At Carna by Dario Cecchini, a Little Slice of Panzano in the Bahamas
Inside Carna—a sleek new steakhouse by Dario Cecchini at Nassau’s Baha Mar—“Hells Bells” by AC/DC blasts through the speakers. The dining room is empty, since the restaurant doesn’t open for a few more hours; late morning sunlight filters through the windows. At the butcher shop-style counter near the entrance, Cecchini himself is carving meat, cutting cleanly through steaks and occasionally lifting one above his head, shouting “Carna!” with a gleam in his eye.
The restaurant, which had a soft opening in December 2018, is Cecchini’s first concept outside Italy. Previously, the butcher’s universe was mainly in Panzano-in-Chianti, a small Tuscan town where his family has been working as butchers for eight generations—soon to be nine, when his daughter Martina takes up the craft. Although he didn’t originally want to be a butcher (he was studying to be a veterinarian), Cecchini has become a legend in the field, hailed by many as the best in the world. He’s known for his nose-to-tail butchering philosophy, using every part of the animal to “give thanks for the sacrifice it has made.” It’s crucial to him that he works with farms that give animals a good life and compassionate death, which is partly why it took so long for him to expand outside Panzano in the first place. He's received and turned down multiple other offers, but finally went with sbe—a hospitality company that manages several restaurants, nightclubs, and hotels, including SLS Baha Mar.
“This is the first [offer] where I feel truly respected in my philosophy,” Cecchini told me on a recent visit to the restaurant. “It falls into the hands of a butcher to explain this idea of giving thanks for the sacrifice the animal has made.”
Using all parts of the animal was how Cecchini grew up. He says he didn’t have his first steak until his eighteenth birthday; there wasn’t a lot of spare money in his household, and his grandmother would use leftover cuts of meat from the shop to cook their meals.
“My little sister and I, as we were growing up, we were convinced that the animals that my father butchered in the butcher shop were fantastical animals,” Cecchini says. “We only could imagine that they had four heads and four tails, and 20 feet each. Because that’s what we were eating at our dining room table. We arrived at a truth through this way of eating at my grandmother’s table, and that’s that every single cut can be exactly as delicious as any other if it’s prepared well.”
Now, that nose-to-tail philosophy has transferred over to Carna. While Cecchini will be coming to the Bahamas “as often as possible,” Carna executive chef Thomas E. Griese (previously of chef Michael Mina’s Mina Group) will be heading up the day-to-day operations—in preparation, he trained with Cecchini at his butcher shop in Panzano. Together, the two of them have worked to create a menu that not only uses varying cuts of meat, but also ensures the meat is carefully sourced. While Cecchini mainly supplied his Italian operations with beef and pork from Catalonia, Spain, as well as Panzano itself, Carna’s program is worldwide—including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Japan, and Australia. As for the meat itself, Griese says there are three levels they work with. Level one is the domestic program, with USDA prime beef from California and dry-aged beef from Chicago; the second level works with Australian wagyu, which goes all the way up to A-9 and A-12 range. And the third level is Japanese F-1 wagyu—original wagyu, Griese says, with the highest marbling. Each farm is hand-selected to ensure the animal is treated with respect and given a healthy life.
Eventually, Cecchini hopes to raise cattle in the Bahamas, and develop relationships with local butchers and local ranchers. Also on his list? Meeting with local grandmothers, inspired by a bowl of souse (Bahamian chicken soup) he had for breakfast one morning at the hotel. The taste reminded him of a soup his own grandmother had made.
“You might not expect things to be so similar, when you take two cultures that are so different, but very often that happens,” he says. “Everyone knows that any grandmother’s soup is the best in the world.”
The menu at Carna isn’t all that different from what Cecchini would serve in Italy, he says, with the addition of some local Bahamian aromatic herbs and “more spicy chili.” However, he says he and Griese are still working on it, with more to come. I sampled the current menu at last Friday’s grand opening, where we were served a mix of seafood, vegetable sides—and of course, plenty of meat. There was delicate Australian Wagyu Carpaccio, served with Castelvetrano Olives, capers, and Parmigianno Reggiano; Cecchini says the dish is made with a narrow tip of meat too small to make into a steak, but the meat was so tender and melt-in-your-mouth, I wouldn’t have known the difference. The Sugo di Manza Paparadella Pasta was also a highlight, covered with a rich sauce infused with wild mushroom and bone marrow crumble, made with the tiniest little meat trimmings. Lest you want to add some green to your plate, the vegetables Cecchini and chef Griese put on the menu are just as tasty—don’t leave without ordering the creamed spinach or Brussels sprouts with green apple. (In fact, order Brussels sprouts at all the other Baha Mar restaurants too, if they’re on the menu. It seems to be a site specialty.)
Cecchini believes Carna is a step beyond a traditional steakhouse, and he wants diners to feel like they’re guests at home, not clients. The restaurant is also an opportunity to teach more people about his butchering philosophy. When guests walk in, Griese says they invite them into the aforementioned butcher shop area (sans AC/DC soundtrack, presumably), explain the meat program, and allow them to pick out the cut they’ll be eating later in the evening. Guests are also treated to a hand-sliced piece of prosciutto or another charcuterie item, as a welcome into the restaurant. Ultimately, Griese says, they want to transport their guests to Panzano.
“We’re not just looking at the customer or the consumer as a number, or a body,” Griese says. “It’s more, we’re looking at them as inviting them to our world and to our table so they can understand what our philosophy is as chefs, butchers, and culinaries.”
Cecchini says his energy—which is huge, if you couldn't already tell—is matched by the staff at Carna. He gives a big shout whenever he enters the kitchen, and every single person, from the dishwasher to cooks, greets him back with enthusiasm. He says it makes him feel young, as he's "moving into being an older artisan"—but if you talk to him, he's anything but.
"This isn’t just business to me," he says. "That will come, that comes along with it. But if there’s no soul, there’s no life. And here, I feel this amazing energy, this amazing life."
Outside Carna sphere, Cecchini also has two other huge recent wins under his belt; his episode of Chef’s Table premiered the same Friday Carna had its grand opening, as did a collaboration with Umami Burger (also part of the sbe family). On filming Chef’s Table, Cecchini called the experience moving, and likened it to 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick—particularly, the scene where the “astronaut was dying, and saw his whole life pass before him.”
“The filming of the episode was this slow and very careful retelling of my entire life. And it wasn’t, it hasn’t been a particularly simple, easy life,” he says. “I grew up in a beautiful family, but I lost my mother and father and was basically an orphan by the time I was 19 years old. So the filming took place over two weeks, and it was two weeks of delving into stories that hadn’t ever been talked about. Because you just live your life, you don’t talk about what’s happened and what’s been happening every day. So the interviews that took place during the filming were intense.”
He wasn’t convinced that he should watch it that morning when it premiered. He was sitting in his hotel room with his wife, Kim, and kept stalling whenever she went to turn it on; “hold on, hold on, I’ve got things to do.” Eventually, he gave in, and says it was like re-looking at his life for the first time. Because his own path has not been easy, it’s important that he gives “true emotion” to people, and makes his guests happy.
“I love poetry, and one of my favorites that has guided me has always been The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri,” Cecchini says. “And in this very, very long poem, the very last few lines are the final explanation of life, according to this poet. Where he pulls all of this long, human voyage together in a few lines, and it’s very simple. It roughly translates as ‘it is love that moves the sun and all of the other stars.’ So I feel that we need to live in love and give love around us to all the people around us, and that is the voyage of Carna. To fill this space with as much love as possible.”