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FT33 Chef Matt McCallister on the Dallas Dining Scene and Lessons Learned

Photo: Margo Sivin/Eater Dallas

People told Dallas chef Matt McCallister that he was out of his mind when he opened FT33 back in October 2012. The restaurant defied what had come to be expected upon the city's restaurant menus, boasting what Eater Dallas described as a "seasonal modern cuisine." In the year and a half since, McCallister and FT33 have both racked up enough accolades to prove it was worth the risk. Most recently, Food & Wine magazine named McCallister to its newest class of Best New Chefs, alongside his fellow Texas-based colleagues Paul Qui and Justin Yu.

In the following interview, McCallister talks to Eater about his path to opening up FT33, which included stops at storied kitchens such as McCrady's, Daniel, and Alinea (the latter being so intense that six of his fellow stages dropped out before the week was over). He also shares his thoughts on how chefs in Dallas are beginning to push boundaries, and the lessons he's learned as a restaurant owner and manager, such as how not to mistakenly come across as an asshole.

Congratulations on the Best New Chef designation. What was that like for you getting the nod?
It, obviously, feels nice to be recognized for all the hard work you put in. I was also really happy to see that not only did I receive it, but Justin Yu and Paul Qui [did too]. So we had pretty good Texas representation this year.

Yeah, no kidding. Are you guys close? Do all the Texas chefs band together?
There are definitely separations between Dallas, Austin, and Houston. But I think we all respect each other, get along, and know the amount of work that we put in. And to see the food that we do, and that we're pushing the boundary a little bit, that's nice. There's definitely a mutual respect for each other. But, there's still always that competition between Austin, Houston, and Dallas. As we've seen.

What are the rivalries?
I think it's mainly Austin and Houston. Dallas has never really been on the map. But I really think the Dallas dining scene is starting to trend toward the more progressive chefs, pushing the boundaries.

How do you see the Dallas dining scene evolving in the future?
There's a small handful of younger chefs, or just chefs stepping out on their own and doing what they want to do, and not necessarily catering to the mass demand of a lot of the larger restaurants. I think, in time, the more people that do that, that kind of frees up the fear from other chefs not wanting to fully go out and be as adventurous and take a risk. I think that lowers that fear.

When I came out to open FT, some people were like, 'You're out of your mind. It's not going to work here.'

When I came out to open up FT, some people I talked to were like, "You're out of your mind. It's not going to work here." It was like, "Oh." I'm thirty one. I could fail and come back. (Laughs). But I wouldn't want to look back and be like, oh, I never actually tried to do anything really adventurous or innovative.

[Photo: Stephen Masker/Eater Dallas]

Right. How about the diners themselves? Obviously, FT's doing very well. So there's a market for that.
Oh, totally. I think people fully embrace this thing. Whatever thoughts people had about diners… I just think that not a lot of people were going out there and doing something that was a little different from the norm. But, hey, if you look at the clientèle that lives in Dallas, a lot of them are fairly affluent people who travel all over, eat all over the world. So it makes sense that they would embrace something like this.

So how did you first get into cooking?
I've cooked ever since I was a kid. All my jobs that I've ever had, ever since I was about 14, was in restaurants. I never really, fully took it seriously. During my early 20s, I was kind of a screw up. So then later on [at] about 24, I was like, "All right. This is definitely the career path I want to go on." So, I got a job at the best restaurant I could find and worked my way up.

What was it that made you decide that?
I think I'd always wanted that. I was kind of a screwed up little kid. I definitely had little barriers that were in my way to actually getting around to taking what I knew I wanted to do seriously.

And that's when you went to work for Stephan Pyles?

I thought it was interesting that after you worked your way up through his kitchen, you went to stage at a lot of great kitchens around the world. First, I wanted to ask you about why you decided to do that, and how you picked each one?
I mainly wanted to see some different styles and different set-ups and layouts of kitchens, and how different kitchens were run. Obviously, I didn't get the opportunity to go around, and work and train under all these great chefs. So I gave myself the abbreviated version of going around and seeing how they executed and expedited food out of kitchens. What their set-up was, just seeing some of the food.

I wanted to see how intense Alinea was.

Then I picked people that I admired for what they did. I mean, McCrady's, I think I spent about a month in that kitchen. That was probably my favorite kitchen to be working in. Definitely much more stylistic of what I do, the little avenues in which they go down. The kind of food they do definitely speaks to my style. Then going to Alinea, obviously, that's a pretty highly-rated restaurant. I wanted to see how intense that place was.

Yeah? How intense was it?
It's pretty intense. I think when I went in to stage, there were probably six other stages. They had all dropped out within the first week. [Alinea] only does a week-long stage. But I was like, "Well, I want to do two weeks." They were like, "Well, we only do a week." I was like, "Well, can't I just do one more week after?" It was fun.

[Photo: Stephen Masker/Eater Dallas]

You look at some of these kids that go out and stage. Maybe they're staging for a commis position. Or they're obviously staging to get a job somewhere, or maybe just to broaden their horizons, to see some different things. So I think a kitchen like that can be pretty intimidating, which is a good thing. I mean, you only want get the best in that high-caliber of a place. But I came from being an executive chef and being the person in control. So I had a slightly different perspective in the sense that I was able to sit back and just work on my prep load, and do my work. Yes chef, and just keep my mouth shut. Stay of trouble.

Makes sense. How about the other places?
Daniel was a really cool kitchen. Definitely super, super formal French brigade. So it's a much different style of food. I don't know. I guess it's weird to say it, but to me, it's too perfect. You know? Everything's a perfect circle of this and this, which is cool. It's beautiful, elegant French cuisine. Definitely one of the best restaurants in the world. It's just not really my style [which] is much more naturalistic and looks like things just fell on the plate in a really well organized manner.

But it was fun to be in that kitchen and see how they roll. It was kind of confusing because the majority of everything is said in French. I'm like, "I have no clue what they're saying. I don't know what's going on." I lean over to the guy next to me. I was like, "What did he just say?" He's like, "I don't know. I just know what to pick up when I see that guy cooking that." I was like, "Wow, this is terrifying." But it was fun. We had a blast.

When you were doing those stages, did you have FT33 in mind?
Yeah, yeah. I don't know if I'd actually gotten to the point [of] finalizing an actual name or anything. But, yeah, that whole time I was working on it. I knew I was going to open a restaurant. I considered leaving Dallas and, maybe, moving to a city that, from what I felt, had a slightly more progressive food scene, or more educated diners that were into the food culture. I was on the fence. I knew I wanted to do a restaurant.

Or I could go start over and get a job as a line cook at McCrady's or something. But then, at that point, I had a two-year-old daughter. So you have to put things in perspective. I don't know. I guess, putting in perspective, I took a much larger risk. But I think I, obviously, am seeing some of the rewards now, which is cool. It's nice to be recognized for how well we've done, and how far we've come along, and how FT's evolved.

I guess in a way it's cooler to be a part of changing the Dallas dining scene rather than going to one that's already established.
Yeah. It's a little riskier. But I think Dallas is ready. The structure is here [for people] to start doing a restaurant, pushing in whatever direction they want to push it. I think people need to go out, cook the food they want to cook. Not necessarily from a point of, "I'm the chef, and you're going to eat what I cook." You obviously have to cater somewhat.

When I first opened, our menu said no substitutions, which is immature.

When I first opened, our menu [said] you have no substitutions, which is immature. What I was trying to say is what I still believe in some sense: that I'm not going to have somebody come in and be like, "Oh, I want this fish on the set-up that you're doing with your beef." It's like, well, I don't feel that this fish is going to go with those components. So why am I going to serve you something that you, then, might not like? And then might write a negative Yelp review about the food? I guess that's what I was trying to relay when I had that on the menu. But it didn't come across. The guests just thought I was being arrogant.

[Photo: Stephen Masker/Eater Dallas]

I make tons of substitutions. Definitely like allergies, or we have a lot of vegetable-focused dishes. So we're pretty accommodating towards vegetarians and vegans. My natural style of cooking just happens to be mostly gluten-free anyway. We don't even have a fryer in the kitchen. You have to cater to your guests to some extent. But I also still do think that you need to stay true to what you believe in and what you're about. That's a difficult line to walk, sometimes, in the hospitality industry. But I've gotten better.

I know in the One Year In that you did with [Eater Dallas editor] Whitney [Filloon] in the Fall, you told her that you were moving away from molecular stuff in the kitchen.
Yeah, I was typecast as this kid that did molecular shit. I didn't really even do a lot of it. Back eight years ago, everybody did sort of lots of thin little air on their dishes. It was everywhere. So, for some reason ... I think it's just due to my creative style. It's a little more whimsical, and free form, and lots of greens and herbs, and things. So I still get typecast into that category.

But I was never super big into a lot of that stuff anyway. Yeah, I'll use an iSi canister to aerate stuff. But so does everybody else. I use things when they make sense and when they taste good. I think a lot of hydrocolloids are either overused or misused. If you're going to play with that stuff, you need to know what the hell you're doing. If you really look at what we do in the kitchen, we don't use any of that stuff. I use, maybe, xanthan gum to make a puree more viscous. But it's not a prominent component. Those things have their place. But I don't know if I'll ever live that one out.

You were talking about the lessons that you've learned with the restaurant in terms of allowing substitutions on the menu. What else have you adapted and changed with through the last year and a half?
Oh, tons of stuff. You got a pretty huge learning curve going from being executive chef to owning a restaurant. That's really big step. I think I was a little naïve in the beginning. I still ruled the kitchen with an iron first. I used to be pretty angry. It wasn't anger, but it was really intense. I'm still a super, super intense person. I will work harder and longer than any single person in the kitchen. I'll walk in the kitchen. I'll be like, "What's this? What's this? Why is this wrong? What's wrong with this?" Like, "Look at this. What are you guys thinking?"

But I've taken a step back and tried to tone down. I guess the way I come across can be super blunt, super to the point, which is a good thing. But I think I have a tendency to come across like a serious asshole. I don't mean to be. It's just way I come across. It's just the way I talk. Sometimes, when I first meet somebody in the industry, people tell me that I come across as stand-offish. But then once you get to know me, you're like, "Oh, wow. No. He's not really at all. He's a pretty cool guy."

So [I'm] just trying to learn body posture, the way I'm speaking to a staff member, and speaking to a staff member in front of another staff member. A lot of management stuff and how to be a better, more effective manager. Anybody who goes into any business has to learn that stuff. It's just mine was a little more abrupt and quick. But I think I've improved a lot in that category. There's a lot more cohesion between the front- and back-of-the-house staff, and how we communicate with each other, and work with each other.

You have to be a good leader. I can't go in and just start breaking plates and being a jerk.

We put a lot of energy and effort into training our front-of-the-house staff. You got to put a lot of time into it. [Staff members] need to drink the Kool-Aid. They need to believe in what you're doing. And, obviously, not only do they need to believe in your food, but they need to believe in you as a person. You have to be a good leader. I can't go in and just start breaking plates and being a jerk because they aren't going to respect that. So it [goes] back to being an effective manager.

So what's next for you?
[I've] been juggling around several different ideas. It's up in the air right now. I keep going back and forth. I got way too many ideas in my head. I'm just trying to get everything out on paper. Sit down. Really focus and figure out which avenue I want to go in. But I definitely want to do a more casual spot.

· All Matt McCallister Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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1617 Hi Line Drive, Dallas

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