J.D. Fratzke still dreams about a tattoo he saw on the arm of a fellow chef: a radish.
And then there was the full sleeve of vegetables — heirloom vegetables, in fact — covering the skin of another restaurant star.
“The most amazing piece I’d ever seen,” Fratzke said.
Fratzke, chef and co-owner of the Strip Club Meat & Fish, is well-known for his own ink: A rendering of his late grandmother’s boning knife covers the length of his forearm. Guests at his St. Paul restaurant get a glimpse of it whenever he brushes the sweat from his brow.
Today, tattoos on the staffs of top Twin Cities restaurants are as common as, well, knives in a kitchen.
For this group, tattoos are deeply personal and reflect their commitment to their craft.
“You don’t just put food tattoos on your body because you’re going to cook for a couple years,” Fratzke said. “You’re in this for the long haul. It’s almost a prison gang sort of thing: ‘I chose to do this for life and I’m going to show the rest of the world.’ ”
But the ink also says a lot about modern kitchen culture.
It’s no coincidence that the rise of a thriving restaurant scene also runs parallel to a swelling number of inked-up cooks. According to chefs — even at the priciest places — it’s a natural fit. While tattoos have become commonplace, fewer tattoos advertise a profession. You’d be hard-pressed to find a corporate CEO whose arms are filled with images of fountain pens and staplers.
“Cooks and chefs live their lives on their sleeves,” said Thomas Kim, chef and co-owner of the Rabbit Hole. “You tattoo your body to commemorate — or commiserate — what you’ve gone through.”
For Kim, that shared struggle of working long hours in hot, tiny work spaces creates a unique kind of camaraderie.
“We joke that we’re modern-day pirates,” he said. “But sometimes you jump ship. And when you start your own restaurant, you start recruiting people and building your own crew. It’s that pirate mentality. Kitchens, they call them galleys.”
Even as the restaurant industry continues to soar — 100 new places opened in the metro area last year — the job of a cook is “still not viewed as a regular job,” Fratzke said.
“It’s rejecting convention,” he said. “You work at night, you work with your hands, you miss holidays and birthdays. There’s a loneliness to it. So your friends become the people who do the same kind of work that you do. You lean on them and depend on them. And then you want to get something to commemorate that.”
Like a radish tattoo.
The Strip Club Meat & Fish, 378 Maria Av., St. Paul.
The big knife tattoo on J.D. Fratzke’s forearm gets a lot of looks.
And he only has Grandma to thank for this.
The chef started cooking with his grandmother when he was about 3 years old. She was the best cook in the family, without a doubt.
“We weren’t a physical affection kind of family,” he said. “So the way she showed us she loved us was by cooking so well. That stuck with me. It’s probably why I wanted to cook.”
She died in 2005 after living a long full life, he said. When he and his cousins were told they could take keepsakes from her home, Fratzke made a beeline to the kitchen and walked out with her five-decades-old boning knife.
Later, he tattooed it on his arm.
“She’s always with me,” he said. “I’ll never be able to forget what she gave me.”
THOMAS KIM & KAT MELGAARD
The Rabbit Hole, inside Midtown Global Market, 920 E. Lake St., Mpls.
You know you have a lot of tattoos when customers talk about them in Yelp reviews.
Chef Thomas Kim has 18 scattered across his body. His business partner (and life partner) Kat Melgaard has several, including two pistols blazing above her neckline. The California transplants made a splash in the food scene when they moved here in 2011. Last year, they opened the wildly inventive Rabbit Hole, one of the only sit-down restaurants at Midtown Global Market.
Their tattoos are like mini memoirs. On Kim’s inner wrist, he has a skull with two crossed knives — one is a sashimi slicer, the other a European French blade. The imagery represents “my background growing up in America but focusing on Asian cuisine,” Kim said. “I got it when I fully decided that I was going to do this for a living. I had to go all in.”
Melgaard said people often assume she’s a punk rocker because of her ink. “I’m literally the complete opposite,” she said.
She grew up on a North Dakota beef farm. “When I was little, I wore cowboy boots and I was in Future Farmers of America,” she said.
For her, tattoos and cooking should deliver the unexpected.
“Especially for a woman — and being Asian — [my tattoos] throw people off a bit. They don’t know what to think. But that goes along with our food!”
Piccolo, 4300 Bryant Av. S., Mpls., and Sandcastle, 4955 W. Lake Nokomis Parkway, Mpls.
For some guys, their first tattoo can be pretty over-the-top — maybe a skull or a dragon or a portrait of mom.
Doug Flicker got a piece of kitchen tape. “Besides being very attractive,” he says, “tattoos tell a story.”
This particular piece of kitchen tape (the kind that chefs use to label perishable containers), has the name “Bourdain” scrolled across it. It commemorates the night in 2012 when foodie superstar Anthony Bourdain shot an episode of “No Reservations” at Flicker’s small-plates powerhouse, Piccolo. Bourdain called his meal one of the best he’d had.
Since tattooing the tape on his arm, Flicker has become addicted. An octopus now covers the same arm, its tentacles holding Flicker’s favorite things — a spoon (“my favorite kitchen utensil”), an artichoke (“my favorite vegetable”) and so on. As for the eight-armed sea creature: Octopus is a staple at Flicker’s tiny south Minneapolis restaurant.
“There used to be a time when cooks would show off their cuts and burns,” Flicker said. “Now the tattoo has replaced that.”