LOS ANGELES — Michael Voltaggio has no idea how many tattoos he has. The question makes him laugh. The wise-cracking 33-year-old chef is pretty well covered. The name of his restaurant, after all, is Ink. Before dinner service on a recent Friday, Voltaggio plays around with an insulated bucket of liquid nitrogen, dipping his hand in it and tossing the residue on the floor where it morphs, CGI-like, into little rolling marbles of chemistry before dissolving into wisps of smoke. He laughs like the 15-year-old kid he was when he got his first covert tattoo, a crude three-leaf clover on his ankle.

“I started getting them before they were trendy; now you can get tattoos that are nicer than most clothing,” says Voltaggio, who is surrounded by employees sporting tattoos. In L.A.’s professional kitchens, tattoos, often with a culinary bent, are as ubiquitous as paring knives and just as sharp.

In the foodie-driven world of chef-as-rock-star, it makes sense that these rebellious spirits would hew to an aesthetic that helps them stand out from their uniform chef whites. As Voltaggio points out, tattoos in the restaurant industry are hardly novel, but the fact that some of L.A.’s favorite chefs have chosen to mark themselves with the very symbols of their trade, namely images of food or their restaurant logos, is worth taking note of.

Carolynn Spence, formerly of New York’s hammy Spotted Pig and now executive chef at the Chateau Marmont has a slew, including a ruler on the side of her hand, along with tattoos of a teaspoon and a tablespoon. She calls this her “working-class hand.”

“The first ones start out having some heavy meaning, but the more you get, it’s like, ‘Give me a break,’” she says. “After a point it’s just art.”

That’s why she has a whimsical trio of anthropomorphous veggies — an onion, celery and a carrot — posing in the classic “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” pose. She says she was going to get the vegetables tattooed in their natural form, but when her tattoo artist came to her with the “silly” idea, she just couldn’t say no.

Bruce Kalman, the culinary director for Acme Bar Group, which owns Urbano Pizza Bar, Laurel Tavern and Library Bar, among others, recently got a full sleeve of fresh produce, including a lovingly rendered ear of corn up the back of his arm.

Kalman opted for a more baroque depiction of the produce in his tattoos, which are based upon a collection of prints that his tattoo artist had of produce from the 1700s.

“I gave her my wish list of the produce I wanted — all based off of the produce I get at the market,” explained Kalman, who is devoted to sourcing as much as he can for his kitchens from the Santa Monica farmers market. “In California, there’s no reason you should buy produce anywhere else.”

Both Kalman and Spence have sizable artichoke tattoos, her because “it’s such a cool vegetable — very layered, very challenging, very rewarding,” and him because “they are so big and meaty and delicious.”

Voltaggio’s most talked-about tattoo is of a small knife and fork on his hand. He got it on a whim with his chef de cuisine Cole Dickinson at a “down and dirty, no-name tattoo shop on the Venice turnaround,” just as the pair was about to open the Bazaar by Jose Andres.

“The quality of the work is not as good as the rest,” says Voltaggio, rubbing the tattoo absent-mindedly. “But because of what it is, I get the most comments.”

© 2012 the Los Angeles Times

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