An Interview with Matt McCallister, Who Might Lose It If You Ask for a Wedge Salad

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If you're talking about Dallas' culinary resurgence in the last five years, there's no ignoring Chef Matt McCallister. As FT33, McCallister's farm-to-table restaurant in the Design District, attracts attention from the country's most respected food critics, it's also helping direct attention to the young, up-and-coming chefs who are working to transform a once-yawn-inducing dining scene.

FT33 looks nothing like the dated southwestern cuisine and uninspired steakhouses that have defined Dallas for decades, but it is probably what the future holds for our city as it becomes a burgeoning food destination. I sat down to talk with McCallister about educating diners on his passion for vegetables, the importance of great ingredients, and why Dallas' food scene is actually much cooler than Austin's.

When you opened FT33, were you concerned that Dallas wasn't ready for a place like this?

Totally. Even when I was approaching investors, people told me I was insane and this was a stupid idea. I kept going back to the fact that I was 31, I could fail, file bankruptcy, and then in 7 years, my credit would be cool. In some ways, that's a lot of what's wrong with the city. People think that doing something new isn't going to work, so they don't do it. Then they keep serving short rib sliders, which are fucking dog shit. More people need to take risks, essentially.

When FT33 opened, did you have to deal with a lot of uneducated diners, or were you pleasantly surprised?

We still deal with it, probably most with our chef tasting menu. It's 11 courses, and it's entirely vegetable focused. People aren't quite sure what to think about that? A couple came in from Kansas City and didn't do their research or whatever, and they complained that there wasn't any meat about halfway through the meal. I'm sorry, you ordered a fucking chef's tasting menu. When you go to a restaurant and order a tasting menu, you don't go in there and tell them what to cook for you. That would be like going to a sushi restaurant for omakase and then telling them what to make for you. It's not going to happen.

There's literally no meat for 11 courses?

Well, we poach beets in beef fat and cook carrots in beef fat. There's also a bordelaise sauce, so there's some veal stock in there. But yeah, it's all about vegetables. I like cooking vegetables more than proteins.

Why is that?

I think they're more challenging and complex than, say, cooking a steak. Wow, ok, cool, steak. Not mindblowing. Not innovative.

Do you think Dallas has kind of copped out over the last few decades by being totally okay with being "the best at steak?"

I mean, maybe. Are we really even the best at steak? I don't know. To me, vegetables are much more interesting. They're more colorful. They're visually more appealing. I tend to start with the vegetables first when I'm planning a dish, then add the proteins. I cook with the seasons, you know? Lamb doesn't determine a season, it's raised all year long.

Do you think people get what you're trying to do at FT33, even though it is so different? Are people here cool with a menu where produce is the star?

I'd say 90 percent of people who come here love and appreciate what we're doing. But we still get people coming in and asking for a wedge salad or whatever. And my response to that is always "get the fuck out of my restaurant." I guess people don't think vegetables have a lot of value, but I do.

A lot of chefs do feel pressured to have those classic "people pleaser" dishes like a wedge salad on the menu, though. Why?

I've often tried to pinpoint the answer to this question. It's probably more economic than creative, and you need asses in seats. So I don't know, maybe they should open a smaller restaurant or something.

Do you think FT33 would be more at home or more beloved in a place like NYC or San Fran?

Totally. People tell us all the time that they feel like they're in San Francisco or New York. Our seating is even a little tight compared to what Dallas people are used to, and we're loud. On Saturday nights we're loud in here, sorry. The place is full and the bar is two people deep. Get over it, it's going to be loud.

But yeah, I even thought about leaving Dallas. After traveling and working in a bunch of restaurants, I just thought this was going to be a tough market for what I wanted to do. But I kept coming back to the thought that I could be the one that took a chance and tried to do something different here. If FT33 doesn't work, I can always leave and go somewhere else. I could become a farmer or whatever.

But it's been fun, and I think we're going the right way. We're coming up on two years of being open, and we're crushing it this summer. Usually restaurants are slow here or whatever in the summer, but we've been full.

Let's talk a little bit about the culture of the kitchen at FT33. How do you assemble and train a kitchen staff to work at a place like this?

We've also created something really great here. I've never worked anywhere where all of our staff, the kitchen, front of house, everybody, was so into what we were doing. It's crazy. I'm not even sure how it happened. I don't think we beat it into anyone or shoved it down anyone's throat, we all just so into what we do that we've created an environment where everyone is dedicated.

Like our Saturday night test kitchens. If any of my chefs wants to present a dish to me, this is when they do it. At the end of the night, we might put up 3 or 4 dishes that they think are cool. They never really end up on the menu or anything, but it gives them a chance to be creative. Being a line cook can be really lame sometimes. Here's a little more fun because we change the menu all the time, I guess. Sometimes their dishes really suck, and I'll tell them that. But then I'll tell them why it sucks, and they learn from that.

We just got back from a week long break, and I set up stages for some of my chefs. They're going to work at these really great Michelin starred restaurants, but they tell me that they want to come back because they love what we're doing here.

I'm always back there plating and working with everybody too, so it's my responsibility to keep things tight with what I think this place should be. The level of teaching in this kitchen is more than any restaurant I've seen in Dallas, it's a lot of what we do. I've been in some kitchens that are overly intense, and it's cool because they're putting out some of the best food in the world. But that's not us.

I think people might believe that your kitchen would be pretty intense, just based on what people in Dallas perceive about your personality. Do you kind of fight that perception with your chefs?

Sure. I have people tell me all the time that chefs are scared to come apply here, and I don't understand why. There are stories out there that I can be a complete dick, and I can. If you screw something up, yeah, I'm going to get angry. I'm going to tell you that it's fucked up, and you should fix it. If you do it three more times, I'm probably going to shatter the plate against the wall. Fortunately, we have such an open kitchen that I really can't do that. I've only overreacted where guests could visibly see me go crazy maybe once or twice, but I just try not to be like that.

That's the old school of chefs. There are better ways of managing your staff. This job is intense. It's long hours, high stress, especially when you're putting out the food that we do. So yeah, I get mad. But now, I know when I need to go take a walk around the block. The cook already knows I'm pissed at him, the point's already made. What is grabbing him, and screaming and calling him a piece of shit going to do? It's not really cool anyway. If people think I'm a jerk, there has to be a reason for it.

From a national perspective, when people think about Dallas and food, they think Matt McCallister now, thanks to all those awards and national press about FT33. It used to be that people thought of Dean Fearing or Stephan Pyles or whatever, but that's changed. Is it difficult to deal with the pressure of bringing this scene to the national spotlight?

It doesn't really change what I do. It's weird to even kind of think about it that way. Even before we started getting national recognition, I was meeting with some food writers in New York, and food writers were asking me why the fuck they should even go to Dallas. They were telling me that they'd rather go to Austin or Houston where the food is good. And I would have to try to persuade them that we've got some cool stuff going on.

How do you tell food writers and critics that they should come to Dallas?

I personally think the dining scene in Dallas is more interesting than Austin. We have more cultures that influence the cuisine here. I think Austin is cool, but when I go there, I know where I'm going. There's no Koreatown, there's no diversity. It has great food, but there is no broader cultural influence. Houston does, and Dallas is on par with that. We just don't get any of the focus. People are starting to take notice, I think. That's a good thing.

It's always been kind of mind-boggling to me that there hasn't been any broader interest in Dallas' dining scene. Why do you think that is?

I guess there's more than one answer for that. This is a city where the demographics are so diverse that you test out chain restaurants. We have more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the country. I would say that 95 percent of those are all shit, but whatever. But it's all about perspective. I might say all those restaurants are shit, but maybe that's because that's not my focus. I don't get off work and go to Jack in the Box. That shit's gross. But a lot of cooks do.

I would rather go home and cook a local egg for myself and make a sandwich or something, so I'm not the person to ask. Not a lot of people view things I do, so it's not fair for the general public. But a lot of people want to pay X amount of money for X amount of food, and they need to feel like they get that value. People tell us our portions are small and you don't get a lot of food, but they don't give a shit about the four farms that provided all their food. That's a battle that's totally different because it's about my philosophy versus their budget, I guess. We have people who come in and want a cucumber in their Hendricks gin or whatever, and they're pissed because we don't have them out of season. You can buy them at a grocery store, but I can't get them from a farm. So no fucking cucumbers here. Sorry, deal with it.

There probably aren't a lot of restaurants who are willing to not serve things that people want because they know that they can make money. Is that because it's too hard?

Maybe, but it can be done. You know, blackberry season in Texas is very short. Maybe a month or so, and we're right in the middle of it. We have a dessert on the menu that's really simple but amazing. We roast blackberries with peaches and serve it on a peach curd with a cookie crumble, and put an aerated sabayon on top. It's almost like a chawanmushi, the Japanese egg curd, because of all the surprises in there.

It's simple and straightforward, but it's so good, and I'm not ready to take it off. So I'm ordering 80 pounds of blackberries from this one farm so that I can preserve them and finish out the summer with it. Same thing with tomatoes. One of our farms is putting out some amazing San Marzanos right now, so we're buying them by the hundred pound parcel and canning them. I don't know what we'll do with them, but at least we have them. We do a lot of preservation so we can get as much as possible from these short seasons.

That sounds very old school for a place that's considered such a modern restaurant.

If you look at the things we're doing, it's all old school shit. We just plate things differently. Everything we do is focusing on the harvest from this region. When I first started I was doing powders and stupid modern gastronomy stuff, but we're not doing that anymore. Everything is nature-focused, and that's more my style anyway. My plating style is more whimsical and free-flowing, and we want to focus on the region. We're taking small steps. I'll never have caviar, I'll never have truffles because that's just not what we're about. I want to focus on southern ingredients.

How do you make sure that you're only putting out the best ingredients?

A lot of them we make ourselves. Like the butter, for example. We were buying huge amounts of butter because people always expect bread service, right? So then we had the idea that we were going to make our own cultured butter in-house. What other restaurant makes their own butter? Everything is done in house. We still even used to buy commodity eggs for pastry, and that made sense. Farm eggs are expensive, and they're all different sizes. If you have a recipe, it's kind of a bitch to figure out how to compensate for that. If your pasta recipe calls for 12 eggs, that's based on regular commodity eggs. Eventually I said screw it, and now we use local eggs. We're always pushing ourselves toward being better at our original concept.

How do you make people care about that level of attention to ingredients, especially when they're not even used to eating them in their own homes? Most of us aren't buying local eggs.

I don't know. I'm fighting my own battle on that one. I care. This food is so different. Our pasta dough is fucking orange. It actually looks weird because it's so dark and that's because of these ridiculous local eggs that we're using. You look at old world cooking, and it makes sense though. You can still go to a place in the Spanish countryside, and they're still pressing their own olive oil. No food from outside the region. And it's been like that for centuries. Only in America can you get tomatoes all year long.

What do you think that's done to the American palate?

People actually eat tomatoes when they're not in season, and I don't get it. Tomatoes suck in the winter, I don't give a fuck who's growing them. It's gotten so bad now that you can go somewhere and get a burger in the summer, when tomatoes should be in their prime season, and they're still buying shit tomatoes that are gassed and mealy and gross. What is a season anymore? Nobody even appreciates it, and it's hard when people don't even know when food is freaking grown because they can go anywhere and buy it all year long. Then people tell me that I have to support farms, but why can't we support farms that are growing shit when it's actually in season? I just want good product.

What about foraging? How does that play into this concept of seasonality and regionality without impacting quality or taking away the focus of the other ingredients?

We only forage things if they're good. There are a ton of wild edibles that you can use, but they taste like shit. Or they aren't even that interesting. You see a lot of people who are all proud of their foraging, but it's so gross. Go find some wild arugula. That shit's awesome.

I think the other thing that makes FT33 really different from other restaurants in the city is the way the plates look. Why is all the food on one side of the plate? Is it some artsy, negative-vs-positive space thing?

It doesn't look weird to me. I don't know, I think food is visual first. Yeah, I can put down a pile of polenta and put some nicely cooked short rib and other shit on top, and it's going to taste good, but why not work on making it look a little cooler? The first thing the guest gets is the visual aspect of a dish, then the aroma, then the taste. Obviously we start out and make sure that the food is delicious, but we want to take it a step further and make it aesthetically appealing. And we have some cool plates. I want people to see the cool ceramics that we had made for us.

So there's no deep, artistic meaning, your plating is just something that feels right for you?

Not necessarily. It seems counter-intuitive. I don't remember anything from art school, but I think it's supposed to be balanced. But maybe not. I guess it's all about perspective.

Do you think people sometimes get so wrapped up in the plating at FT33 that they can't really see the food for what it is?

I'm sure it happens, but I think for the most part, people see that the food looks amazing and then they eat it and have a great experience. Last night we had someone doing the tasting menu, and they were completely blown away. They just ate 11 courses of vegetables and enjoyed every minute of it. I think people who come here know what we're doing and like it.

I think someone 5 years ago would have said you were crazy if you told them that you were going to serve just vegetables on a $100 tasting menu.

Oh, I would have been laughed at. I was laughed at, even with the basic stuff I wanted to do. But it seems to be working, right? I don't really know. I just do what I do, and I don't really pay attention to what everyone else is doing. I like vegetable-focused food, and my ideas help me drive this place. We get pushback. I would say maybe 2 out of every 10 tables asks for meat on the tasting menu, and we don't mind styling them out with a small version of something we have on the menu. But the whole idea of going to do a tasting menu to me is letting the chef cook whatever he wants for me.

I think that might be a chef thing. People who are only diners probably are more likely to think that the "chef is cooking for me, he should cook what I want."

This has been a topic of debate for us for a while. We do the tasting menu by reservation only, and I want to open it up to everyone, but we already get pushback. Maybe we'll add some proteins or something, but at the end of the day, I've changed my mind in a few ways. We used to have "no substitutions" on the menu, and that came across as very arrogant to the guests. But it wasn't. It was me telling people to not switch around these dishes because they're not meant to change, really. This is ultimately the hospitality industry, so we've had to make some changes. A server will come back and ask for a side of something, and when we first open, I probably would have bristled at that. A side? Really. But now, whatever. They can have a side.

What do you think made you chill out a little bit about that?

None of that's really important anyway. It's stupid. If they want a fucking side of this stuff, they can have it. They can have whatever they want really. I think it's ultimately really cool that we have a vegetable tasting menu, so it's worth making a few concessions. I think that's a really cool thing for Dallas.

You're obviously a pretty veggie crazy guy, but there's plenty of protein on the menu. Do you eat mostly vegetarian in your personal life?

I guess? I eat a lot of salads and stuff, so I would probably say so. But I still eat protein.

So it's not an ethical decision?

Oh, I'm all about the killing and eating of animals. All the way.

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