When news broke that Matt McCallister, the chef behind beloved Dallas restaurants Homewood, FT33, and Filament, was taking a job with Local Favorite Restaurants Group, and that his first project would be a fast casual Mexican food spot, it was a head-scratcher. The chef who focused on fine dining working with the people who own chain restaurants including El Fenix and Twisted Root?
In an interview, McCallister discusses the job and the first restaurant brand he’s creating for his new company, UnaVida, which is now open in the West Village. He offered some insight into all of that, and what happened with the abrupt closure of Homewood earlier this year, and the untimely death of its owner.
Eater: Tell us about your job as executive chef of new concept development. How did it come to be?
Matt McCallister: Mike [Karns, Local Favorite CEO] has been a regular of mine on and off through the years. When everything went down at Homewood, I had no clue what I was going to do. He texted me, and we ended up talking about life and what we were working on. The conversation led to a cool idea of a job for me. Being a chef has its perks, but it has its challenges. Being overly creative, I’m not good at numbers. I have the opportunity to learn and help birth new concepts. I come from running small, rogue, chef-driven restaurants. There’s a whole team in this [company] that owns 50+ restaurants.
You’re not the first chef I’ve heard say this year that they’d prefer to focus on the creative aspects. Is that where you’re at?
I also need and want to get good at business; it’s important. But I’m not an expert. It’s important for me to have people help me. [Karns] wants me to make awesome things that taste good. I get new concepts going and buttoned up, and then the operations team takes over and keeps it going at some point.
It is interesting for you because you’ve done all these smaller, bespoke restaurants.
At the end of the day, if I can get into a role where I can get home at 7 p.m. to hang out with my kids, that is the role that I prefer to be in. I’ve crushed 100-hour weeks. I don’t just need my cooks to learn how to grow up; I need my kids to. Sometimes, I feel like I spend more time teaching [cooks] than my kids. Not that I mind because the people who work for me become a part of me. But I sit back occasionally and think I should try to teach my kids these things.
When Homewood closed, many people were surprised you weren’t an owner. Is this level of involvement more aligned with what you want to be doing?
Initially, I was going to be a partner. I was still dealing with bankruptcy stuff from Filament, and I didn’t need ownership on my paper when I was still trying to clear up the wreckage from my past. [Editor’s note: McCallister and his partners allegedly broke the lease on that restaurant when it closed in 2017 and the landlord sued for $1 million.] [Michael Barnett and I] had a deal on a handshake, but then never revisited it. I would have been in all that if I were an equal partner. I was happy not to have that burden. It’s a lot to carry the stress — navigating COVID was enough to make me want to never cook again. At one point, I was just like, fuck this. Now, my head is in a good place. I’m focused on more important priorities in life than making fancy food that impresses fancy food people.
How about UnaVida — were you a part of the development of it?
It’s a collaborative effort. We have evolved and I don’t even know how many iterations of the menu we’ve gone through, but a lot. You could come in, literally not talk to anyone, and order from a QR code. Or you could have a normal experience. We’re still tinkering with figuring out how to course it out. Our approach to the menu is trying to find a holistic approach not just looking at cost but at nutrition, with good vegan and vegetarian options. It’s a Mexican restaurant that’s an all-day cafe.
What is a dish that encompasses the spirit of the menu?
The rainbow trout that’s on the evening menu. It’s farm-raised and sourced well. We sear it and serve it on a pipian mole. It’s made with green pumpkin seeds fried heavily in avocado oil. It develops a nice green color, and we sprinkle toasted pumpkin seeds around it. And we add slivered, pickled onions in the style of a classic taqueria, along with a lime wedge. It’s so simple, just a beautiful piece of seared whole trout with no head — two filets with a tail on it sitting on a plate. That’s how I like to eat — very simple. I want protein and sauce, and this menu is navigable like that. With simple dishes like this, you aren’t hiding behind many things and it has to be done well.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.