Nate Fagnilli spends most of his waking hours in a cream-colored cinder block box-of-a-building next to the Interstate 90 overpass in Geneva—an unlikely setting for artisanal food production. He keeps his workspace cold. His hands, red and chapped, are nonetheless adroit.
Nate has been honing his self-taught skills since 2012, when he officially became chef of Crosswinds Grille, located four miles due north on the shores of Lake Erie.
The Fagnilli family opened the quaint eatery in 2004, as part of a business enterprise that includes The Lakehouse Inn, a bed and breakfast and spa, and the family’s 1,000-vine vineyard and winemaking facility. Nate worked as a cook at the restaurant during his mid-20s, a time period he describes as an experiment. “It was an accident that later led me [on] this crazy journey,” he says.
The journey was a transformation—both for the family business and for Nate himself—eventually positioning him as a nexus within Northeast Ohio’s local food system.
In addition to their food and hospitality business, Nate and his father, Sam, were also running an auto shop in 2011. Nate spent weekdays fixing cars and every other waking hour at the restaurant. Something had to give. Nate knew he needed a creative outlet, so he traded in the shop for the kitchen and attended an accelerated program at the International Culinary Arts and Sciences Institute (ICASI) in Chesterland. The following year, in January 2012, Crosswinds Grille closed for remodeling. The restaurant reopened that summer with double the seating, storage, and workspace, and a new chef. Nate took over the kitchen with a vision—to do farm-to-table, and do it better than anyone else.
A Drive for Local
Given Crosswinds’ location in the faraway land of Geneva-on-the-Lake, off the radar for many Northeast Ohioans except for summer beach-and-wine excursions, Nate wanted the menu speak for itself by giving local farmers a prominent seat at the table. “Everything had to be above and beyond what everyone else was doing because it had to be worth the drive,” he says.
He began sourcing products from as many local farms as he could. That first winter, he paid $1,500 for his first half cow. The restaurant was relying heavily on hamburgers to turn a profit from such a purchase, since 75% of a cow becomes ground beef and bones, he estimates.
Choice cuts of steak make up a relatively small proportion of the cow, but Nate wondered if he might be able to improve his returns by learning how to butcher it himself. He turned to Adam Danforth’s books on butchering. Deceptively plain on the surface, enfolded within the austere turquoise covers are more than 800 comprehensive and richly photographed pages documenting the process of turning pasture-raised animals into food.
Secret to Success
With Danforth’s book on beef splayed beside him, Nate began cutting up steaks. “That’s like the bible. That’s where all my secrets come from,” he says.
Danforth’s book promotes a method called seam butchery, a traditional European technique that preserves individual muscles or muscle groups, rather than just chopping up the animal. Seam butchery affords little waste, since the meat is cut right up to the bone. A standard cut steak might consist of two or three different muscle groups held together by fascia, stubbornly chewy connective tissue commonly referred to as gristle. Nate cuts along the fascia, producing steaks with one type of muscle and no gristle so they serve up uniformly and perfectly tender.
The resulting cuts, of course, don’t necessarily match up with customer expectations since seam butchery results in a greater diversity of cuts. In the restaurant, Nate applies standard names to non-standard cuts and gives new names for steaks that uniquely result from seam butchery.
“The edibility is completely different [from standard cut steaks]. Each muscle has its own flavor,” he says, “Not only do we have to educate the customers—we have to educate the staff.”
Seam butchery results in a higher yield of choice meat per animal compared to modern U.S. standard cuts that one finds in the grocery store. “When [the meat industry] went to mass production and meat packing, they killed [the] art [of butchery],” Nate says. But craftwork takes time. As Danforth quips in the introduction of his book on beef, “Speed is for the machines.”
Carving Out More Space
Nate broke down half cows every week, rotating the farms he sourced to meet his two-week menu needs for grass- versus grainfed beef. “Add in pigs and lambs, and we were butchering all the time,” he recalls. “I overtook my kitchen. I overtook my walkin.” Nate needed a dedicated space apart from Crosswinds’ kitchen to practice his new craft.
Fagnilli Enterprises still owned a three-section warehouse on the overpass lot where the Nate’s auto repair garage had been. So last year, the family opened a certified meat kitchen there. Na*Kyrsie Meats, a stand-alone business named by a conjunction of Nate and his wife, Kristen’s, nickname, was born.
Nate’s efforts since opening the kitchen are managing and maximizing value of the products he can make from the whole animals he purchases. For a restaurant, purchasing whole animals poses a challenge—the constraints of body architecture follows one path, and finicky customer demands another. Chicken illustrates the challenge. Nate can easily sell the breast meat at Crosswinds. But the legs that come along with the breasts aren’t as popular.
Other restaurants would simply order breast meat from a distributor, without regard to what is happening to the rest of the animals from which the cuts originated. If everyone is demanding the same set of cuts—from chickens, cows, pigs—the unwanted meat may be wasted or sold at dog food prices. By buying whole animals from local farmers, Crosswinds takes responsibility for all useable product. The necessity of selling chicken legs being the mother of culinary invention.
Seam butchery has helped keep choice cuts of meat on steaks instead of in the meat grinder. But Crosswinds can only move prime steaks so fast. In the walk-in cooler, unwrapped seamed beef awaits its turn on the menu. The surface of these large cuts are a dark purple-grey, a startling color for those used to the bright red of a grocery meat counter. The dry cold air of the walkin draws moisture from the meat, concentrating and enriching flavor and tenderizing the meat.
Dry-age beef is considered a value-added product and sells at premium prices, but for Nate, his 28-day aging process has another benefit that fits into the rhythms imposed by the purchase of whole animals. “I don’t have to worry about [the meat] being in a [plastic] vacuum bag,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about it going bad. It’s aging. It’s getting better.
“Whole animal usage is a balancing act,” he adds. Time is the fulcrum of that balance.
His kitchen’s smoker is one time-tested tool to preserve meat, but Fagnilli has found a secondary use for it. By allowing him to control temperature and humidity, the smoker also serves as a fermentation chamber, the first step to curing meat.
Like seam butchery, Nate taught himself the art and science of charcuterie. By curing meat, he has been able to turn undervalued cuts of meat—like beef top round and bottom round—into highly desirable, value-added products that are nearly impervious to time, like bresaola. At any given time, his 60° aging room is strewn with up to 20 different types of curing meats, either whole seamed pieces—bresaola and speck—or ground meat sausages. The various products age anywhere from three days to 12 months. Many of them improve with age. His mastery of charcuterie allows him to use meat in novel ways, like lamb in salami and chorizo, which might otherwise not have a market.
Na*Kyrsie Meats has served Crosswinds’ mission of buying whole animals, providing diners premium-aged steaks, a wide variety of cured meats, and direct participation in the local food economy. He has expanded by opening the meat kitchen for monthly retail sales and by selling wholesale to restaurants, and custom cutting for individuals or businesses, including meat farmers. Needless to say, local farmers who utilize his services view him as an asset. As one newer farmer, Randall Moores of Moores Heritage Farm, says, “Nate is truly the nucleus of farm to table in Ashtabula.” Melissa Miller of Miller Livestock, one of Nate’s main sources of meat, praises their relationship with Na*Kyrsie and Crosswinds, expounding on the financial benefits of whole animal sales to a professional butcher and chef.
If not selling to Nate, Miller Livestock either sells whole or half animals to individuals who require instruction on how to handle and cut it, or they rely on hit-or-miss sales of pre-packaged frozen meat at farmers markets. As Miller recently quantified, “the costs of doing [the latter] are quite significant—annual retail food license, inspections, freezers to hold product, farmer’s market trailer, fees, insurance, and, most especially, time. We quantified costs of more than $250 per farmers market just to attend.” And of course, what they don’t sell at market will be theirs to deal with.
Nate estimates that 65% to 80% of his menu ingredients are locally produced, the number varying with the seasons. While his near total reliance on local animal protein makes these numbers possible, his local food adherence extends to the plant kingdom as well, sometimes making creative use of products that farmers might not originally have planned to sell.
His prime example is a farmer who planted rye as a cover crop, but then harvested it. Nate offered to buy it from him to make risotto. The constraints of buying what’s available locally trickles down to customers, hopefully with their appreciative consent, as Nate hesitantly admits, “I don’t give people the food they want to eat, I give them the food I want them to eat,” be it rye risotto, lamb chorizo, or unfamiliar cuts of aged beef.
Of course, people can choose from the diverse and dynamic menu at Crosswinds. They can choose to eat somewhere else entirely. But increasingly, people in the know are choosing to eat what Nate is making at his place in faraway Geneva.