Interview | Isaac Fitzgerald on Kitchen Culture and Tattoo Artistry

Photo: John Midgley.

Knives and InkChefs and tattoos go together like lobster and butter. Cooking and getting inked both involve artistry and pain, beauty and grit. In the new book Knives & Ink, author Isaac Fitzgerald and artist Wendy MacNaughton explore the stories behind the tats of 65 chefs from all kinds of kitchens. Each tale is bite-sized and accompanied by a full-color rendering of the tattoo, a stylistic choice that makes the designs pop off the page.

Whether the subjects are showing off a motivational phrase, honoring a loved one lost with angel wings, or celebrating the bounty of fruits and vegetables in a bright sleeve, these chefs lay bare the inspirations behind their tattoos and their reasons for joining the culinary ranks. Knives & Ink is a moving read as well as feast for the eyes.

Crave: You and Wendy published a book about tattoos, Pen & Ink, in 2014. What made you want to write about that topic again, but with the focus on chefs this time?

Isaac Fitzgerald: The reaction and the way that people received Pen & Ink was so generous and lovely, so that helped. It felt like Wendy and I had really tapped into something there. You don’t want to just do a “Volume Two.” We wanted it to stand on its own, to be its own book, so we were looking for another angle, and chefs were immediately what came to both of us.

There are a lot of similarities between culinary culture and tattoos, a sense of masochism in both.

Artwork: Chef Timmy Malloy by Wendy MacNaughton.

Artwork: Chef Timmy Malloy by Wendy MacNaughton in “Knives & Ink”.

One of the chefs in the book, Timmy Malloy, has a snake and a knife tattoo (left). I really love his story in particular and I love his talking about what drew him into being a chef. He talks about how being on your feet 14 hours a day, getting to play with fire, having to do 30 things at once really connected with him. It’s almost a calling. Getting tattoos can feel that way for a lot of different reasons as well. If you get a tattoo—especially in years past, like a neck tattoo or tattoos on your knuckles—it’s a way of saying, “I’m not going to get a corporate job. My desire to cook, to make food for people, it’s something I’m dedicating myself to.”

Do you feel that tattoo culture has changed over the past 10 or 20 years? It seems like tattoos used to be a sign of danger but now they’re much more mainstream.

Yeah, absolutely. I have a neck tattoo. I sit at a desk. It’s definitely broadened. But if you look at tattoo’s history, there’s always kind of been one culture centered around it that wasn’t built on danger. There’s always that kind of an art form to it and there’s always been an interest in it for its beauty. I think that’s become more accepted this day in age. I think that’s a wonderful thing because it is such a gorgeous art form.

How did you go about finding the subjects in the book? Was there an open call or were these people that you knew?

Artwork: Catherine Doyle by Wendy MacNaughton in "Knives & Ink".

Artwork: Catherine Doyle by Wendy MacNaughton in “Knives & Ink”.

This is one of the other differences between this book and Pen & Ink. That all started as a Tumblr that Wendy MacNaughton and I started almost three-and-a-half years ago now. There, we would put out an open call and of course you had all these people who were used to being online, like, “I can take photos of my tattoos, I can share my story. It’s going to be a fun thing to be a part of.” But when you’re doing an open call for chefs, you’re talking about a lot of individuals who aren’t spending a lot of time online, they aren’t on a computer, so it became a different type of task to try to track down the best stories and chefs.

We found the best way to get in touch was to find people and friends in the industry and to talk to them about the project and what we were hoping to do, and then they would connect us with chefs. A chef’s time is very, very valuable, so we wanted to make sure we weren’t wasting anyone’s time, we wanted to make sure they felt respected, and that really all comes down to trust. It was about finding somebody who would put us in touch with people and the chef would come back to us and say, “Okay, I trust this person. I’m interested in being involved.”

That’s interesting about trust. I have tattoos, too, and the longer I have them, the less I want to talk about them with strangers. But people were really willing to open up to you. Some of these stories are very painful.

Very, very personal stories. I also think that comes back to the fact that I have my own tattoo stories and when you start to talk about those stories, it’s nice, especially with ones that are remembering a loved one or someone that was close to you that you lost. That is the purpose of the tattoos, to serve as a reminder, this way of honoring people’s memories. Obviously, it’s not something you want to chat about all the time, and to take the time to listen to somebody’s story, it was almost a way of appreciating that memory. I felt honored to be a part of it.

Artwork: Brian Grosz by Wendy MacNaughton in "Knives & Ink".

Artwork: Brian Grosz by Wendy MacNaughton in “Knives & Ink”.

The book includes recipes from the chefs as well. Have you attempted any of them?

Yes! There are some crazy ones in there and there are some more simple ones. That was a fun idea, which we have to credit where credit’s due: Nancy Miller, our editor at Bloomsbury. She was like, “Hey, these people are talking so passionately about food, what if we have them share their favorite recipes?” I still wanted it to be a tattoo book. It was important to me that the recipes not overwhelm the book, but it was a pleasant surprise to get such a great reaction from so many chefs that were excited about showing off the different ways in which they like to play with food. That became a part of the book that, when we started out, we had no expectations for, but it was a lot of fun. I am not the best chef in the world, so I stick to the oatmeal and the salsa.

You’re the books editor at BuzzFeed, so you must be inundated with great writing all day. Does that make you more or less motivated to work on your own projects when you’re off-the-clock?

I’ve been in the books world now for eight years. I’ve been at BuzzFeed for coming up on three years. It’s a world where when I’m off-the-clock, I’m still very much in it. I’m usually going to friends’ book launches, talking about books, consuming literature. I’m very lucky that I get to do something that I’m so passionate about. It can be hard to work on books and read books all day and then try to work on your own, but as somebody who grew up loving books, being able to be part of this world is wonderful. When Pen & Ink happened, I was just floored that this project Wendy and I were working on became a book. To be able to do it again and to be able to focus on chefs that were artists in their own right was just a fantastic opportunity and I feel really lucky that I get to do it.

If you publish again, what direction will you go in next?

Wendy has a back-to-back food thing going on. She has this incredible cookbook coming out that she does all these wonderful illustrations for: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking. It’s going to be absolutely incredible. It’s a long, large project that she’s been working on for many, many years.

I have nothing officially lined up, but I do kind of hope to maybe look into children’s books, which is a fun pivot from tattoos. [Laughs] For me, it’s about finding the next project that clicks and makes sense, then moving on from there.