Italian superstar butcher Dario Cecchini sings a nose-to-tail opera in KC

06/23/2014 5:20 PM

06/24/2014 4:25 PM

Dario Cecchini arrived at Bichelmeyer Meats earlier this month as the world’s most famous butcher arrives most places — with a big voice ringing out in Italian, big arms spread wide in greeting and an even bigger smile.

Cecchini had spent most of the previous day traveling from Panzano, in Italy’s Chianti region, to Kansas City at the invitation of chef Michael Smith, but there were no signs of jet lag. Just an eagerness to reconnect with Joe Bichelmeyer, whom he had met on a previous visit, and begin selecting beef and pork for a series of private events at Smith’s eponymous restaurant.

The trip was more than a celebration of carnivory, though. It was an opportunity to demonstrate Cecchini’s conviction that the entire animal deserves a place on the plate.

“We need to use the gift of meat well so that each cut is turned into a wonderful dish,” Cecchini said, as his wife, Kim, translated. “It shows respect for the animal, respect for the gift of its life.”

Nose-to-tail eating is easy to talk about, but hard to do given that certain cuts — the nose and tail, for instance — are wholly unfamiliar to modern cooks. That’s where the butcher comes in, Cecchini said.

The best butchers know not only where and how animals were raised; they’re also well-versed in how each cut of meat should be prepared and are passionate about helping cooks do it well. It’s a consistent message, one that Cecchini’s delivered not only here but around the world.

“It’s truly important and the job of a butcher to aid the people who are eating, to aid the people who are preparing the food,” Cecchini told an international crowd of culinary tastemakers at the third annual MAD Symposium last August in Copenhagen.

People didn’t always need such help. Eighteenth-century cooks grew most of their own food or bought it from within a few miles of home and so possessed an intimate understanding of how it should be used, according to “Kitchen Literacy” (Island Press, 2008). But as America’s food systems modernized in the late 19th century, that accumulated knowledge slipped away.

“Knowing about the lives of animals that became meat had been considered essential kitchen lore until the 1880s, but then the big Chicago meatpacking plants with their tidy cuts and wrappers made this knowledge obsolete and memories of it repugnant,” author Ann Vileisis wrote.

The trend continued through the 1900s as supermarkets supplanted small shops, the meat packing industry consolidated and branded products emerged. By the new millennium, scores of independent processors (who harvest animals and prepare the meat for further processing) and butchers (who cut and package meat for retail sale) had gone out of business.

Bichelmeyer knows that history well. His great-grandfather worked for Swift & Co. after emigrating to Kansas City from Germany in the 1880s. His grandfather was also well-regarded in the trade, and his father opened Bichelmeyer Meats in Kansas City, Kan., in 1946.

Bichelmeyer, his brother Jim and his son Matt, are now partners in the business. Most of the beef the family sells comes from its ranch in Franklin County, about an hour southwest of the store at Cheyenne Avenue and South 7th Street Trafficway. Hogs are purchased from longtime local suppliers. All the animals are harvested at the company’s own processing plant; it also does custom processing.

The Bichelmeyers have endured long enough to see things come full circle — the number of artisanal butcher shops is now growing nationwide as owners, many of them chefs, strive to meet demand for locally produced meat.

“What’s really driving this trend is people looking for local food,” said Kari Underly, the principal of meat industry consultancy Range Inc. and author of the James Beard Foundation Award-nominated “The Art of Beef Cutting” (John Wiley & Sons, 2011). “When you’re talking about carrots and green beans, it’s easier to find. But when you’re talking about meat, that’s hard.”

Modern butchers of course sell steaks and roasts, but they realize marquee cuts account for only a fraction of the meat produced by each animal. Some operate adjacent restaurants to help manage inventory — Kansas City’s Alex Pope opened Pigwich to complement his East Bottoms shop, Local Pig. Others make value-added products like sausage (Pope and Bichelmeyer do this, too).

Consumers are increasingly adventurous, thanks in part to celebrity chefs’ embrace of previously little-known parts like beef cheeks and to a spate of meat-centric cookbooks including “The Great Meat Cookbook” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), “Meat” (Ten Speed Press, 2010) and “Michael Symon’s Carnivore” (Clarkson Potter, 2012).

Certainly, there are plenty of odd bits to experiment with at Bichelmeyer Meats. Tripe, pig and ox tails, beef shoulder bones and tongues, ribs and shanks — these are what captured Cecchini’s attention as he strode the length of Bichelmeyer’s 60-foot meat counter.

They’re the foods of his childhood, the meat his grandmother cooked for the family because customers didn’t buy it. She grilled kidneys, made soup from intestines and cured pigs’ trotters (feet) with garlic, rosemary and salt before cooking them with beans. Cecchini was 18 before he ate his first Florentine-style T-bone steak.

“I’d been dreaming of what that steak might taste like for years,” Cecchini said as Kim’s daughter, Martina Bartolozzi, translated. “And when I finally tasted my first juicy T-bone, I said to myself, ‘Really? That’s all there is?’

“That made me realize that all the things my grandmother had been cooking for years were truly exceptional,” Cecchini said.

Michael Smith traveled to Italy in search of such exceptional flavors in the 1990s and then again ahead of the opening of Michael Smith in 2007. He met Cecchini both times at his shop, Antica Macelleria Cecchini. Then, in 2010, Smith asked mutual friends to invite the eighth-generation butcher to Kansas City.

By then, Cecchini was a celebrity of sorts. Bill Buford, a writer for The New Yorker, had chronicled his apprenticeship to Cecchini in “Heat” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), and Panzano had become a required stop for food cognoscenti. That didn’t prevent Cecchini from accepting the invitation, and he came for a series of dinners in collaboration with Smith and other local chefs.

“If people like me don’t bring people like him here and involve everybody, it’s no good,” said Smith, a James Beard Award winner who also owns Extra Virgin. “If we inspire some kid to cook, that’s what it’s all about.”

After four years, Smith figured it was time to invite Cecchini back. And again, he came. Cecchini spent his first morning in KC in Bichelmeyer’s meat locker, selecting sides of beef and whole hogs for the three dinners and one lunch co-hosted by Smith, Pope and Jasper Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s Restaurant. Cecchini and his assistant, Riccardo Ricci, then cut the meat themselves, working quickly with knives and cleavers while eschewing the band saw many American butchers favor.

Most of the work was completed in advance of Smith’s first private dinner event, save one small pig that would be broken down during a demonstration with Cecchini, Pope and Local Pig general manager Adam Northcraft.

The real performance, however, had nothing to do with knives. Cecchini’s fondness for Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is well known, and Smith hired actor Robert Gibby Brand to recount a portion of the epic poem. Cecchini mouthed the verse silently as Brand spoke; he then delivered his own version in Italian.

What does Dante’s philosophical wrangling have to do with butchering? Plenty, it turns out. Cecchini speaks frequently about the moral quandary that eating meat presents. The solution, he said, is to ensure each animal lives a good life and when it comes to an end, that every part is used well.

“I need to eat meat, but I have this dilemma of how to do it in a conscious way without guilt,” Cecchini said. “To beef, or not to beef? It’s important.”

Butchers play an essential role in helping consumers address this question. People often envision the different cuts of meat as a pyramid, with the “best” at the top and the “worst” stacked along the bottom. Cecchini sees meat differently.

“It is a circle. It is harmonious,” he said. “Everything is good if it’s cooked well.”

Anne Brockhoff is a freelance food writer and a regular contributor to The Star’s Food section. She blogs at ninemilefarm.com.

Brasato al Midollo (Marrow Braised Beef)

Michael Smith learned to make this dish during Dario Cecchini’s 2010 visit, and it was featured on one of the pair’s dinner menus when Cecchini returned to Kansas City earlier this month. It’s unusual in that the beef shank is butterflied, the bone removed and split lengthwise (see note below) and the marrow returned to the meat before braising. The result is what Cecchini’s wife, Kim, called a magical dish. “The marrow melts down into the meat, the shallots soften until they’re sweet. All that cartilage becomes soft and sweet,” she said. “There’s just a sweetness to all aspects of this dish.”

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 beef shank, about 3 to 5 pounds, butterflied, bone removed and split lengthwise (see note)

Kosher salt

Black pepper, freshly ground

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh rosemary

4-5 sprigs thyme, leaves removed from stem and lightly chopped

4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

Kitchen twine

6 large shallots, cut in half

1 (375-milliliter) bottle Vin Santo (Tuscan dessert wine) or other sweet white dessert wine

2 cups beef broth

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Warm the shank bones slightly in the microwave, about 30 seconds, to soften the marrow. Scrape the marrow out and reserve; it’s OK if it breaks into chunks. Save bone for making beef stock, or discard.

Place the boneless shank on a cutting board and season generously with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Sprinkle rosemary, thyme and garlic over the meat.

Place chunks of bone marrow down the center of the shank (where the bone was). Roll the shank and tie tightly at 1-inch intervals with kitchen twine.

Place rolled shank into a Dutch oven or other braising pan. Add shallots, wine and beef broth. Cover and braise for 4 to 5 hours, or until meat is tender.

Remove from oven, remove from cooking liquid (reserve) and allow to cool slightly before serving. Or, cool braised beef shank completely and refrigerate overnight. To serve, slice thinly. Reheat cooking liquid and serve alongside, together with mashed potatoes or steamed rice.

Note: You need an intact piece of beef shank for this recipe, rather than the ossobuco-style slices often served in restaurants. Ask a butcher to butterfly the shank, and then remove the bone and split it lengthwise. You can then easily remove the marrow at home.

Per serving, based on 6: 367 calories (46 percent from fat), 17 grams total fat (6 grams saturated), 90 milligrams cholesterol, 8 grams carbohydrates, 38 grams protein, 88 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

Tonno del Chianti (Chianti ‘Tuna’)

Dario Cecchini cooks from memory, not recipes, but Michael Smith closely watched his method for making Chianti ‘Tuna’ out of a pork roast and shared it with The Star. Cecchini prefers to boil the meat in wine for several hours; Smith recommends using a slow cooker instead. Be sure to choose a good-tasting olive oil, and serve this as a spread or dip with crostini for an appetizer.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 pork butt roast, boneless, about 4 pounds

1 to 2 (750-milliliter) bottles Italian white wine

1 sprig rosemary

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns

2 cups quality olive oil

Crostini, for serving (see instructions below)

Place pork roast in a slow cooker. Add enough wine to cover the roast, and then add rosemary, bay leaf and peppercorns. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours, or until meat is tender.

Remove roast from cooking liquid, allow to cool slightly and then shred meat. Liquid can be reduced and used to add flavor to soups and other recipes or discarded.

Place meat in a large bowl and pour olive oil over it. Serve with crostini.

To make crostini: cut a baguette into 1/4-inch slices, arrange on a baking sheet and brush lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes; turn over, and then back another 5 to 10 minutes, until crostini are lightly toasted.

Per serving, based on 6: 809 calories (45 percent from fat), 38 grams total fat (10 grams saturated), 206 milligrams cholesterol, 40 grams carbohydrates, 65 grams protein, 672 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

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