In the coming months, we’ll feature Q&As from our recent Food Republic Interview Lounge at the W Austin during the Austin Food & Wine Festival, featuring video excerpts of the sessions with host Richard Martin. First up, Matt McCallister, chef-owner of FT33 in Dallas, who was recently named a Food & Wine Best New Chef, one of the restaurant world’s highest honors. And if you only have 20 seconds to dive into the mind of McCallister, skip to the second video posted below, 6:12. “You need to make love to the beet, don’t fuck the beet,” he says, tenderly, about the popular root vegetable.
At FT33, you try to be season-inspired in Dallas. It’s not like you’re in Napa or something. You must really be on your toes.
Well, I mean our menu is small. It’s really focused; it has about 15 menu items. So I change the menu every week. We might bring an ingredient in and have it for three days and do a dish around it. So it’s fun for us in the kitchen. We change everything up. But the servers sometimes have a hectic time, because they come in and I’ll change four items, and be like alright, sorry, I changed the menu, this is what we’re doing, this is our perceived wine pairing. I’ll throw it in and we’ll go from there.
Now tell me a little bit about Dallas. Why you’re there, what the audience is like for your cooking and how it’s evolved in the year and a half since you opened FT33.
When I first went out to open FT, a lot of people told me that I was kind of crazy, trying to do something that I guess is deemed progressive for Dallas’ taste. But I’m a pretty small restaurant in comparison to the restaurants that I’ve worked at previously, we’re about 70 seats. And it’s worked out really well. I do season inspired modern cuisine. And – whatever modern is, I don’t know. We just take great ingredients and try not to fuck ‘em up. And then create dishes out of it. And Dallas seems to have taken a liking to what we’re doing.
Not only Dallas, but you’ve actually been able to spring board into more of a national role I believe. You’re seen on TV sometimes, right?
Sometimes terrifyingly so, yeah.
Do you feel like you want to be recognized beyond Dallas? Or is your main focus to be a Dallas restaurateur?
Just a Dallas restaurant owner. At some point I probably will work on opening another concept, or something, but I just wanted to set out to do the food that I wanted to do. And see where that would take me. And it seems to be working.
Do you like getting attention from outside?
I don’t really like – I’m not a big interview person or any of that kinda stuff. I kinda just stick to myself. I work in the kitchen all day, all the time. Even the way that our restaurant runs, I own the restaurant, but I barely know how to get into the safe. I know the code to the alarm, and that’s about it. And I have a key to the restaurant. Other than that, I just strictly stick with creative development of food.
So you talk about opening another place. Do you ever envision yourself getting out from the kitchen and being more of a face person?
No. That’s – I mean with a lot of regulars and stuff that come in, I’ll go out and say hi to people and I’ll talk to people, but I typically have to know them first. I’m not the greatest at going out and just smiling and shaking people’s hands. It’s not my strong suit. It’s normally a really awkward coincidence that that happens.
I thought it was interesting, reading about you a little more. I didn’t know that you have an art background.
Yeah. I was into fine arts and painting and ceramics, and I was actually an apprentice for a pretty well-known glassblower in Arizona for a while. And my interest was always in art, but I grew up cooking. So as a kid, I had a big garden in the backyard, and my mom taught me all about gardening and cooking, and it was always just a natural progression. It seemed like food was what I wanted to do. And I wanted to kind of tie in my artistic take on food.
It is kind of like an easy thing to say, but do you think that there are a lot of overlaps with being a chef and being an artist?
Oh definitely. Definitely. About six months ago there was a professor that was eating at the restaurant and he wanted me to go talk to his class [about how cooking is an ephemeral] art. You spend all this time creating a dish and you spend all this time plating a beautifully created dish with just simple ingredients, and then it’s gone. It’s not like a painting on a wall that lasts forever. So it’s an interesting way of thinking about it, but I actually like it. I like the fact that you’ve created something, it’s there and then it’s gone. And now I move onto something else. Since the menu is so small, I might have a dish that I created, and then after a week, I’m sick of plating it. So I’ll change the plate up.
You do that often?
I do that a lot. And it kind of excited me to keep plating it. So it’s funny – when I develop a dish, obviously I’m looking at the flavor profiles, and a lot of times I do multiple plays on one ingredient. So I might do a turnip on a dish but it might be presented in a puree, and a fermented way, in a raw way, and then maybe butter poached or cooked in tallow that’s been smoked or something. The ingredients are always the same, but then sometimes I just go and change the plate up because plating for me — I think that ties into my artistic approach. It keeps me excited about something. It’s more playful.
That’s cool that you’re able to do that, because artists do work a little more in a solitary environment. They don’t have to go out and touch the table, so to speak. But I guess you adapt as you go along, right?
Yeah, I try to. I have to play both roles. And I much prefer staying in the kitchen, but our kitchen is also very open so we have guests sometimes come up and they’re watching me plate and we’ve even had some guests come up and say hey what’s up Matt? When I’m in my moment, I can really come across as – I’ll just look up and go hi. And then go back down and start working. Don’t talk to me while I’m working. Let me work. If I want to come out and talk to you, I’ll come out to your table.
Related: ’10 Things I Hate’ With Matt McCallister (and below, an excerpt from the Interview Lounge discussion about the 10 things he hates):
Presented by our friends at the W Hotel Austin.