An interview with Chef Aaron Sanchez
NEW YORK (AP) — Are you just about over chefs and their tattoos? Food Network star Aaron Sanchez certainly is.
We get it. The kitchen is a war zone and the ink is a badge of just how tough — or ironic — you are. But even as the needle hits his calf, Sanchez rolls his eyes at the spectacle.
“The chef tattooing is out of control. If I see another young chef with a pig tattoo I’m going to puke in my mouth,” Sanchez said recently while stretched on his stomach on a cot. Behind him, Brad Fink permanently sketched onto the back of his leg a sombrero-wearing man snoozing against a cactus. “It’s becoming so cliched that they think they have to have it.”
An odd sentiment for a man already inked head to toe. For a man who is part owner of one of the city’s premier — and very popular with chefs — tattoo shops. For a man who didn’t hesitate to get one more in the name of good journalism.
Because that was the deal. I’d chat with him about the intersection of food and tattoos, but only if he was getting one during the conversation. And only if I was getting one — my first — at the same time. Because sometimes you need to go all in.
Which is how I came to be at Daredevil Tattoo, which Sanchez owns with Fink and Michelle Myles, the woman who gave the chef his very first ink job. Sanchez was splayed out before me with Fink marking up the business end of him; Myles sat to my left, needle tracing along my upper arm.
Getting inked at Daredevil is an immersion in history. Partly because Sanchez and his partners are pleasantly obsessed with the history of this counterculture art, partly because much of the shop itself has been given over to museum space to host Myles and Fink’s collection of flash — tattoo talk for sample designs — and other tattoo antiquities. In fact, it’s that collection that got Sanchez into business with Fink and Myles a few years ago.
“I wanted to assist them in the preservation of this,” said Sanchez, co-star of Food Network’s “Chopped” and host of Cooking Channel’s “Taco Trip.” “I spent enough damn time here. I figured I might as well buy in.”
Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. And it started with food, love and loss.
When Sanchez was 7, he moved from Texas to New York with his mother — Zarela Martinez, a powerhouse chef in her own right — and twin brother. A few years later, when Sanchez was 16, his mother sent him to cook with Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans for a summer. He’s been on a culinary — and tattoo — path ever since.
Sanchez was 19 when he got his first tattoo. It was 1995 and it would be another two years before tattooing was legal in New York City. Myles did the honors — a cross bearing the name of his father, who’d died when Sanchez was 13. Myles and Fink opened their shop in 1997 and Sanchez has been a customer ever since.
In those days, it was a food-for-ink transaction. Sanchez would feed the gang at the shop — “I’ve never met a tattoo-er who doesn’t love to eat!” — and in exchange they’d keep the shop open late to work on his growing body of body art. “Chefs and the tattoo world have been colliding for a while. When I started cooking, like tattooing it was considered an anti-establishment way of life.” And that’s what drew him to both. He bought into Daredevil a couple years ago.
But tattooing offered him something food could not. “There’s a permanence around tattooing, whereas food is an experience and then it goes away.”
Of course, permanence is so very ... permanent. The next day, as he demonstrated a smoked tuna taco he’d prepared for an event at the New York City Wine and Food Festival, I asked Sanchez about his top-to-bottom coverage and whether he had any regrets. I’d heard chatter that he did. To get a sense of just how covered he is, know that Fink needed to tattoo over old tattoos to make room for the one Sanchez received with me.
Sanchez rocked his head side to side, pausing. “You could always have done things differently. But I did it and that’s OK. You just go forward.”
Going forward will be a little different for Sanchez. His next cookbook, his third, will be as much about tattoos as food. “It will be something that will completely set me apart and explain me and why chefs get tattoos,” he said. And maybe why it’s become so overdone? Sanchez nodded. “Tattoos and chefs are just hand-in-hand, even more so than rock stars. Eventually it just got a little out of hand.”
Back to the shop and back to my left arm. Until I pulled up my sleeve and gave it over, neither Sanchez nor Myles knew quite what to make of my willingness. But they approved of my choice of location. Conventional wisdom is that the closer to bone you go, the more it hurts. But even the softer stuff isn’t always painless.
“People think butt cheeks are easy. But then I had one. Man that’s a sensitive spot!” Sanchez said. “And the underarm. Talk about forbidden pain!”
The experience actually was painless. And kind of a rush. My tattoo? A small sphere with arrows shooting out in all directions, the symbol for chaos and the theory that you need disorder to find order. Kind of like cooking — and journalism.
—For a video slideshow of the interview, go to: https://youtu.be/pCVMJOL-8Fk