Chefs are traditionally known for their signature dishes, like Jon Bonnell’s oysters Texasfeller or Dean Fearing’s tortilla soup. But along with their food, a new generation of chefs has developed a second, more colorful trademark: body ink.
Not the heart-shaped tattoo etched discreetly on someone’s shoulder or ankle. We’re talking visible, in-your-face tattoos, from the sleeves of vivid images that run the length of an entire arm to the star tattooed behind an ear.
Tattoos have become a staple of local and national kitchens. They fit the image of the chef as a creative risk-taker, as someone who has bypassed the 9-to-5 office for a job with late-night hours and lots of adrenaline bursts.
Tattoos are a visual way to convey your creativity, your artiness, your disinterest in going with the norm — all traits you often find in chefs.
“We want people to see what we’re about,” says Victor Villarreal, sous chef at one of Fort Worth’s hottest restaurants, Clay Pigeon. “A tattoo expresses that. Food expresses that. It’s all art. It all goes together. Tattoos are visuals that can tell a story, just like our food.”
Colorful body art serves as a side dish to their outsider personalities.
For this crop of North Texas chefs, a menu isn’t their only mark of distinction.
Sous chef at Clay Pigeon in Fort Worth
At the tender age of 33, Abilene-born Victor Villarreal has already had a storied culinary career, working at some of the most renowned restaurants in North Texas, side by side with some of the area’s most well-known chefs. He has accomplished this, he says, by adopting a “Cook Free” philosophy, which he has emblazoned on his calf.
For video and more photos of Victor Villarreal, click here
You’ve worked at Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, Grace, Brownstone, Magnolia Cheese Co. and now Clay Pigeon. When I grow up, I want to be you.
When I decided to get back into this business, I wanted to learn as much as I could, from the best restaurants. I was willing to work long, hard hours, drive an hour each way, take a pay cut, whatever it took to restart my career.
You got out of it for a while?
I started working in the restaurant business when I was 15, but I took a long break. For about eight years, I studied sleep disorders, and back then, you could make really good money doing that.
How’d you get back into restaurant work?
My boss at the time gave me a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. After I finished it, I felt it, I knew it: I wanted to get back into it. I’d been a cook most of my life. It was time for me to pursue it as a career. So I volunteered to work at the [TACA Lexus] Party on the Green at the Mansion, just working in the kitchen, for free. And who do I wind up next to? [Celebrity chef] Rick Moonen! He liked the way I worked. Tim Byres, who was chef de cuisine there at the time, did too, and he offered me a job. This was also when John Tesar was executive chef there. My first time in the kitchen in seven, eight years, and it’s that kitchen, with those people!
The jobs didn’t pay much, but I didn’t care. I worked my way up from banquet to doing sauces to being on the front line with John. It was an amazing time in my life.
Now you’re at Clay Pigeon , one of several farm-to-table restaurants that have opened in Fort Worth recently. What makes Clay Pigeon different?
When we say everything is made from scratch, we mean it. The bread, the pasta, everything. We have the freedom to do what we want there. That’s one of the nice things about working with a chef who’s also the owner [Marcus Paslay]. We’re an independently owned restaurant. That frees us up to do the kind of cooking that we love.
That goes hand in hand with your tattoo.
“Cook Free” — it means two different things. First, yes, it means cooking what you want to cook. People want to put boundaries on how you can cook, what you can cook, what should go with this, what should go with that. But just cook how YOU want to cook; don’t put limits to what you can do. Secondly, cooking free is an expression of life for me. When I cook, I’m free of everything around me, I’m so focused on it. It’s kinda like my guiding light.
Fort Worth’s restaurant scene has changed considerably, for the better, over the past several years.
I think Fort Worth takes pride in the fact that we’re smaller than Dallas but we want to do bigger. When some people think of restaurants [in North Texas], they automatically think Dallas. There are a lot of chefs in Fort Worth who want to change that, myself included. We want to make Fort Worth a culinary destination.
Owner/chef at Enchiladas Ole in Fort Worth
Three years ago, at 45, Mary Perez reached a turning point that swerved her right into a tattooist’s needle. After three decades, Perez left her cush life in the nonprofit world for a tough life as an 80-hour-a-weeker in the food and restaurant world. Leaving behind the comforts of medical benefits and a steady paycheck, she developed her own salsa, which was picked up by Central Market, then opened her own restaurant, Enchiladas Ole, which has quickly become one of Fort Worth’s most popular Mexican restaurants. But before she took the plunge, there was something else she’d always wanted to do.
For video and more photos of Mary Perez, click here
You have to be in a certain mind set for a tattoo of this magnitude.
My life was changing. I didn’t want to work for anybody anymore. For 30 years, I had worked in nonprofits — and, don’t get me wrong, those 30 years were incredible. But I was ready to do something that I wanted to do. The tattoo was a part of where I was going. I wanted to take a chance, make a big statement, make a big impact.
That’s gorgeous work. Who did it?
A friend of mine, a freelance tattoo artist. It took 28 hours.
Takes a lot of patience on your part.
I was taking online college classes as he was doing it. I’m a multitasker. There’s no way I could sit still and do nothing for 28 hours. He did the tattoo while I did my homework. It actually helped take my mind off the pain.
What drew you to the idea of a family tree?
Tattoos are an expression of what someone believes in. Something in their heart and soul they want to express. My mother was our family’s foundation, the root of our family. That’s why the family tree is important to me. It’s also an expression of my personality — mentally, spiritually and emotionally. It’s a complex tattoo, kind of like my recipes [laughs].
If I’ve never been to Enchiladas Ole, what should I get?
The sampler enchilada plate. That way, you can try all three enchiladas — the enmoladas, which is a smoked chicken and Monterrey Jack enchilada covered in a mole sauce made with Mexican chocolate, chiles and spices; the Texican enchilada, which is a smoked brisket enchilada covered in ancho chile sauce; and the street-style chicken verde. That’s a smoked chicken enchilada covered in a verde sauce, then topped with street fixings — chopped cilantro, jalapeños, onions and lime.
You’ve done remarkably well for someone who is relatively new to the restaurant and retail industries.
Oh, my gosh, it’s unheard of for a Hispanic female to get her product in Central Market AND open and run her own restaurant. But you know what? Follow your heart and go above and beyond and good things will happen.
Your tattoo is a beautiful homage to your family. How do they feel about it?
My father hates it. He’s very old-fashioned. He still thinks I need to be working for somebody, thinks I should have stayed married. He thinks it’s the worst thing I ever did. My sons’ names are on it — Julian, Ryan and Caleb — so naturally they love it. They think they have a really cool mom. And that means the world to me.
Pitmaster at Lockhart Smokehouse in Plano
In 2012, Southern Living magazine named Will Fleischman one of the South’s 10 best pitmasters. Here’s the funny thing: It was the first pit he’d ever worked. While it often takes years to learn the ropes of smoking meat, Fleischman fell into it naturally, if not unconventionally. And if Fleischman, 43, ever has a momentary lapse of reason and forgets which part of the cow is which, he has a handy guide, etched on his arm, to show him which burnt end is up.
For video and more photos of Will Fleischman, click here
You have quite a few tattoos. What was your first?
I’ve been getting tattooed since I was 18. First one is on my chest. It’s sort of an Abe Lincoln as a half-moon type of thing. The guy who tattooed me first tattooed me for 10 years. We were good friends. He was one of the most well-read and thoughtful gentlemen I ever knew. He’d load me up on books and say, “You’re going to report back to me when you come in for your next tattoo.” He was actually an ordained minister and officiated my first wedding.
Can’t say I’ve seen a tattoo like this before.
I have many tattoos but that’s the one that gets the most attention. Being with Lockhart and neck-deep in the stuff, it just made sense. One of the guys from Saints and Sinners [tattoo parlor] in Oak Cliff did it. I got to know those guys by virtue of feeding them. [Fleischman is pitmaster at the Plano Lockhart, the recently opened spinoff of the Oak Cliff original.]
Not a lifelong aspiration of yours to be a Texas barbecue pitmaster, right?
I grew up in Wisconsin, around meat but about as far away from Texas’ idea of barbecue as you can get. I learned what I learned from being around a ranch and a ranch hand. But I studied under a chef in China. I studied literature. I was a college instructor and teacher. I got a lot of dry cleaning that sits in my closet that I don’t wear.
How did you wind up in Texas?
Short leash of a good woman.
How do you go from being a teacher to a barbecue pitmaster?
I never said I wanted to be a teacher for the rest of my life, either.
How much barbecue do you eat?
I have eaten at exactly two barbecue joints in my life — one being Kreuz Market (in Lockhart), the other being Riscky’s in the Stockyards. And I’ve eaten leftover carry-out barbecue that my old lady got from Hard Eight.
You’re kidding. You don’t taste other restaurants’ barbecue?
I’m not really interested in what other people or restaurants are doing. It’s kinda hard to get corrupted if you focus on what you’re doing, as opposed to what someone else is doing. I don’t want our food to be like someone else’s food. It would be a death sentence for me if someone said, “This is just like the coleslaw I get at the church picnic.”
Texans are passionate about their barbecue. How are you with feedback?
I reflect on feedback. If someone says there’s too much mayo in the potato salad, I’m going to listen. If I don’t listen, I’m going to grow stagnant as a cook. But I’d say the majority of the people who eat at Lockhart understand this isn’t how Grandpa used to do it. It’s how we do it.
Any correlation between barbecue and tattoos?
Only that I’m drawn to tattoos for the same reason I’m drawn to barbecue: It’s something that resonates with me.
Chef de cuisine at Tokyo Cafe in Fort Worth
Four years shy of turning 20, Tokyo Cafe has often been a few steps ahead of the curve, serving sushi before it became trendy, ramen before it became red-hot, tofu before a lot of people knew what it was. Kevin Martinez, 28, has been at the helm of the TC kitchen for four years, and he continues to, humbly, forge culinary paths, a prized chef’s knife leading the way.
For video and more photos of Kevin Martinez, click here
Tokyo Cafe has never really been like other local Japanese restaurants. What sets it apart?
We’ve always been the Japanese restaurant that offers something different than other Japanese restaurants. Very few places around here are doing stuff like cod collars and roasted pig’s head. I think Fort Worth gets a bad rap from some people. We’re not Austin, Houston or Dallas, but at the end of the day, there are a lot of good people who cook in this town, and this town has been very receptive to trying new things.
In Fort Worth, Tokyo Cafe is viewed as a trendsetter. If you see it at Tokyo Cafe, it’s bound to become a trend.
Basically, we started offering the kind of food that we, us personally, wanted to eat. Four years ago, there wasn’t anyone else doing ramen, and we wanted to eat ramen, so we put it on the menu. One of the things that’s coming down the pipeline, I’m working on a tofu-based sushi sauce. It won’t replace the other sauces, but I do want to find ways to incorporate it into what we do here every day. It’s not like we’re trying to be different for the sake of being different. We try new things because we want to eat new things [laughs].
You’re the unofficial ringleader of a group of local chefs called Chefs Underground. What’s the group about?
We get together every few months to cook and taste each other’s food, then talk about what we had. We’ll come up with a theme. Like one time it was your favorite childhood dish given a modern makeover. I think it’s a really healthy thing to do — it keeps us on our toes creatively, keeps us thinking and experimenting. At some point soon, we’re going to start doing some events and pop-up dinners and donate the proceeds to a local charity.
Why a chef’s knife for a tattoo?
That’s my chef’s knife, a Global knife. It was a knife that was handed down to me from the previous chef here. I used that knife every day, so I’m very sentimental about it. Not that long ago, I handed it down to another person here who needed it. And the guy who gave it to me got it from another chef. So that knife is on its fourth owner. Knives mean a lot to chefs. They’re our tools of the trade.
You have a funny story about going back to school.
I’m going back to school because my 5-year-old son called me out on it and asked me why it was OK to quit school. I felt like I really needed to prove to him the importance of school, so I went back. I’m finishing up my degree at Tarrant County College.
That’s rather astute for a 5-year-old.
You talk about astute. He just came in second place at a chili cookoff. His was made with pork belly and beef cheek.
You need to put that on your menu.
Good idea. When it gets cold, we’ll make you a big bowl of it.
Former executive chef at Rodeo Goat in Fort Worth
To Keith Grober, tattoos are snapshots of where you are in life. Young and careless, older and wiser, somewhere in the middle. Right now, that’s where Grober says he is — right in the middle of a massive career and lifestyle overhaul. After 14 years of working for Shannon Wynne’s army of restaurants — most recently, as exec chef of West 7th’s Rodeo Goat — the 33-year-old grad of the Culinary School of Fort Worth has gone solo, itching to open a place of his own. When it gets off the ground, he’ll celebrate with a new tattoo, he says, one that’ll toast the arrival of a new chapter in his life. For now, he reflects on his personal favorite.
For video and more photos of Keith Grober, click here
How’s it feel to have some free time?
I have not participated in life in years. When you work in a restaurant, which I’ve been doing nonstop for 14 years, you eat, sleep and breathe that restaurant. So, yeah, I’ve been enjoying my time off. But I’ve been hitting this new restaurant thing pretty hard, too, so it’s keeping me busy.
What can you tell us about it?
At this point, not much. I signed a nondisclosure agreement so I can’t talk about it until everything’s done. But I can tell you, it’s going to be a pretty big deal.
For Fort Worth?
Yes. I love my city and one of the things that I want to do with the new place is embrace all of the friends I’ve made in this city, be it local farmers or local artists or local craft beer companies. Let’s get all of these kick-a-- individuals together and let’s work together and make something really, really cool happen.
Talk about your first tattoo.
I was working at Bennigan’s and met this guy from a tattoo parlor. He told me he was a having a tattoo party and —
OK, what’s a tattoo party?
A lot of tattoo artists don’t actually own the buildings they work out of. So for every tattoo they do, whoever owns or leases the building gets a cut. Tattoo parties are a way for artists to get around giving someone else a cut. They have these big parties at their home and can do everything there and can charge less.
And how did it go?
This guy did a great job. After that first one, when you’re young like I was — I think I was 17 — you feel cool. It gets in your blood, literally [laughs]. Then you want another one.
Each of yours has a particular meaning.
I think tattoos should represent where you are in life, so mine reflect my time drumming in a local rock band called Addnerim and also my time in the kitchen, and where my head was at those times.
And the one you’re most proud of?
I call it the “coffee cup of doom.” I got it when I was 27. That was an interesting year for decision-making for me. The band was doing great. We’d won artist of the year and rock band of the year in the Fort Worth Weekly Music Awards. At the same time, I was doing really well at the Flying Saucer. They wanted to promote me, I was getting raises. But one day I woke up and I didn’t want to move. My body was exhausted — from thrashing it around in the band and from being on my feet all day working at the restaurant. I was living on caffeine and booze, and that’s when the idea of the coffee cup of doom popped into my head. Inside the coffee cup is a steaming cup of hot blood.
Oh, hot-blooded, I see. Clever.
You have to be hot-blooded to survive, to keep moving, to face tough decisions. It wasn’t long after that that I decided to devote my life to restaurant work and put the band on hold for a while. It was one of those watershed moments for me. I needed to make a choice, to do what was right for me, what made the most sense for me. And I gotta tell you, it was the best decision I ever made.
Pastry chef for Simply Scrumptious, her catering company
In terms of being a chef, and in terms of being a tattooed chef, Cheryl Raeside is somewhat of a late bloomer. But she has quickly made up for it. Over the past few years, the 47-year-old pastry chef has landed one great gig after another (she’s worked at Ridglea and River Crest country clubs and Main Street Bread Baking Co. in Grapevine) — and had her body etched in ink with one tattoo after another.
For video and more photos of Cheryl Raeside, click here
How old were you when you got your first tattoo?
I waited until I was 40. I figured by then I was old enough. And I kinda went nuts and got quite a few.
What was the hold-up?
I’d always wanted them, but I couldn’t think of anything that I wanted at 20 that I’d want when I was 40. At least that’s what I thought. Winnie the Pooh was what I wanted when I was 20 and it was the first tattoo that I got when I was 40. I should have just trusted myself, instead of listening to everybody else.
What was everybody else saying?
“You’ll regret it.” And I’ve seen some stuff that people will regret. When I was in culinary school, this one girl had a Korn tattoo all along her side. It took up her entire side. I know that when she gets pregnant, she’s going to regret that.
Not a Korn fan, eh?
I just think you need to give it a lot of thought and not do it to just be trendy. Whatever you get should mean something to you. Who knows — maybe there’s a Korn song that, 20 years from now, will still mean something to her.
You said you’re most proud of your tattoo of a Marilyn Monroe quote. What does that quote mean to you?
Self-empowerment. It’s a confidence booster. It’s like wearing a reminder that it’s OK to be different.
You did not take the typical road to being a chef.
When I enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Dallas in 2009, I still had my day job. I was a training coordinator for Lockheed Martin. I have a master’s degree in human resource management. But then I got laid off, so I thought I’d better figure out a way to make this other thing work. The reason why I originally enrolled in culinary school was so I could throw dinner parties [laughs].
What’s the one thing you love to make?
I like any kind of French pastry — eclairs, any kind of tart. I love making cakes. But my favorite thing to make is a classic opera torte, with chocolate and espresso flavors.
Why do so many chefs have tattoos?
I just think it’s a form of self-expression and individuality. Most chefs have strong personalities and tattoos are a way to express those personalities. It used to be, you wore your chef’s whites in the kitchen and everybody just kind of looked the same. But go to a fine-dining restaurant and you’ll see chefs with tattoos. It’s definitely not as taboo as it once was. Of course, my mother may tell you differently.
Sous chef at Lucia in Oak Cliff
Nearly four years after opening, tiny Italian restaurant Lucia is still one of the toughest tables to get in Dallas; diners must place their reservations a month in advance. The restaurant’s sous chef is 31-year-old Wyoming native Justin Holt, whose arm pays homage to one of the many things Lucia does so well: vegetables.
For video and more photos of Justin Holt, click here
What all is on there?
Broccoli, eggplant, garlic, a garlic whistle, pancetta, tomato, asparagus, mushrooms, artichoke and a pig’s head.
Why the pig’s head?
Everybody loves pork.
How long has this taken?
About a year and a half. I’m about 40 hours into it. I’m not done yet. There’s still a little piece that needs to be filled in. It’s been a big way of covering up a crappy tattoo I got when I was a kid.
What was it?
Flames, like the kind you see on the side of a car. I was into hot rods and old-school cars when I was younger. It was very crudely done. I had a challenge trying to find someone to cover it up. But I found this tattoo artist, Kevin Hicks. He’s at Dallas Tattoo and Arts now, outside of downtown. He’s been amazing. Highly recommend him.
You’ve worked at Nana and Driftwood, too. How do they compare to working at Lucia?
I’ve never worked in a restaurant like it. It’s weird, in a sense, because it’s completely consistent. I’ve worked in restaurants that do lunch service, dinner service, brunch, and you never know how busy, or not busy, it’s going to be. At Lucia, we know just about how many people are coming each night, and it’s not a lot, since the restaurant is so small. So it’s very forecastable. Which means you get a life outside the restaurant. The owners want you to have that. It’s nice, really nice.
Do you cook Italian food at home?
With my son, who’s 8, we’ll make pasta. He’s one of the most picky eaters, but he does enjoy cranking out good pasta.
He tries new foods?
My son doesn’t try anything. He’s super hard to break. He doesn’t understand why he should try new food and, when he does, he immediately doesn’t like it.
So what’s the secret?
It helps if one of his friends already likes it. Or you can make it seem like he’s a party pooper if he doesn’t like it. You have to shame him into liking it [laughs].
What’s a quick-and-dirty dish you like doing at home, for yourself?
Steamed or boiled rice with a fried egg on top. I like to use the yolk as my sauce, but you can put any sauce on it you want. Soy’s good with it.
Why a food tat?
It’s really just as simple as me loving food and me expressing that love. For a while, I was doing ramen pop-ups around town. I’d go to work, end my shift and then, from midnight to 2 a.m., do a ramen pop-up somewhere. Food’s a constant in my life. Even after I get off work, there I was, doing it again, surrounding myself with food. It’s my life.