At the age of 31, Matt McCallister embarked on his first solo culinary venture in October 2012, and FT33 — which comes from the kitchen term “fire table,” with the number 33 indicating the restaurant’s chef’s table — is already being hailed as one of the best restaurants in Dallas. Though not classically trained, he has studied under some amazing chefs such as Stephan Pyles and Marc Vetri at their eponymous restaurants in Dallas and Philadelphia, respectively, José Andrés at minibar in Washington, D.C., Sean Brock at McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C., Grant Achatz’s Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Alinea in Chicago and Daniel Boulud at Five-Star Daniel in New York. The dishes McCallister crafts at FT33 are vivid and playful, yet meditated and sophisticated. Likewise, the young cuisinier couldn’t be more intensely focused as he carefully plates each edible masterpiece. After a recent visit to FT33, I spoke to McCallister about his unsurprisingly artistic path to becoming a chef and the inspirations that led him where he is today.
When did you realize you wanted to become a chef?
I began cooking and helping my mom in the kitchen when I was around 5. I also helped maintain our vegetable garden at an early age. In my early teens, I developed a real passion for food and good ingredients, but still leaned more toward doing fine art, such as painting and drawing. It was a few years later when I realized that I could combine both styles.
How do you think forgoing culinary school helped form your personal style of cooking and composing plates?
I never got around to going to culinary school. I wanted to, but by the time I could have, I felt it was a step back in my career. I think that helped evolve my personal style because I don’t have any preconceived notions on what can and cannot be done. I lack boundaries but practice restraint mostly — otherwise, you can muddy a dish.
Who, of all the amazing chefs you’ve worked under, was most inspirational to you?
During my time at Stephan Pyles, I learned a lot about the ingredients in our area and mainly the importance of the dining experience as a whole. Creating good food is only a small factor in creating a great dining experience; it’s about balance. I want diners to come into FT33 for the whole package. We spend an enormous amount of time on training, service, beverage programs and, of course, food. Stephan taught me to not be so myopic, and that is one of his greatest strengths.
The menu at FT33 is seasonal and focused. We typically have six beginnings, middles, and ends. It changes based upon what we are procuring from the farms and ranches we work with. We do a lot of whole animal butchery and have a fairly extensive charcuterie and salumi program for the size of our restaurant.
What impression do you want to make on FT33 diners?
We strive to leave the guest with a sense of the impact a seasonal focus can have on the enjoyment of certain produce. We also hope that guests leave with a better respect for the great quality of ingredients that are available to us in the North Texas area.
Tell us about your Chefs for Farmers organization?
Chefs for Farmers is something my wife, Iris, and I put together with a couple of our chef friends. It has evolved into a food and wine event that is grassroots and focuses on showcasing farmers, artisans, and ranchers in our area. We bring together great chefs from Texas and small family production wineries, distilleries and breweries to put on a fun event and raise awareness of the locavore movement.
How would you describe the Dallas dining scene?
The food scene in Dallas is a little behind. I feel a lot of chefs cater to the “majority” diners: large portions of inexpensive, predictable, uninspired food. I am not saying that there isn’t a market for that; I just choose to not capture that audience. Dallas is a tough market with the chef community, as well as the dining community. There are little cliques with chefs and their groupies. There are the Dallas diners that only go to the hot restaurants but never actually support them after that. I don’t get involved with that — I am trying to push myself to elevate food that is delicious and thought provoking.
I try to stay current on what is going on in dining trends and set the bar really high on expectations for myself and for my staff. We stay true to our ingredients and let each one shine for itself. When a guest comes in, I want them to leave thinking that they just had the most amazing tomato ever or the best carrot they had ever tried. I am inspired by nature a lot and you will see that play out on the plate.
What are some of your favorite ingredients right now and how are they used on the FT33 menu?
I love buckwheat and rye flours, fermented vegetables, vegetable vinegars, charred products, whey, and buttermilk — these are all things we are toying with right now. I like acidic, earthy and smoky flavors to play out on dishes but still stay light and balanced.
What new dishes are you thinking of adding to the menu?
The menu is always changing and evolving. Some current dishes that are making their way to the menu right now:
- Charred cherry tomatoes with beets, potatoes, pecorino and salsa verde
- Grilled scallops with corn, heirloom squash and buckwheat wafer
- Trout with olive-oregano jam, blistered radish and butterbeans
Do you have plans to open other restaurants in the future?
I do. I’m not in a real hurry, but I have a couple ideas. Right now, I am having fun with the evolution of FT33 and don’t want to hinder that by doing too much at once. But I know exactly what I want to do next.
Photos Courtesy of Kevin Marple