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Matt McCallister on the Evolution of FT33's First Year

Photo credit: Margo Sivin/EDFW

A year after opening his highly acclaimed Design District restaurant FT33, Matt McCallister has thrown out all his chef coats. "I accidentally washed them with my daughter's pink skirt," he explains. "Plus I just don't feel like wearing them anymore."

Cliched as it may sound, it's a move reflective of McCallister's tendency to stray from the pack — an inclination that's clearly serving him well, as FT33's first year has been marked with a cavalcade of awards and accolades from publications ranging from The Dallas Morning News all the way up to Food & Wine. Eater recently caught up with McCallister to talk about FT33's first year, cooking at the James Beard House, the state of the Dallas dining scene and more (stay tuned for part two of the interview tomorrow).

So you're making all your own breads now? When did that start?
This literally like fully started yesterday. We [previously] brought in bread from Village Baking who has done all of our breads since opening, and they're great, I love them but I was just like dude, we do every single thing in-house but we outsource our bread. That's totally mailing it in. I mean it was good to start, we have a small kitchen, we have one convection oven and our kitchen is not even really outfitted to do bread service. But we're going to do it anyway, that's why our pastry sous chef is here at 5 in the morning baking bread. It'll work, we'll figure it out. We'll work through the kinks.

You cooked at the James Beard House in New York recently. Can you talk a little bit about that experience? Obviously for most chefs that's a dream come true.
That was definitely a cool thing. I was excited to go do it but I mean, I just kind of treated it like any other off-site cooking or tasting menu event. So I didn't have this like weird surreal experience like I thought I might have, but I think everyone else I brought with me [might have]. I was more focused on like, let's make sure this food's bad ass and it goes out hot if it's hot, cold if it's cold, that it's presented really well and that it's a representation of us. And I think we really achieved that. Everybody seemed to really enjoy everything. We actually had about 8 guests that were from Texas, one whole table essentially planned their trip from Fort Worth to New York to go do that [dinner] and then spend a week in New York. So that was really cool.

All the war stories that people tell me about the tiny-ass kitchen [at the Beard House]... Somebody actually came up to me and was like, "small kitchen huh?" I was like, it's actually bigger than ours so don't feel sorry for me. [laughs]

Obviously the menu at FT33 is constantly changing, but are there any other major changes you guys have instituted since opening?
Over the last six months we've basically eliminated all hydrocolloids from the restaurant. We no longer do any modernist, weird fluffy techniques or whatever, which I've moved away from. I think when we first opened I was still playing around with that stuff but you can achieve all of that aesthetic naturally, it just takes more work. It's a lot easier to make a gel out of something than to do a natural reduction and turn it into the same consistency. So we're much more naturalistic. My plating style is more nature-inspired anyway, so it kind of makes sense to go that route.

Definitely the evolution of our food has changed a ton, and the tasting menu we're about to roll out [today, October 15] is the ultimate expression of that. It's going to be super minimalistic, two to three components on a plate. It's going to have some of that Nordic influence, kind of, but it's more just my natural style of plating. Really minimal.

So kind of influenced by Noma?
Yeah, but I'm not going to have candied wolfberries and pickled sea buckthorn and stuff. Actually I had that [sea buckthorn] in New York recently, it was good — like a non-bitter cranberry, and smaller and orange.

Yeah, pickled sea buckthorn might be pushing it a bit for Dallas.
I don't even know where you'd get it. I mean, last year trying to source green strawberries was next to impossible. I literally had to partially threaten one of my purveyors. I was like 'Look, I know they're fucking out there because we have strawberries. Just pick them when they aren't ripe. That's it!' You go to a farmer and you're like, I just want you to NOT let these ripen and I'll pay you the same price, and they're like, 'What's wrong with you?' That's kind of what we deal with here a little bit, a lot of things I want to do sometimes I'm restrained [from doing] due to our surroundings.

Can you talk a bit more about the move away from using molecular techniques? This is the stuff you were doing heavily during Fuego at Stephan Pyles, right?
It was all fun and it's cool but I'd say the majority of it is gimmicky. Some of it has some real legs and true longevity in the culinary field. I'm probably never going to not use meat glue for some things. It's practical and it's really awesome because you can take two lamb bellies and glue them together and then you have a really nice portion when you're done with it.

Xanthan gum is another thing. Those are two things that will probably always stay around. But they're practical — when you make a vegetable puree you're always going to have water seepage out of it. Once you put it on a plate water will seep out of it because water wants to escape once you've broken all the cell walls. Xanthan gum will hold that, you just add a little of that to the puree; and so you have this perfect, awesome green puree without a puddle of water around it. It makes sense and it's not altering the flavor, shape, texture, anything. It will if you add too much, but all you need is a little bit.

So really a lot of the stuff we do now is taking that kind of scientific thought process and putting it into a practical approach. If you want to take raw kale and infuse more kale flavor into it, you can take raw kale juice and put it in a Cryovac bag with a teeny bit of salt, and Cryovac raw kale leaves and you'll actually create osmosis because that salt will break down the cell walls, but instead of purging water out you're letting more kale juice in. So little weird random geeky stuff like that, it's kind of what that's evolved to. And kind of just in a general scope, it seems like that's happening with a lot of people — a lot of people are boycotting that whole [molecular gastronomy] thing.

Stay tuned tomorrow for part two of the interview with Matt McCallister.