See photos of Kansas City chefs' ink at pitch.com/slideshow.
Chef Patrice Welcher smiles as she makes a knuckle sandwich. No, that's not the name of a special on the menu of Sharp's 63rd Street Grill, the Brookside restaurant where she works.
Welcher balls her hands into fists that look as ready to punch as to prepare a meal. Above each of her knuckles, letters have been etched into her skin with black ink: S-A-N-D on her right hand, W-I-C-H on her left.
The tongue-in-cheek letters aren't Welcher's only tattoos. Like more than a few chefs these days, she has made her body a canvas, with patches of inky permanence, in a dizzying array of hues, embedded in her skin.
She's part of a new wave of kitchen professionals. "America has progressed to a point where people can express themselves on their bodies and have it be OK," Cesar Reyes of Succotash says.
Social binds have loosened up — even our moms have logged a little time under the needle. But these intricate ink jobs go further, attesting to the modern chef's very identity.
"Chefs and cooks have tattoos because we have always been a part of the underbelly, the blue-collar resistance to the Man," Welcher says. She has the words blue collar tattooed in script around her, well, collar. "It separates us from the white-collar stiffs."
Their self-identification as hard-knock, rough-and-tumble types makes Welcher, Reyes and their peers in KC (and around the country) more likely to have tattoos.
"It's just the lifestyle," Quillan Glynn of Pizza Bella says. "A lot of going out after work, not causing trouble but having fun ... kind of goes along with getting tattoos."
Ink has become part of the trade's regalia. Under the white double-breasted tunics and stiff toques — or instead of them — are colorful sleeves and wax-tipped mustaches.
You can thank reality TV for drawing this new breed of inked food wizards and badasses out of the kitchen and into the limelight. As Bravo and the Food Network teach more people the difference between a cherry tomato and an heirloom, chefs have begun earning — and seeking — notice outside the food industry.
"The media is showing the back of the house in the front," Welcher says. "We're finally getting recognized. We do exist."
Yet an artist is at the core of this rugged (and sometimes hairy) shell. Many chefs share the same reverence for the art of tattooing as they do for their own highly skilled vocation. And there's more overlap between the two than meets the eye. It takes attention to texture, color and detail to wow diners, as it does to rock a tattoo, and mastery of either doesn't come without pain: burns, punctured skin, a little blood.
But if the chefs' on-the-job creations are meant more for ingestion than appreciation, their tattoos are just for them and for one another. "I'm glad my brothers are out there," Reyes says.
A few brothers — and sisters — in restaurants across town let us peek into their secret society. The chefs' tattoos rival their dishes in creativity and presentation.