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DFW Chef ink: Victor Villarreal of Clay Pigeon in Fort Worth

Posted 10:48am on Thursday, May. 15, 2014

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.

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.

Victor Villarreal

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.

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.

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