The Dario Cecchini episode of Chef’s Table tells the story of how a guy who wanted to be a veterinarian turned into the world’s most famous butcher.
Director Jimmy Goldblum does an excellent job capturing the celebratory vibe of dinner at the two meat-centric restaurants — Solicciccia and Officina Della Bistecca — that Dario runs next to his butcher shop in Panzano, Italy. And the episode also includes several poetic passages where the butcher muses on the importance of respecting the lives of the animals we eat. “He wants you to taste the quintessence of this beef,” says Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat star Samin Nosrat. “Every drop of terroir, every drop of grass that that cow is eating, you can absolutely taste the care that he has for the animals.”
What was Dario Cecchini’s journey through the culinary world like?
Dario comes from a long line of butchers. His family’s shop in Panzano has been passed down from generation to generation for over 250 years. Cecchini grew up a happy kid who enjoyed spending time with his family around a big table. “I try and take a crumb of the joy from my childhood and bring it to the restaurant,” he says. “I want everyone who comes to the butcher shop to think it’s a day of celebration.” In keeping with tradition, Dario’s dad started giving him work at the butcher shop when he was 13, and the younger Cecchini loved visiting the houses of farmers who were raising animals. During his formative years, Cecchini decided that he wanted to become a veterinarian instead of a butcher.
When Dario was a teenager, his mother died of cancer. “For us, it was the end of harmony,” he remembers. “Falling out of paradise, and slowly entering the hell of cancer. My memory of that period was of a nightmare.” When Dario was old enough, he enrolled in veterinary school in Pisa. But after one happy year at school, he had to return back to Panzano to help care for his father, who was very ill. Any money that Dario’s dad had saved was spent taking care of his mom before she died. And now that Cecchini’s father was on his deathbed, it was time for Dario to take over the family business. He remembers thinking to himself, “I won’t be the one that saves the animals, I will be someone who kills animals.”
After his dad died, Cecchini had a hard time running his family’s butcher shop. “No one was here to teach me how to be a butcher,” he says. “When I tried to cut the beef, all I could see was the dead cow, and I would cut into my own hands. Every strike of that knife on my hands was like a slap at my dignity.” To make matters worse, business was getting steadily worse with each passing month.
What was his “aha” moment?
Looking for advice on how to turn things around, Cecchini reached out to a man named Orlando who had been his dad’s meat selector for many years. Dario confided in him about his problems at the shop, and Orlando told him that being a butcher wasn’t just about cutting meat. They visited some farms, and, according to Dario, Orlando told him, “When an animal is born, we must try to give it the best life possible, and when the animal dies by our hand, we try to respect the gift of the animal.” This bit of wisdom helped Dario see his work in a completely different light. “I never thought this way, that the butcher has a path in life, not detached from the animals, but beside them,” Cecchini says. “The next day I put on the butcher apron, and I never took it off again.”
As business started to improve at the butcher shop, Dario realized he had a new problem: people only wanted steaks and filets. Cecchini understood that he needed to get people excited about the other cuts, and the best way to do that would be to cook meals like he used to eat with his family. This idea lead to the opening of Solociccia, a restaurant dedicated to what he calls “all the parts of the animal which are considered less noble, from snout to tail.” Although guests were surprised by the menu at first, the restaurant proved to be a massive success.
“For years, I had this feeling of being dead — the joy from my childhood wasn’t there,” Dario says. “But after I opened the restaurant, little by little, life started to come back. The taste of my grandmother’s food, my dad’s tradition, and my mom’s love of celebration, it was all there. It felt as if my family had kept on living.”
What are some of Cecchini’s most memorable quotes from this episode?
On eating his first steak: “I was basically born in a butcher shop to a family of carnivores, and I loved food. In the butcher shop, anything that the customer doesn’t want, is the family’s food. My grandma cooked legs, snouts, and tails. All of the bellies, the blood, [and] guts. It was paradise for the gluttons. But there was a problem: I never saw a steak. I understood that good cuts existed, but just for customers. There were none for Dario. It was a great pain. Then, when I turned 18, my dad told me. ‘You’re an adult, I’ll give you a steak.’ The excitement, it was… it was really the first time. And the first bite, it was almost a shock. I said, ‘For all my life, for years and years, I’ve waited for steak. And now, for the first time, it was good, but… everything else that my grandma cooked was paradise.’”
On cooking in the moment: “I’m not a cook; I’m a butcher that cooks. It’s extremely simple: At the start, drink a glass of red wine. This inspires better cooking. And then, forget every grill technique. Finally, rely on instinct. Take a Florentine steak or the boneless sirloin. Eight minutes per side. Each side without salt, without oil. Meat and fire. Think of the origin. It’s all about simple things, done with pleasure. This is important.”
On killing animals: “Every time that I’m in front of the animal’s death, I think of the life, of the respect, of the responsibility of using everything well… of not offending this death. Not even a small bone will go wasted. That is being a butcher.”
On embracing his life as a butcher: “At the beginning, I thought it wasn’t possible to follow my dreams, of taking care of the animals. But over the years, I understood that it’s not that a veterinarian saves the animals and the butcher kills them. It’s that we’re all together. The veterinarian is the one that takes care of animals, and the butcher is the one who has the most important task of teaching humans that you have to value everything. Now I know where my place is — it’s behind the butcher’s chopping board. It’s my center of the world.”