TAKE A TOUR of chef Al Anderson's tattoos, and you know the guy's got stories to tell.
Anderson, in charge of the kitchen at Johnny Brenda's in Northern Liberties, is a South Philly native who knocked around a bit before coming back home to roost. A stint in the Coast Guard. Another in the kitchen at a restaurant called Big Daddy-O's in Hawaii. A failed marriage. These are just a few of the rites of passage chronicled in ink on the brawny chef's epidermis.
In a profession where grit counts for as much as talent, tattoos are worn with pride, a sign of experience, individualism, self expression.
"I guess if you're working for an old-school restaurant, and you show up with blue hair and a ring in your nose, they show you the door," said Anderson. "But I think in a lot of kitchens, most guys have tattoos. It's another kind of artistic expression."
A self-described renaissance man, Anderson lived in Louisiana for six months, where his prowess with an upright bass came in handy - hence, the accordion-playing alligator on his forearm. A tattooed wedding band and a mouse, in honor of his ex-wife's nickname, tell one side of a love story; a spider-web-encased heart, the other side.
"Each one shows the way I felt at the moment," he said. "Tattoos are something you get for better or worse. I don't regret any of them. In fact, I wish I had more."
At first glance, Eric Ripert doesn't seem like a tattoo kind of guy. Unbearably suave and handsome in a chiseled, French sort of way, Ripert just opened his first Philadelphia spot, 10 Arts, at the Ritz Carlton.
He's best known as the acclaimed, 3-star Michelin chef at New York's Le Bernardin, with more casual eateries in the Caymans and Washington D.C. And at 43, he just got his first tattoo.
"I never really thought of it," said Ripert. "I have never been necessarily interested in having one. But I was in New Orleans and saw some beautiful tattoos on one of Emeril Lagasse's cooks. We went for lunch, he knew a very good tattoo parlor, Electric Ladyland, and I thought, why not?"
Ripert decided to get a fleur-de-lys, the symbol of both New Orleans and France, inked on his shoulder. "It's not about the Saints football team. The fleur de lys represents royalty in France, and enlightenment. It's also a flower that grows in the spring under the snow, and suddenly sees the light. I liked that idea."
Now that it's a done deal, Ripert wishes he'd gone bigger. "I'm thinking of having another one," said the chef. "Maybe a lotus flower - also a symbol of enlightenment. It's a flower that grows in muddy water, then one day just reaches to the light."
Has he thought about tieing future tattoos to his profession?
"Being a chef - we're totally dysfunctional," he said. "But I don't know if I want a piece of bacon on my stomach."
Mark McKinney, head chef at Cantina Los Caballitos and the Royal Tavern on Passyunk Avenue, has full sleeves on both arms, the first sign that he's as serious about his ink as he is about Royal's gastro-pub menu. Most of his tattoos are old-school retro - hot rods, pin-up girls, Campbell's soup cans, that kind of thing.
Then there's the monkey chef.
"He's got a girl's head in a saute pan and a bottle of alcohol in one hand," said McKinney. A picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, it's a reminder that staying free of toxic relationships and bad habits is a top priority. "I look at myself, and I can literally see how far I've grown," said the chef. "I wouldn't change any of them."
Matt Davis considers his tattoos journal entries.
"They're like markers in my life," said Davis, a chef at Global Dish Caterers. Davis got his first tattoo at age 18; at 32, he's not done yet. "I have one on the back of my neck that says, 'To thine own self be true.' It's a reminder to myself to not let somebody else's foolishness drag me down. I went through a self-destructive period. And a reminder is a good thing."
A retro pin-up nurse is a tribute to his mother and grandmother: "The women in my family are healers - they've helped me through hard times."
It took John Strain until he was 33 to get his first tattoo. Strain, chef de cuisine at Valanni, didn't want to be stuck with something that wasn't meaningful in his life. When he finally did take the plunge a year ago, he did it in a big way, opting for a large, multi-colored heart on his upper back, between his shoulder blades.
"I did it as a declaration for my fiance. A buddy of mine at [Amber's] Blue Velvet [a tattoo parlor] in Langhorne drew it free hand. I guess it took about five hours."
A star on his forearm for the couple's 4-year-old son is another keeper. "I don't really want to tie into my profession. It's more personal for me than that."
Random body art wasn't something that interested David Konyk, a chef at Zocalo in West Philly. "For me, placement has always been the thing. The way the art fits the contours and lines of my body. That's what makes it really interesting."
A Celtic cat that he got in Ireland wraps sinuously around one foot. And his first piece, which he got at age 18, is a large tribal design that flows over his right hip. "I'm pretty tough, but that one was painful," he said. "I think you go through every emotion when you're having it done. The funny thing is, I'm always itchy for the next one."
Any idea what that's going to be?
"Not right now. But when it's time, I'll know."
"It's addicting," said Neal Mayton, a chef at Rx in University City. "For me, it's the range of emotions you go through. The nervousness beforehand, the slight pain, with its release of endorphins, and the healing process and after-care. I like all of it."
Mayton is covered with symbolic art, including illustrations of the Hindu god Shiva, a biomechanical infinity symbol and traditional Japanese art. The ornamentation has its practical side, he pointed out.
"The best thing about having tattoos and being a chef is you don't look like a burn victim," he said. "We're always getting burned and marked up. But it doesn't show, thanks to my tattoos." *
Beth D'Addono has been writing about the Philadelphia and national restaurant scene for more than 17 years in local and national publications. She also is co-author of several cookbooks. Reach her at www.bethdaddono.com.