themselves in the kitchen?
O’Halloran: One of the things that I think is funny that I don’t think a lot of people notice is the recipes in the cookbook are pretty free rein. We were really lucky to end up with a nice mix of recipes, but I don’t think we ever dictated or requested a certain style of recipe from anyone. In addition, while they’ve been cleaned up to be formatted and look nice in the book, you’ll notice some of the measurements are in English, some in metrics, some are by weight, some are by volume. We actually wanted to leave those recipes and those notes as close to the original format as what the chefs gave us. We saw the cooking and the recipes just as much of an expression as the tattoos.
Q. What was the photographing process like?
O’Halloran: It was a whirlwind. Daniel would fly in for a few days and shoot a few things. It was unfortunate because there were a few chefs like Jason Santos we would have loved to have that we just couldn’t quite make the timing work.
Holton: It was almost guerilla-style food photography. I didn’t have any food stylists with me. It was usually a very quick photoshoot, less than two or three hours for each chef. Really, what was cooked and presented is what’s photographed and shown. There wasn’t any special doctoring; the food dishes were not sprayed with silicone or any kind of chemical lacquers. It was real simple basic food photography.