Matt McCallister takes fresh seasonal ingredients and strips them down to their essence, one Sea Island red pea at a time.
It’s hard out there for a chef. In the old days, a kitchen overlord had it made if he had mastered the classical repertoire, knew how to execute a dining room stroll-and-schmooze, and could fling the occasional cast-iron skillet at his underlings to maintain discipline. Today, the hustle and flow of a chef’s life also includes tweeting and Facebooking, being seen shopping the local farmers’ markets, having a station at the right charity fundraisers, producing sound bites on demand, wooing bankers and investors, and being a creative genius. Oh, and crucial for the hip image, acquiring significant tattoos.
One individual who has excelled at this high-wire act is Matt McCallister, a 31-year-old Dallas culinary whiz who has gone from zero to takeoff at warp speed. Few people knew much about the lad before 2006, when he landed a job with prestigious Dallas chef and restaurateur Stephan Pyles. With absolutely no formal training but plenty of energy and smarts and a ton of chutzpah, he rose to the position of executive chef in three years. After that he moved on, staging for close to a year with members of the restaurant world’s aristocracy, including Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago and José Andrés of Minibar in Washington, D.C. Back in Dallas, he consulted on the opening of Campo Modern Country Bistro.
At some point, though, every young turk must go out on his own. On October 13 McCallister opened FT33 (1617 Hi Line Dr., 214-741-2629), which is tucked into a corner of Dallas’s newly hot dining destination, the Design District. (The cryptic name is restaurant lingo for “fire table,” which is the order shouted when it’s time to ready the next course for a table, plus “33,” the number of the most desirable table here, which affords a full view of the kitchen.) The entrance to FT33 is tricky to find because it’s around back, but the minute you walk in, the spare dining room and large white plates of precisely arranged contemporary American food signal that you are in a Serious (though not stuffy) Restaurant. It’s fun to perch at the gray marble bar under a row of filament lights, sipping a Calvados sidecar while sitting on a swivel chair that looks like it was bought at a Parisian flea market. From that vantage, you can scan the dining area, where orchids stand out against weathered wood siding and putty-colored walls. And in the middle of the open kitchen is McCallister, undoubtedly very aware that his combination culinary laboratory and pleasure palace will need a goodly number of food-obsessed diners to fill its seventy seats on a regular basis.
What is his game plan, his philosophy? Expanding on the restaurant’s rubric of “season-inspired modern cuisine,” he answers, “I’m ingredient-driven,” adding, “I used to have twenty-five components on a plate and get really crazy. Now I want to show a few, but each in its best light.” A fine example of this would be his appetizer of fresh local vegetables. Arranged in a graceful curve across a bare plate is a riot of sweet young turnips, infant carrots, thin slices of radish, braised wheat berries, and a finishing touch of nasturtium blossoms and leaves. Accenting the flavors without masking them is a Spanish-style sofrito, a saucy blend of caramelized onion, garlic, and tomato.
If you press McCallister to further describe his cooking, he tends to get specific: “I’m really into making super-flavorful purées.” This is demonstrably true; he will even make a juice of parsnips in which to cook other parsnips. One of the favorite appetizers at our table was the pork jowls (think thick bacon with a crispy crust) paired with a black-truffle jus and two purées, one of tangy fermented mango and the other of the aforementioned earthy parsnips. Flavor concentration sneaks in elsewhere too: he cooked the pork with pungent toasted caraway seeds and also added them to the dish’s chicharrón-panko topping.
Once you get him talking about food, McCallister will inevitably mention a signature trait: “I try to do something different from what’s being done everywhere.” And that explains a lot. It makes clear, for instance, why he has Sea Island red peas from South Carolina on the menu. Same for the crisp-skinned, silken blackfin snapper filet that comes with them, in a lovely smoky ham broth. Using obscure, underutilized seafood helps promote sustainable fishing on the Gulf Coast, and if it helps make your menu unpredictable and cutting-edge, so much the better.
As the evening winds to a close, you arrive at the list of striking, decidedly unusual desserts crafted by pastry chef Josh Valentine. As with the main courses, the flavors are intense, one excellent example being the lemongrass panna cotta, which is paired with Meyer lemon foam and tiny individual grapefruit “pearls,” or juice sacs. The desserts often showcase a set of magic tricks known as molecular gastronomy, which McCallister once embraced but now uses more sparingly. These can be great fun; the grapefruit pearls, for instance, are separated out after being frozen with liquid nitrogen. But it’s easy to go overboard. A whole serving of potent, nitrogen-frozen blue cheese mousse was simply inedible, but teensy dabs would have been provocative as an accent to the accompanying walnut cake with pomegranate seeds and purée.
Now that FT33 is launched, a question arises: Will Dallasites return after the initial curiosity visit? If not, McCallister’s vision might have to be retooled and mainstreamed, which would be too bad for those of us who actually enjoy being guinea pigs. But if the stars align, it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.