Dining With Denise Neil

Chef tattoos: Wichita chefs express their culinary passion with ink

The first pig chef Jeremiah Harvey ever roasted turned out so succulent and delicious, two days later he had a pig with an apple stuffed in its mouth tattooed on to his arm.

Donnie Hutchins, who owns Mr Natural Soul Kitchen food truck, loves cooking with vegetables, so he had his lower arm covered with a tattoo of a bright red tomato, two purple eggplants and a leafy head of romaine.

Tanya’s Soup Kitchen chef Kelly Rae Leffel has a tattoo of her restaurant’s logo on the back of her arm. It’s a tribute to the job she loves and to its founder, the late Tanya Tandoc, who used to joke that anyone brave enough to get a logo tattoo would get free soup for life.

As a rule, chefs are a tattooed group. They’re creatives. They’re artists, and the passion they don’t put on plates often ends up inked on their bodies.

Many Wichita’s chefs have at least one food-themed tattoo somewhere on their bodies, and some have many more.

Hutchins, who worked in several Kansas City restaurants before moving his culinary career to Wichita, has more than two dozen food-related tattoos on his body – most on his arms and hands.

His favorite is his tattoo that spells the words “soul food” across his knuckles. They’re a tribute not only to his food truck but also to his belief that food should comfort you, remind you of home.

He also has a bowl of the Vietnamese soup pho tattooed on his hand. He has a Chinese carryout container on his upper arm. And he has a picture of a Voodoo doughnut from the Portland doughnut shop he once worked across the street from on the back of his upper arm.

“My tattoos just evolve,” he said. “Every tattoo I have is a period of my life where I’ve had a passion for something. The past 10 to 12 year have been food. It has engulfed me, and so I’ve dedicated my arms to the culinary world.”

Kelly Rae Leffel, who in March bought Tanya’s Soup Kitchen along with partner Sarah Osborn-Bennett, got her first tattoo when she was 16. Now, she’s married to a tattoo artist.

Her tattoo of the Tanya’s Soup Kitchen logo, a tear drop shape image that’s both a bowl of soup and a woman’s face, is her only food-related tattoo, though she’s considered getting a tattoo of her chef’s knife.

Her logo remind her of Tandoc and of what is important to her.

“I got it after T passed, but I got it also because it represents what I love to do here,” she said. “It represents family and friends and what I love to do. I live, eat and breath this place.”

Harvey, the head chef at the Candle Club, 6135 E. 13th St., said that when he first got started in professional kitchens, tattoos were not considered professional

“When I first started out, you had to be clean shaven, no beard, no earrings,” he said. “And then, through the years, it really kind of changed to more of an alternative, tattooed, pierced crew.”

He got his first food-related tattoo when working as an assistant chef in Kansas City. It’s two flaming maraschino cherries skewered with a toothpick, and it’s a reminder, he said, that he should work hard but also make time to have fun.

The pig represents his love of roasting, a love he still has.

“In the beginning, I always thought getting tattooed would hold me back from my professional dream of being a chef, and you know what? No one has ever said anything. They’re like, ‘That’s the best steak I’ve ever had. You come work for me now.’”