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With Homewood, Matt McCallister Is Building a Casual, Approachable Neighborhood Restaurant

“The more and more I get into cooking, I guess it gets harder and harder for me to look at doing what we do any other way," Matt McCallister told the Observer in 2017. Here he's pictured at his old restaurant, FT33.EXPAND
“The more and more I get into cooking, I guess it gets harder and harder for me to look at doing what we do any other way," Matt McCallister told the Observer in 2017. Here he's pictured at his old restaurant, FT33.
Kathy Tran

The old Beck’s Prime burger joint has been sitting empty for a year at the corner of Oak Lawn and Avondale avenues. It’s a premium location, with a huge wraparound patio and lower rent than the Highland Park businesses just blocks to the north.

Chef Matt McCallister, formerly of the beloved fine-dining spot FT33, jumped on the building almost the moment Beck’s Prime closed in November 2017, believing it perfect for his next restaurant, Homewood. As his plans for Homewood grew, McCallister closed FT33 and asked most of its kitchen staff, including star pastry chef Maggie Huff, along to the new joint. Homewood will open in December or January — if the kitchen is ready to debut around Christmas, it will wait until the new year rather than compete with holiday disruptions.

So what is Homewood? McCallister and his team envision a neighborhood restaurant that serves good, interesting food. Just don’t try to put a label on it.

“Homewood is just going to be a great neighborhood restaurant,” McCallister says. “It’s gonna be approachable, creatively done food, but doesn’t require a dictionary for you to decipher the chef’s code of what he’s doing. It’ll be just seasonal.”

But is the menu Southern? American? Italian?

“I guess you could say American,” he concedes, “but I don’t know what the fuck that means. We’ll have Japanese techniques, we’ll have Italian, a lot of my cooking [has] Italian and French and Spanish influences. So you’ll see that as the guiding principle of my food — but really it’s based on whatever I’m getting from farms.”

In some ways, Homewood won’t be much different from FT33. Many of the dishes served in FT33’s final year of service showed McCallister’s focus on turning seasonal, produce-driven ideas into straightforwardly delicious results. Homewood’s bread service — Parker House rolls that diners can dunk in chicken drippings and parmesan Mornay sauce — was a late-night FT33 invention.

As with FT33, Homewood will make every single building block of flavor in-house: all the stocks, misos, hot sauces, pastas, butters, preserves, fish sauces and even chile pepper flakes. Many veggies and herbs will come from onsite gardens — nine raised beds around the restaurant, each seven feet by three feet. Don’t be surprised if the kitchen sends out a snack bowl of radishes picked straight off the patio.

Pasta will feature heavily, and McCallister hopes to reach a point where customers are eating noodles made from grains milled in-house that morning. An extruder will help keep five pasta dishes on the menu at all times, including McCallister’s celebrated gnocchi. He’s thinking the first gnocchi feature will involve chicken skins “rendered down to crispies, cuz that shit’s just delicious,” plus caramelized onions, emulsified brown butter and sage.

Other ideas are still up in the air. Homewood will serve a roasted half chicken, perhaps cooked in an oven, perhaps smoked hanging from a wire over the restaurant’s hearth, perhaps a combination of both. Whole sides of fish will definitely get grilled over the hearth, and there will be a steak dish, which McCallister describes in near-pornographic language.

“I think it’s gonna be a center cut of rib eye,” he explains. “We’re actually gonna get whole rib eyes, trim them down, pull the cap off, use the cap for a tartare, clean it all up, render all the fat, and then we’ll take that fat, take the center cut — the beautiful, sexy piece in the middle — cube that out so it’ll be like a chunk, slow grill that, and the way I’d like to do it is to slow grill it and then just dip it in a vat of its own rendered fat and let it rest, and keep going back and forth. Cuz if it’s going to be beef, let’s go full beefy.”

Most of the wines will be affordable — $40 to $80 — and the list will revive FT33’s emphasis on biodynamic, natural and organic wines. There will be splurge bottles, sure, but McCallister himself favors food-friendly, sustainably-made, high-acidity wines, especially whites, and those will be the smart orders.

In many ways Homewood represents a chef who’s grown more comfortable with himself.

“I’m not cooking this food for chefs or critics,” McCallister says. “I’m cooking it for guests to enjoy. For a long period a lot of my cooking was so driven by this ego of needing somebody’s approval for doing something creative and pushing myself and being outside the box of cooking. Which is great to do, but it’s also very self-satisfying. You just keep pushing for this endless goal that you never can really fully achieve.

Beck's Prime closed in November 2017. Soon Homewood will take over the space, with some adjustments, including nine new raised garden beds.EXPAND
Beck's Prime closed in November 2017. Soon Homewood will take over the space, with some adjustments, including nine new raised garden beds.
Google Street View

“I just want to make really delicious food that’s approached simply, and it will have creativity in it. You won’t know that we made like a miso from the seeds of this plant from the year prior and we’re rubbing this vegetable in the miso that we made. We don’t have to put that on the menu. You’ll just eat it and go like, fuck, dude, that’s good. That’s what I want. That’s what I care about. And then I want you to come back the next week.”

When FT33 closed this summer, some observers wondered if there was an unexplained reason. There was — Homewood was well underway, and both projects demanded full-time attention — but McCallister’s more mature outlook was another factor.

“I feel like I achieved everything I was supposed to achieve with FT,” he says. “I’m not going to ride this shit into the ground.”

Now, he says, he wants to focus more on hospitality.

“There’s no less focus on what we’re doing,” he says. “It’s just kinda creating an environment that I think is a little more about the guests.

“I think FT’s ambiance was very polarizing,” he adds. “It was very kind of stoic and, you know, it’s industrial, and most of the time I played like gangsta rap and shit, and I didn’t care if there was like massive cussing and stuff. I’d even intentionally turn the volume up in the bathroom so when you went to the bathroom it was more shocking.”

For Homewood, he’s debating music ranging from classic jazz to Talking Heads to bluegrass. The dining room will be warmer, too; the design firm was asked to create a space that feels like going to somebody’s house for dinner. The interior will be slightly smaller than FT33’s — 54 seats plus a bar and a small counter around the garde-manger station, where customers will ogle fresh oysters and other seasonal seafood — but the patio will nearly double the seating in good weather.

To really understand the difference in philosophy between FT33 and Homewood, it’s best to listen to McCallister tell the story of the creation of one of FT33’s desserts. The story shows an unchanging focus on good food, but it also reflects a newfound appreciation for simplicity over self-satisfaction.

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“I remember one time where [pastry chef Huff] made a buttermilk pie,” McCallister says. “And I was like, well, that’s just a fuckin’ buttermilk pie though, what’s so cool about that? And that’s Maggie though. Her style is very simple and delicious. She’s perfect for Homewood. [But at FT33,] it was like, let’s take this buttermilk pie and put it in a blender and puree it, and we’re going to mix it with half pastry cream and half whipped cream so it’s super airy, and we’re going to mix it real quick and then push it through a chinois really fast and aggressively to where it aerates it, and then we got this aerated buttermilk pie and then we made a new crumb of the pie and then spooned this whipped one. ... It was delicious also, and it tasted the same. But to me, this is the problem with FT.”

So at Homewood, they’ll just serve the original pie?

McCallister takes a moment to laugh. “Yeah. Cause it’s a lot of work. It’s cool, but also, people just want the fuckin’ pie.”

Homewood, 4002 Oak Lawn Ave. Opening either mid-December or early January.

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