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Matt McCallister Talks Dining in Dallas & Future Projects

Inside FT33.
Inside FT33.
Photo: Margo Sivin/EDFW

In part two of this interview with Matt McCallister of Design District hot spot FT33, the conversation shifts from cooking at the Beard House and his move away from "fluffy" modernist techniques to FT33's many accolades, his "bad ass team" and hints at future projects.

There was some staff turnover in the beginning that got a lot of media attention, with Josh Valentine and Brady Williams moving on, but let's talk about the team you've assembled now. What do Bradford Hodgkins [sous chef], Maggie Huff [pastry chef] and Jeff Gregory [general manager] all bring to the table?

We have a bad ass team. Bradford is like my polar opposite. I'm just like way over here normally [motions to other side of the restaurant], I have no idea what's going on sometimes, and he'll be like, 'Hey Matt, you have to be at this place at 6:00.' [laughs] Me and him were line cooks at Stephan Pyles, we were literally right next to each other. We've rocked out some serious covers and we know all of each other's little flaws and things? We work together really well.

Maggie makes really, really delicious desserts. She'll even say she doesn't have the most modern approach to plating and stuff, so normally me and her work together. It's like, okay this tastes awesome, now let's figure out how we're going to make it look great. Not saying that the way she does it isn't great but [in comparison to the rest of the food] it would look really rustic. We worked together before so we kind of know each other's boundaries. We're both really stubborn so we but heads sometimes which is fun, but at least we know that so it's like 'Cool, I'm not going to talk to you anymore right now.' [laughs]

I don't have any culinary training, aside from working in a kitchen. I think that benefits me in some ways because I don't have a final judgment or perception on how something is supposed to be executed. I can barely pronounce any classic French terms, I get made fun of all the time in the kitchen. I'm like, 'Sauce marnee? yay?' and they're like, 'Matt. Oh god, this is our boss.' But I can make one, so.

Those kind of details have never been [important to me]. I played clarinet all through elementary school. I could not read a single note but any music you could put in front of me, I could play perfectly. I should've been first chair all the time except [for the fact] I couldn't tell you if [the note I was playing] was A, B or C, I just didn't care about that. I mean, who cares? I can play it, what does it matter what it is?

So, I mean really that's kind of how I've always been. I don't care about the details. Does it taste good? Alright, that works. And Jeff I think, still kind of holds the same value — he's not a certified sommelier, but he will pull pairings out that you wouldn't expect and I think that's a great balance with my food. He's willing to take risks just like I'm willing to take risks. And Jeff has a really great business mind. You can be the most creative person in the world but if you can't manage your numbers then you're going to go out of business.

Let's talk accolades. There have been a ton — Chef of the Year from the Dallas Morning News as well as the Observer, Bon Appetit Top 50 new restaurants, Food & Wine Best New Chef nominee. Are you still surprised every time something like that happens, or are you just taking it in stride at this point?

At the end of the day, I don't really... I really don't care what other people are doing in this city. I just try to do what I want to do, and I try to learn from mistakes I make. Sometimes I put out a dish and in hindsight I'm like, that was a dumb move. I think we do that less now and I think we've put standards in place. Before, even for like [the first] six months, I would just roll a new menu item out like, okay we're changing things today! Haven't tested a single thing, I just have an idea.

Trying to cater to the Dallas clientele is fun and challenging in it's own right. I was pretty nervous, I had people when we were opening this place that were like 'Dude, you're out of your fucking mind.' Like, that's not going to work. And I was like? Well I know other people that like hip hop [referring to the music played at the restaurant] and cool food. Why not? Nobody else is doing it so I'm kind of lacking in competition here. I'm just kind of going my own way, and it seems to have been successful. So, accolades — it's awesome and I think, I wish more people were trying to do stuff that's different. I'm not saying that what we're doing is like this mind-blowing life-changing experience but you know, at least we're having fun and kind of challenging ourselves.

Let's talk about the state of the Dallas dining scene. So many new restaurants are opening and so many of them seem to have mostly the same menu? Calamari, braised short ribs, flatbreads, the standard stuff. Why aren't more restaurants doing different things — is that what diners demand, or are restaurateurs just afraid to take risks?

That's a good question. I've wondered kind of the same thing. I guess some of it, there's kind of a safety net in knowing what works and what your large population diner wants. The thing that's sad, and me and my wife have had this discussion, it's like a good majority of Dallas diners really don't care about food or care about thinking about it. They just want to know is it cheap or is it a value, the service is good, the food is... edible? Probably better than edible. That's why Houston's is so successful. I love that place. Go there and I get my prime rib sandwich, fries, iced tea, iced tea gets refilled every time it gets down to one-third full. Don't have to think about it, don't have to talk about it.

It's not a bad model, you can make a shit ton of money doing stuff like that. And then that could be another argument — I could probably go open something that's pretty safe and caters to the masses and probably make a shitload of money. I like making money, obviously that's not a bad thing, I've got to put my daughter through private school somehow. But I also I just don't know if that's me, I just don't know if i could do that. That's a loaded question that could have a million different answers. I think people here totally want [different things], but I think sometimes the media is sometimes so overly critical in Dallas that it's scary to even venture out into something [different].

At the end of the day, dining is entertainment. I don't normally go out to dinner and a movie, I go out to eat or I go to a movie. It's one or the other. So it's about that experience, knowing that we're probably going to make mistakes all throughout service and it's how well do we recover and not fumble those mistakes into a guest being so displeased that they never come back. Because it happens. A restaurant is like a giant mistake happening at all times, normally. Everything is on the verge of possibly going off. So it's about that balancing act of keeping everything rolling and flowing. But some days, man we've screwed up royally sometimes. Like a cake cutting fee. Somebody brought in cupcakes once, how the fuck do you charge a cake cutting fee for that? Where do you draw the line? We decided to be like, no there's still a fee, and then they were upset and they ended up leaving and at our evaluation at the end of it, I was like that was dumb. Next time we should just let them sit down.

But it's that whole thing of somebody coming in and going, 'I don't like sweet potatoes.' Well okay, we can do without that on the pork dish. That's cool. But then if somebody comes in and goes, okay well I don't like pork loin or I don't like any of this stuff, can I just have a double portion of the pork belly and can we put it on like the setup of a trout? At that point I'm gonna be like, 'No.' Where do you draw the line? It's a constant learning curve. At the end of the day, we're a customer service business and it's all about impressing a customer and blowing away what their expectation, what their perceived notion about us was when they walked in. Because now with all those accolades, people come in and they think its going to be like some magic carpet ride, and that's a whole other level of stuff to achieve.

So any plans for the future, either new things at FT33 or new projects entirely?

The soonest thing is the tasting menu [launched yesterday, October 15]. It's really great, seven courses but there's a session of like three snacks, an intermezzo, and then mignardises to take home, so it's really formal, it's about 12 courses at the end of the day and we only charge $95 for it. It's going to be really minimal, it's going to be really different for Dallas — even different for here at FT33. But all our food's kind of sliding in that direction. And then I have other stuff I'm working on? A couple things on the back burner that are pretty finalized. It's slowly getting there.

Well, I won't press you too much for details, but I've heard some things.

I had someone come in and go 'Hey, I heard you're moving to Portland!' Portland? Well, that'd be pretty cool, there's a lot of mushrooms I could go foraging for. But yeah, I love all those fun rumors. We've got two things that me and Iris have been working on that are pretty set in stone, even down to registering names and stuff. I don't like feeling rushed. When we opened here it was the whole case of well, we don't really have any money left, so we need to open. Whether or not they're trained, we're fucking open! [laughs] And that was stupid. So next time, I want a month of training. I don't want to rush into anything, I don't want to feel pressured. As long as the deal is right, it works for us and it fits what we're looking to do then I think we'll move forward. It'll be cool. You'll like it. [smiles]

· Matt McCallister on the Evolution of FT33's First Year [-EDFW-]
· More FT33 coverage [-EDFW-]

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