An Interview with Campo Chef and Stephan Pyles Vet Matt McCallister

Chef Matt McCallister worked his way up from line cook to executive chef at Stephan Pyles in Dallas, then took off around the country to stage at other top restaurants: Daniel in New York City, McCrady's in South Carolina and Alinea in Chicago. Now he's opening a new restaurant in Oak Cliff, Campo Modern Bistro, which specializes in simple, seasonal, rustic country cooking.

We spoke with McCallister for this week's Thee-Course Meal interview.

When did you first start cooking, not as a job, but with your family? Growing up, my mom always cooked and I started cooking with her when I was 5. I had two older brothers and neither of them had any interest in food, but I was always in the kitchen with my mom. Thanksgiving was my first introduction to food. My dad had me cut mirepoix -- carrots, onion and celery. We still make the same stuffing that we did back then. Thanksgiving is kind of a big deal to me.

Around the same age my mom and I started growing a garden, and I've always been really into that too. Mainly in Arizona it was just summer crops, like watermelons, sunflowers and tomatoes. I've always loved gardening.

Do you have a garden now? I live in a high-rise now so I don't have the opportunity to. But I have a pretty decent knowledge of plants and flowers. I take my 2-year-old to the Dallas Arboretum and explain to her about all the different things.

What was your first job in a kitchen? I grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, and I got my first job when I was 14 at a small Italian restaurant called Guido's. It was a deli and we served informal American Italian food. Everything was house made.

What was your first big job in an upscale kitchen? My first big job was at Stephan Pyles. I went in and interviewed with Mathew Dunn, who was the executive chef. He hired me as line cook, then I just progressed my way down the line until I was promoted to sous, executive sous, then executive chef.

What got you through all those promotions? Work. Hard work.

Were you passionate about food? Super. When I started working there I was considering going to culinary school at the time. My initial plan was to work there at Stephan Pyles for a year and then go to culinary school. But after a year, it was just a pointless waste of money; why drop $30 to $60 thousand on school when I've already learned what I could at culinary school?

What I tell most kids about culinary school is to take that money from your parents and buy yourself a one-way ticket to Europe and go see what happens. I wish I had that opportunity, but by the time I started cooking I was already 24 and felt kind of behind and like I needed to catch up.

Why did you decide to leave Stephan Pyles? After I was executive chef for over a year, I really appreciated everything Stephan did for me, but I wanted to find my own style. I had some ideas, but I wanted to go travel and work in some other prestigious and serious kitchens just to see what I liked and what I disliked. And just kind of have fun. The time was right and I thought it would be the only opportunity I had to do that.  

Did working stages around the country help you find your style? Yes, I really got an idea of what I wanted to do.

Was there a particular place that made the biggest impression? I really liked McCrady's in South Carolina. That was one of the most exciting kitchens I was in. Daniel in New York City was really cool.

Alinea in Chicago was a hard-core kitchen. I started there with six other guys staging and I think only one other stayed after the first day, and then he left after four days. I was the only one who stayed for the full two weeks.

Why did you stay and the others leave? Because it's an insurmountable amount of work to get done in a 16-hour workday. There's just no way you're going to get it done. But, you just have to get it done. It's very intense and stressful.

I was a little older and I was coming from a position of being the boss so I understood where the demands were coming from. So, my perspective was different then these kids who were just out of culinary school. They were like, "Gaw, these guys are mean." But it was the number one restaurant in the United States, they had every right to be mean.

What did you learn about food in your travels and stages? Not really much about food. I just kind of had fun checking out kitchens. McCrady's was cool because the chef de cuisine, Jeremiah, and I would meet in at five in the morning and go out and forage for things.

Do you forage here in Dallas? This morning I went foraging. Literally four blocks from my house, along Turtle Creek. It's actually not the season for a lot of stuff, but since it's been warm, stuff is popping again. I also know where a bunch of spring garlic and onions grow, so I'll go and get all those in the spring. I also have a little patch where wild arugula grows.

What did you learn working at Stephan Pyles? The demand of trying to execute food in a high-capacity situation to perfection. It's a lot easier trying to maintain food in a 50-seat restaurant (Campo), as oppose to a 180-seat restaurant, just because of consistency. Stephan never slighted on consistency. He demanded perfection, so I definitely learned that from him. And unique flavor profiles. I learned a lot from Stephan and he gave me a lot of opportunity. We still have a cool relationship. I probably couldn't even list everything I learned from Stephan. But, mostly being in a high stress environment and pulling off good food.  

Who came up with the menu at Campo? The inspiration of the cuisine was driven by Jean Paul and Miguel. They were inspired by Mendoza wine country and café and bistros in Buenos Aires. A lot of the food there is French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. You have all those influences. They approached me with the deal and it sounded like a fun concept.

So, they had the concept and you helped pull it together? Yeah, I sort of broke down the menu so that you can see an Italian focus with the house made pasta and the Spanish and Portuguese influence and some classic French technique.

How do you come up with your recipes? I get a lot of weird crazy ideas when I run. I run a lot and when I do just think about food.

Do you read a lot about food? I used to a lot, but don't much anymore

You dabble in the art of charcuterie (dried and cured meats), correct? And that is reflected on the menu here as well. Yes, definitely. The week that we had our soft opening I brought in a 250-pound pig from one of my ranchers. We broke it down and processed it. We use the whole animal -- process it and either grind it or turn it into salume, stock, or whatever. We literally took care of the whole thing in four days. Now we're already harvesting chorizo from it.

Would you ever serve pigs' feet? Yeah, I've been collecting pigs feet. If I can get enough, I'll run it as a special. But, when you get a whole pig, you only get four feet. So ...

Will you take the meat off the bone or serve the whole foot? Well, I'll braise it. So I'll debone the pig's foot and then braise it and then dice everything up; almost like porchetta.

And you do all this processing yourself? Yeah, me and a crew of three other guys here (at Campo).

Do you work with a lot of local farmers? When I can. We have a decent amount of produce we're using right now from locals.

Is Dallas' palate changing? I hope so. I think some of the food on this menu can be pretty challenging especially for someone who is used to meat and potatoes.

Are people ordering bravely off your menu? I think so. I've talked to some people that are big into food and travel all over the U.S. to amazing restaurants, and I ask them why don't they eat in Dallas for amazing food. They say that the food here isn't as challenging as other cities. So, I just want to do food that I'm proud of that challenges me and challenges the diner. It's kind of fun.

What are your favorite restaurants in Dallas? I don't really eat out that much. I eat in my house and I eat fairly simply. I'm pretty lame, I'll eat a turkey sandwich. Maybe chips and salsa.

If you and your wife go out on a date, where do you go? I really like the food at Victor Tangos. We go there a lot.

What about kid-friendly places for your daughter? Mi Cocina, because she can destroy the place because there are so many other kids there. We'll go to Smoke for brunch and last time they told me she topped the messiest child ever. We don't really take her out too much.

Any favorite dives? Every once in a while we'll do tacos from anywhere around here (Oak Cliff).

Any guilty pleasures? Every once in a while there will be a late-night Whataburger run, but that's fairly rarely. I just don't eat a lot of fast food.

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