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Dining Issue

‘Kind of like a map of your life’

Local chefs mix food and ink

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Tony Leitera, Specialty Room Chef at Village Seafood Buffet at the Rio, shows off some of his 80 hours worth of ink.
Photo: Leila Navidi

Tattooed Chefs

If you've spent any time in Vegas restaurant kitchens you've likely noticed that many chefs wear a common uniform that goes beyond whites and clogs: tattoos. We asked a few local chefs (and one badass baker) to show us their ink and tell us the stories behind the art they wear on their skin. From their father's work to childhood dreams, here's what they're hiding beneath that chef coat.

Tony Leitera, Specialty Room Chef, Village Seafood Buffet at the Rio

Tony Leitera has around 80 hours worth of ink on his arms, chest and legs, including tattoos based on recurring childhood dreams (by local artist Austin Spencer of Studio 21), a Death Star and a tat inspired by his friends' drink of choice — the Irish car bomb.

Leitera reveals the top of his chest piece.

Leitera's constantly growing collection isn't just for show. "I always had an artistic mind, but I could never draw, I could never paint, it never came out quite right," he says. "Then I found food. I would watch my grandma cook and I would watch other people cook and I started to see that there was an artistic form and I could make that dish mine. The same started happening with tattoos. As soon as I started getting them, it was more than just ink on skin; it was an art form."

His appreciation for the art he wears also explains why you won't see any tattoos on his back or in places he can't see. "I've always gotten tattooed for myself. When I've thought about getting tattoos on my back or the back of my legs, I can't see those unless I look in the mirror. To me that doesn't make any sense. I get tattooed for myself."

Kari Haskell, Owner and head of cupcakes, Retro Bakery

Kari Haskell doesn't just own a retro-inspired cupcake and cake shop, she wears it on her skin in the form of a Retro Bakery tattoo complete with gleaming mixer. "I had a mixer idea, cause that's kind of the base of baking. We're not just cupcakes, we're not just cake, we're everything."

Kari Haskell with her weapon of choice.

In Haskell's line of work, tattoos can also double as camouflage. "We're creative people and creative people like to show who they are on their skin," she says of chefs' proclivity towards going under the needle. "And I get a lot of burns, so they cover a lot of burns sometimes. The more you are a baker the less burns you get."

For her next tat, the petite blonde is planning to tap the almighty cupcake (with butter cream, of course) as inspiration. "I want to get a twin tattoo on this wrist that's a cupcake with the Las Vegas sign. That's my favorite iconic symbol of Las Vegas, and I love this town."

Jean Paul Labadie, Chef de Cuisine, Marche Bacchus

Jean Paul Labadie of Marche Bacchus.

While Jean Paul Labadie is already planning his next ink, the Puerto Rican chef wasn't eager to jump into the chair for the first time. "I hate needles. To get my blood work, I'm about to pass out," Labadie confesses, though he seems to have gotten over the initial fear. "The pain is always going to be there. Obviously, some parts hurt more than others, but you just go in and try to enjoy it and look forward to how it's going to look. I think the anticipation takes care of a little of the pain and some of the nervousness."

That determination has yielded tattoos with a back-story, including a pair of tribal symbols on his forearm that date back to the indigenous Taino Indians in pre-Colonial Puerto Rico. "I've been away form Puerto Rico for a long, long time. ... It definitely reminds me how I was raised and all the good values that I brought here."

Cody Lutz, Sous Chef, Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill

A self-proclaimed "cook for life," Cody Lutz wears his profession on his sleeve in the form of a large tattoo of blue and white flames, the hottest colors in a restaurant kitchen. He wears his history there, too. At the base of Lutz's left arm a dark band reveals his last name written in a curious print on the underside of his wrist. "My father was a painter and that's how he signed all his paintings. He passed away about four years ago now, so I decided to get the band just to remember him."

Memory and ink go hand in hand for the native Las Vegan, whether the tat in question is his father's signature or a nod to Vegas' card-playing culture. "I think tattoos for me are just a story of your life. You remember the time and when you got them, and not just them as a tattoo on you. It's just kind of like a map of your life."

Geno Bernardo, Executive Chef, Nove Italiano

Nove Italiano's Geno Bernardo grew up in the world of tattooing as the son of a popular artist who owned five shops on the Jersey Shore. "[My dad was] completely covered from head to toe," recounts Bernardo, who even worked in his father's shop, eventually getting his first piece, a sun on his upper back, at age 13.

Geno Bernardo shows his tattoo artist father's work on his back.

However, the chef's first ink came eight years earlier when Bernardo was just five. "I would always sit in the chair and say, "Dad, I want ink. I want ink. I want ink." And he would always give me a pen mark. One day I jumped in the chair and it was right after he tattooed someone and he just gave me a dot."

That dot is one of a handful of tattoos that now grace the body of the Italian chef, the only ones he'll ever have. "I'll never get another tattoo, just because [my dad] is not alive," says Bernardo. "It was his canvas, his art piece, so it kind of stopped. I feel the urge. It is addicting. But it's a piece of me. He's on me."

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