Celebrity butcher Dario Cecchini does not speak English, but he makes a memorable first impression.
At the launch of Carna by Dario Cecchini – his first restaurant in the UAE – on May 20, the Italian greets every guest as his wife, Kim, translates. Once everyone is seated, he is still running around, blowing a little horn and yelling “Dario” to much applause.
It's ostentatious, funny and ensures the vibe at the steakhouse, located on the 74th floor of the newly opened SLS Dubai hotel, is anything but pompous.
Perhaps the most memorable part of the evening, however, is a five-minute conversation that delves into everything from veganism to listening to one’s grandmother and respecting people “no matter what they eat”.
It’s a very “live and let live” kind of mantra, something that's not particularly in line with the nature of his work. But those are exactly the kind of lessons he says he has learnt as an eighth-generation Chianti butcher.
“The most important thing I learnt is respect for life,” he says. “I know that this statement coming from a butcher might sound absurd, but it is a butcher who takes on the responsibility of killing so that the community can eat meat.
“Therefore, to have respect for the animal means guaranteeing that it has a good life, that it has space to move around, that it has good food, that it has an honest death, and that every part of the animal is used well, from nose to tail.”
It’s an intriguing thought, and Cecchini champions himself as a sustainable butcher of sorts – someone who recognises the gravitas of taking an animal’s life – and is intent on ensuring it is not in vain.
“Enjoying a plate of meat together around a big table is our way of respecting the animal and of honouring the sacrifice that it has made. In this way, we honour the death of the animal that nourishes our lives. All of us are part of the eternal circle of being born and dying,” he says.
It’s one of the main reasons why Cecchini is not a fan of processed meats. In the town of Panzano, where Cecchini lives and has the family butcher shop as well as three restaurants, he prefers working with small farms that treat their cattle well.
“First of all, people need to realise that meat is not born in a styrofoam package,” he says. “Each animal has a right to the best respect. I always tell the young butchers who work with me that we always must remember what we're working on, that it once had life.”
Ensuring that no part of the animal goes to waste is another way of respecting it. “My family taught me that the animal is not made up only of filets and T-bone steaks – that every cut can be equally excellent if it is prepared well. This has become the spirit with which I work and in which I try to inspire others to work.”
This is why, if you scan the menu at the new Dubai restaurant, you’ll find fine cuts of steak alongside dishes such as marinated grilled beef heart skewers, as well as signature dish Il Bollito di Dario. Italian for “the boiled”, the latter comprises less popular cuts such as veal tongue, beef cheek and veal belly, all slow cooked.
“My personal favourite cut is beef knees or beef knuckles because it's a cut that nobody was interested in buying from our butcher shop,” he says.
“So my grandmother, my nonna Elina, became adept at preparing it in the most wonderful ways. She made it into a beef salad by boiling the beef knuckles with carrots and celery and onions, and then by serving the meat with a fresh chiffonade of the same vegetables, with the touch of the best extra virgin olive oil.”
Despite the honourable intentions, mentions of heart skewers and beef knuckles may not sit well with all – especially those who eschew meat entirely. Cecchini is well aware of global trends towards vegetarianism and veganism, however, and is even a fan of it.
“We are children of the Tuscan renaissance. And during the Renaissance, the most important thing was free-thinking. Therefore, I have great respect for those who choose not to eat meat – and for anyone who makes choices that are different from mine. However, I am a carnivore and I simply ask for the same respect back,” he says.
"It's not a coincidence, though, that in my two restaurants in Panzano, for each of my fixed meat menus, there is a corresponding vegan menu of equal importance," he says.
While the same corresponding vegan menu doesn’t feature in the Dubai restaurant, the select menu does include vegetarian options, including a cauliflower steak. As for the non-vegetarians, Cecchini hopes to normalise eating cuts that are seen as “less noble, less usual”, and to prove they are just as delicious.
“I had a desire, and you might call it a mission, to bring my food to this part of the world. And, I'm very grateful for the opportunity.”