For many chefs, getting tattooed is about wearing their heart on their sleeve.
Paula Arvela is no stranger to the kitchen. In 1995, after arriving in Australia from her native Portugal, Arvela indulged her passion for food and started working in a commercial kitchen, learning more about the changing Australian culture from the dishes she was helping to prepare than she anticipated.
She knew from an early age that food and culture were intrinsically linked, but it wasn’t until she started working towards a PhD in the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts at the University of Wollongong that she saw the strong connection between food and communication.
“Food is more than what we eat,” Dr Arvela wrote in her PhD thesis ‘Sitting at the table of nation – narratives of bacalhau, the Portuguese national dish’. “Food is also a cultural and social marker inscribed by relations of power, class, ethnicity and gender. This is what makes food a powerful cultural signifier.”
Two years ago, Dr Arvela took her research in a slightly different direction after attending a conference at Oxford in the UK about food and communication.
“I started wondering how I would approach this topic in terms of finding a new way to explore it,” she says.
“I just happened to be at the beach one day soon after and started looking at the number of people with tattoos and how they have become so much more popular and trendy, so I decided to write a paper in which I made the association with food and communication – particularly chefs and tattoos.”
Food, family and friendship
Food has always played a big part in Dr Arvela’s life. She says growing up food was part of social situations.
“I would help my grandmother and mother in the kitchen, and it always felt to me as if food was quite rewarding,” she says. “But I never quite looked at food as a means of communication until I started to understand that it was more than nutrition.
“When I was growing up there was no such thing as a celebrity chef, nothing with the glamour or meaning that cooking has today. I have since become aware of all the different facets that food plays in our lives.”
Strangely, cooking wasn’t Dr Arvela’s first career. Before she came to Australia she studied medicine and worked as a doctor in Portugal, but transferring her qualifications to Australia proved to be a more complicated task than she imagined, especially as English was not her first language.
“I started having kids and then put medicine on the backburner,” she says. “When the kids had grown up I decided to retrain as a chef. I had always had an interest in food and there was no way to go back into medicine, so in 1995 I completed a Certificate III and IV in Commercial Cooking and started cooking professionally.”
After a sabbatical overseas for 12 months in the late 1990s Dr Arvela returned to Australia and decided although she loved cooking she wanted to return to studying.
“As much as I enjoyed cooking I wanted something more and I went back to university in my early 40s – I wasn’t a young chook,” she says. “I was always studying cultural science stuff so in 2002 I enrolled in an undergraduate degree in sociology and social studies.”
It took her four years to complete, working and studying part-time. She followed it up immediately with an Honours degree and then a PhD.
“My interest has always been food, but this time I was looking at food not from a nutritional side of things. We all eat to live but a huge component of eating is also cultural and socially important – how to eat, what to eat and who we eat with.”
A sign of passion
With the rise of the celebrity chef, and the way in which food and its creators are now revered the world over, Dr Arvela says the ink on the arms of the men and women whipping up wonders in kitchens have become even more telling – revealing stories of their likes, dislikes, passions and peculiarities.
“When I started working in kitchens in 1995 tattoos were not as they were today – people did have tattoos but the amount of them was nothing compared to what it is today,” Dr Arvela says.
“To be honest, from my own experience, I can’t recall seeing chefs with tattoos – they didn’t try to show them off. Now people make a point of having a tattoo and showing it off. Looking at TV and magazine, chefs have made a point of showing them off.”
Dr Arvela concedes that not all the artwork in the kitchen is associated with food, and the majority of the research she collected on the prevalence of tattoos being steamed up over a pot of boiling water is mainly through secondary sources.
When I started working in kitchens in 1995 tattoos were not as they were today – people did have tattoos but the amount of them was nothing compared to what it is todayDr Paula Arvela
However, the fascination with what master chefs are permanently painting on their bodies is increasing.
“I am trying not to generalise with this research but to create some sort of pattern, and I think it is quite appropriate to say that among the chefs I have researched there are those who use tattoos associated with food to indicate their specialty,” she says.
“There are some chefs who have tattoos that are not associated with food at all and have the names of family and other sorts of symbolic signs. Those that did have food-related tattoos are those who we generally know as ‘foodies’– who use tattoos as a means of communicating their preferences for food or their interest in food, in everything that is associated with food.
Tattoos, Dr Avela says, can make a parallel with clothing in the sense that what we wear, the types of clothes and brands, talk about ourselves and try to communicate who we are. She believes the use of tattoos has also been appropriated this way – especially in the food industry.
Tattoos are a centuries-old way of communication. But traditionally the practice was used to indicate status and related to religion. These days tattoos are given the meaning the wearer wants, which is not necessarily the meaning that is traditionally associated with them.
“Because I didn’t ask the meaning of the tattoos I am hypothesising about what chefs are telling us with their tattoos, but going back to the parallel of clothing, some people wear Calvin Klein and others wear a $2 t-shirt – it is all very personal.
“In the case of chef Adriano Zumbo [who has a macaron tattoo], it is a way of expressing his expertise. He also has one of Willy Wonka, who was apparently a childhood hero. If you didn’t know who Zumbo was you would assume that he may just like Willy Wonka, but as we know a little about him, we can start making associations.”
Inspirations in ink
According to his own testimony, Zumbo, a pastry chef and macaron master, is only a recent convert to skin art, not going under the needle until he was 24. Zumbo has said one of his favourite movies was Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, hence the portrait of Gene Wilder donning a top hat on his right arm.
“It created the dream for me, that fantasy. I wanted to make pastry,” he has previously said of his artwork. His other tattoos include scarab beetles – good luck charms – and “6” and “11”, numbers to which the clock’s hands are often puzzlingly pointing whenever Zumbo checks the time.
According to Zumbo, chefs like to display their creativity and individuality – a statement that Dr Arvela says is common among those who use food as a way of communicating.
“I can theorise that some chefs have tattoos of knives because it is a fundamental tool in the practice of cheffing, or another meaning in the chef cohort is that they sometimes want to portray that stereotype of people that are different, out of the normal and are tough,” Dr Arvela says.
Female chefs are also getting tattoos to represent themselves and in a way they also use the tattoo to say ‘I am as tough as you are’ – to assert themselves in a very masculine environment.Dr Paula Arvela
“Working in a kitchen is not as glamorous as it is made out on TV. Working 12-15 hours a day in a very hot environment is not as glamorous as it seems. I worked in kitchens where I was the only female chef and it can be very tough because there is that macho undercurrent.
“[My research shows that] female chefs are also getting tattoos to represent themselves and in a way they also use the tattoo to say ‘I am as tough as you are’ – to assert themselves in a very masculine environment.”
These days Dr Arvela still finds pleasure in cooking for others. “I still sometimes [cook] when my friends need an extra hand. I enjoy going into the kitchen,” she says.
“For me cooking and studying at the same time for 10 years was very rewarding but also I felt it was a good balance – practice and theory. In the kitchen I was doing manual work using skills and knowledge that I acquired and when I finished that I would come home to study.”
For the next 12 months, Dr Arvela will be picking up a few new cooking skills as she teaches a cross-cultural subject at a Chinese university.
“What I am going to be teaching is not food-related. I am definitely looking forward to seeing what food is there and I assume, after seeing shows like Iron Chef, there is also a glamorous part of being a chef in China as well,” she says.
“I will see with my own eyes what is happening there. Macau used to be a Portuguese colony so I am going to see if there are remaining Portuguese food influences there.”
Main image: Renowned pastry chef Adriano Zumbo showing his Willy Wonka-inspired tattoo. Photo: Jon Reid / Fairfax