With the crush of talented wizards working magic in Dallas kitchens, it pays to know just who is behind the saute pan at your favorite eatery. To help you keep track, City of Ate brings you Three-Course Meal, a three-part chat with some of the best, most inventive chefs in town. This week we begin with a profile of Matthew McCallister, executive chef at Stephan Pyles. Tune in tomorrow for our Q&A with McCallister and Friday for a how-to from one of his favorite recipes.
Star Dallas chef Stephan Pyles has never been skittish about seeking out the best ingredients, unique techniques and incredibly hot kitchen talent over the years. Think Dan Landsberg, Tim Byres, Bobby Flay and Katherine Clapner, to name a few.
Pyles continues to hit home runs not only in his kitchens but as a philanthropist, teacher and talent scout for young chefs on the rise. Case in point: Matthew McCallister.
"Matt is a hard-working, exceptionally talented chef with laser-beam focus. The fact that he has progressed from pantry chef to executive chef in three years still amazes me," Pyles said last year when he promoted McCallister to executive chef at Pyle's self-named restaurant in the Arts District.
But wait, this hard-working and exceptionally talented chef has no formal training. So how does this 29-year old upstart make it to top ranks in just three years? This is the stuff that makes the dreams and aspirations of every home cook and Food Network junkie seem possible.
"I started out cooking at a family run restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona, called Guido's. Guido's specializes in American style Italian food, more like what you might find in Chicago," McCallister says. "They make everything from scratch. They make their own fresh pastas and sauces from scratch."
McCallister worked there off and on until he turned 20, but he had dreams of being an artist and wasn't sure what his medium would be. He enjoyed ceramics and even now spends time glass-blowing when time permits. At age 22 and newly married, he decided to pack up for Dallas, where he started an upscale landscaping service using his artistic flair to design patios and landscapes.
So how did this Pyles thing happen?
"We were dining at Stephan Pyles restaurant and Matt loved the food. A few days later we happened to meet Stephan, and I asked what it would take for him to work at the restaurant. Stephan told Matt to call Matthew Dunn, then executive chef for Stephan," his wife, Iris McCallister, says.
And he did. What happened next is nothing short of fantastic.
"I was invited to come in and stage for a week, after which I was hired. I was 25 when I started at Stephan Pyles as a pantry cook. I didn't have formal training and always felt behind, so I stayed up late nights reading, studying and trying new recipes to try and catch up. But I have this sense that I will never catch up, and I hope I never do. I want to always be learning," Matt McCallister says.
Under the masterful eye of Pyles, McCallister has taken his knives and traveled as every good chef should.
"I had a chance to stage at Jose Andre's Minibar, who also runs Cafe Alantico in Washington, D.C., for three days, but I was so into the style of cooking they were producing that I stayed on for the entire week. The experience was incredible. They were serving artistic dishes that were both interesting and playful," McCallister says.
After this, Pyles had McCallister accompany him to Spain in January for Madrid Fusion 2010, an international congress of the culinary world where elite world chefs meet for in-depth studies on cuisine. This past event laid focus on such hot topics as gastrobotanica from chefs who have created their own gardens for restaurant use, and the hot Dallas gastro-topic, molecular cuisine.
"Stephan has been wanting to do something similar to what might be done at the Minibar and even elBulli in Spain, [considered the most innovative restaurant in the world] so for the past year we have been playing with ideas and came up with Fuego," McCallister says.
Fuego is being introduced this week at Stephan Pyles and will feature techniques using the restaurant's in-house fire pit and some of the ideas Pyles and McCallister have picked up in their travels, plus their own innovative recipes.
"There is really no set menu," McCallister says. "We have developed some dishes for Fuego, but we want this to be a dining in flux. When people call for reservations for Fuego, our hostess will ask questions about their tastes and likings. We will try to develop a unique menu based on those answers. If I feel I need more information, I may call the patron back for details."
The dreaded molecular gastronomy term has been bandied about in connection with Fuego, but those techniques will actually play a small part of what Fuego will be. The chefs plan on using old world and new world cooking and should be playful and unlike anything the guests have ever seen, since each night will be unique to that guest.
Fuego will have two seatings each Thursday through Saturday evening, limited to four people per seating. The cost is $125, or $200 wine-paired.
McCallister called me this past Sunday night to tell me about one of the dishes you might see on the Fuego menu called The Garden Carrot. Think of a carrot made of carrot powder, with cumin and coriander set on a black sesame sponge cake, served with shallot jam, tarragon ice cream and a crème fraiche powder.
The new dish is hard to envision, but McCallister assured me it is delicious.
But lest we forget what city we are in, McCallister is quick to point out that the biggest-selling item on the Stephan Pyles menu is the bone-in ribeye. The monstrous slab of 21-ounce prime bone-in cowboy cut ribeye is served with red chili onion rings and a pinto wild mushroom ragout.
The menu is heavily influenced by chef Pyles' South American travels and is grandly labeled as "New Millennium Southwest Cuisine," featuring ceviches and mezzes along with new twists on old favorites from restaurants past, like his legendary tamale tart, one of Pyles' signature dishes featuring a roasted garlic custard, peekytoe crab and a smoked tomato sauce.
Besides all the new excitement rolling out of the Pyles kitchen, chef McCallister is working with local purveyors and visits with area farmers and ranchers to source meat and produce for the restaurant. McCallister has helped develop an innovative program not too unlike what was discussed at Madrid Fusion this past January.
McCallister is as unique as his cooking style. It has been rumored that if Pyles' restaurant Samar needs an ingredient, the executive chef can be seen skateboarding with a backpack to the restaurant, which is a few blocks away from his kitchen digs at Stephen Pyles on Ross.
Whether he is skateboarding to make a delivery, visiting ranches in Oklahoma for a new source of grass-fed beef, or creating inspiring dishes for Fuego, Matt McCallister is considered to be one of Dallas' latest up-and-comers that has made a name for himself through shear determination and integrity enjoying the theater that is his craft.