Chef Matt McCallister
Conversation with Farah Fleurima, The Dallas Diva!
You can’t talk to serious foodies in Dallas these days without the terms “FT33” or “Matt McCallister” slipping through a discerning gastronome’s lips. And rightfully so: the young culinary whiz who worked under celebrity chef Stephan Pyles made a splash when his own modern locavore haven, FT33, opened in the Design District in 2012 and quickly landed on numerous Best Of lists. In addition to scores of local favorite-chef honors, he was recently lauded with Food & Wine’s People’s Best New Chef/Southwest award. Here, McCallister talks to us about the farm-to-table movement; his annual food purveyor-foodie love-in, Chefs for Farmers; what’s next for FT33 … and his foraging habit.

You got the Food & Wine People’s Best New Chef: Southwest award – how does that feel?
You know – nice! [With] all those things, I’m, like, OK, cool – I just keep my head down and keep cooking. It’s exciting, it’s cool.

Let’s talk farm-to-table in Dallas – do you think the city was a little late to the farm-to-table table?
Dallas as a whole, I think, has always had a tendency to be slightly behind the curve on some things. Even opening this place was a little scary, ‘cause I was like, I’m gonna go out and do what I wanna do, and not change what I believe in to try to meet somewhere in the middle road of what Dallas views food to be and what I view things to be. So I was a little scared in the beginning because, it was just, like, if [diners] don’t get it, you know, I could possibly fail as a business. … One, that hasn’t been the case; that’s good. And even if it was, at least I tried to do what I believe I was to do. I think that’s the most important part.

Tell me about the local chefs that share your philosophy; is there friendly competition, or do you all work together? Is there a community being fostered?
I think definitely. I think it’s mainly through purveyors. I [tell] my purveyors, “Go to this restaurant, go to this restaurant, bring them samples of your product,” because if I’m the only one using them, I want them to be a successful business as well. [For example] it’s not easy to be a ranch raising lamb out in West Texas, and so now a bunch of restaurants are using [the ranch], so that’s more exciting. And then that gives them the ability to where the granddaughter isn’t driving her car to deliver it, they now have a courier service that can deliver it, and that courier service is also delivering my beef.

Let’s talk about Chefs for Farmers and how it came about.
Me and [the late chef] Randall [Copeland of Restaurant Ava] had been talking about that kind of stuff, but my wife is the spearhead of getting it actually getting it going and organizing the event and getting all those things together. … Really, for me, it’s just about having a fun party with my friends who are all chefs in the community. We don’t ever get a chance to hang out because we’re all busy doing our thing, and so that kind of pulls us all together. Also, it’s a good vessel to bring all these farms and ranches together so that they can mix and mingle with the chefs, and so hopefully these chefs will start preparing ingredients from them. Which, in the end, is just going to make them more successful, get us better product and keep promoting that and keeping that growing. … Essentially, that event was created around that: having a fun time with chefs and bringing in farms with hopefully the opportunity of more chefs using these farms. And then we wound up inviting the public and giving the money to charity.

What’s new for CFF this year?
We have some exciting chefs that we’re able to pull from Houston and Austin now and San Antonio. It’s becoming a really fun event, and it’s gotten a lot easier to do.

[This year] I think we’re trying to keep the same format. We just finalized some local graffiti artists – The Davis Family – it’s three guys who are graffiti artists, and they’ve done tons of stuff. They’ve done work at the Farmer’s Market, they’ve done a ton of mural work. We’re gonna have them do a live mural of the event while it’s taking place.

What’s inspiring your chef brain and your menu of late?
Spring’s finally here! I’ll have ideas where I’ll know what’s gonna be coming in season, and we’ll kind of tweak as we go along. I have this chicken dish on the menu that I wanted ramps to be in, and then I wound up just using wild onions that I go out and pick because ramps were kind of slow on getting around this season. We just kind of go with the flow.

How does not being formally trained give you an edge?
Um … I’m really horrible at pronouncing French words? (Laughs) I’m not stuck on any idea, like if you look at a child, there’s no boundary for them, they just kind of wanna explore and do whatever, and I try to stick to that value as much as I can. I still do hold true to certain classic techniques when I’m dealing with certain things, but I don’t try to typecast myself into a certain category.

I understand you’re big into foraging. How’d you get into that, and where’d you learn that?
I’ve been interested in it even back when I was at Stephan Pyles, and I just slowly taught myself what in the wild is actually edible and good. I think there’s a lot of things that are edible in the wild, but a lot of them are just not good. … Most of it I’ve taught myself, but I’ll bounce things off of [local greens purveyor] Tom Spicer -- he’s a great resource, he knows ALL about it. … Randy Rucker’s a great resource; he’s a chef in Houston and he’s a buddy of mine.

For me, it’s kind of like running is, it’s a form of meditation. I can walk out, be by myself and be left alone, find some cool stuff, bring it back to the restaurant and use it.

One selection on your menu is a round of beers for the kitchen; has anyone ever bought it?
Many times. Yeah, lots. So much so that sometimes on Fridays or Saturdays, I could not give the kitchen as many beers as might’ve been bought for them. I think our record’s, like, six.

What’s in the future for you and FT33?
Slowly but surely working on a tasting menu. Probably going to do at least a five … maybe a five- and a nine-course, I don’t know. And I’m only going to offer it on Tuesday through Thursday, because on the weekends, we’re too busy. So I’ve debated doing a five- and nine-course or somewhere in between and doing a full-on vegetable tasting menu, and then a full-on, not-all-protein-driven tasting menu that has proteins involved. I’d really like to offer a vegetarian tasting. I think it’d be well-received by a lot of the vegetarians.
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