Goodbye, charcuterie board. Hello, 'selection of snacks'
At a time when restaurateurs around the country are facing formidable challenges, one Dallas chef is doing something that would seem, on the face of it, to be insane: going 100 percent local and seasonal with his ingredients. "I've always tried to source everything from what's grown in the area, what's of the area and what's in season," says Matt McCallister. Now he wants to go "all in" at FT33.
That's not the only change McCallister has in the works at his five-star Design District restaurant. Since the first of the year, a new four-course, fixed-price menu has been introduced, replacing the old three-course, a la carte emphasis. The restaurant and its menu have become more vegan-friendly. A new "snacks" course is being offered. The writing style of the menu has changed, reflecting a shift in attitude and aesthetic that plays out on the plates.
All this adds up to a reboot, four years and four months after the restaurant opened, that McCallister is calling "FT33 2.0."
Going 100 percent local
What does the new local focus look like? Everything the restaurant creates and serves — from cocktails and bar snacks to main courses and desserts — will be fashioned from produce, fish, meat and pantry items grown or raised in Texas, or just over one of its borders. "It either has to be used fresh in season or we apply various methods of preservation to use it in various ways while it is not able to be purchased fresh," says McCallister. His goal is to achieve that in "two months, max. Maybe faster."
The chef says he's already 90 percent of the way there, though there is one ingredient that has stymied him: "Salt, I can't get."
Yes, salt is essential. So, one would think, are chocolate (more specifically, cacao beans) and commodity celery, neither of which grow in the Lone Star State; celery is essential in the preparation of stocks. And while some excellent olive oil is produced from Texas crops, locally produced high-temperature cooking oil is another story.
Meanwhile, when a customer wants a slice of lemon with his sparkling water in the middle of July, "We can't just say no." Therein lie the challenges.
"Nobody farm-raises trout in a good way here," says McCallister.
A big part of his solution is to find creative ways to preserve local produce while it is in season, as well as some fish and meats. FT33's walk-in fridge and pantry are crammed full of such projects: jars filled with shiitake mushroom jerky and dried tangerine peel and hoshigaki persimmon vinegar; cryovacked packs of pickled turmeric root and smoked grouper; plastic tubs of spicy pickled green tomatoes or pickled carrots; barrels of pear cider and fermenting sauerkraut. If diners near the open kitchen looked up at the rafters, they'd see jars balanced up there, too.
Naturally, the projects make their way onto the plates. Spicy brined green tomatoes, for instance, are featured in a new amberjack crudo starter with cauliflower puree, parsley oil and fresh cream. "We spray it with a fine mist of some of our vinegar with puffed skin from the fish." And yes, that amberjack is local, from the gulf. McCallister has renewed his focus on by-catch, the fish that aren't purposely fished for, but wind up in the catch with things like red snapper that are purposely fished.
"Giving us this box to work in now forces us to be more creative," says McCallister. "I got to the point where I felt like things were stagnant and complacent. We've already got all the accolades. What else can we do?"
The restaurant certainly does have the accolades: FT33 is currently the only five-star restaurant in Dallas, and McCallister was recognized by Food and Wine magazine in 2014 as one of that year's "best new chefs" — one of the most prestigious honors in the country. But in a couple of visits last year, I had felt that the cooking had slipped a bit; the plates were less exciting, and occasionally, execution was off.
That's why, from where this critic sits, a creative reset seems to make perfect sense — especially at a time when the chef-driven Dallas dining scene is suffering from a lack of creative vision and drive.
But for McCallister, there are principles involved, too.
"A big part of this has to do with my philosophy of not wasting anything on a plant or animal, trying to be good stewards of the land," says McCallister. "In our industry, so much food goes to waste and so much energy is spent talking about the homeless and hungry at these charity events, yet, at the end of the event, we throw out a bunch of food or we only serve the most prime cut to our well-established guests."
The waste-not philosophy in professional kitchens is by no means new. Using every part of an animal, and saving vegetable scraps to boost stocks and such has long been a necessary tool for chefs in keeping down food costs and maximizing flavor. And pickling and fermenting have been trendy since Rene Redzepi's Noma made a splash in Copenhagen some years ago. McCallister has been doing it for years, but lately he's taking zealous devotion to it to an extreme. Don't throw away those apple peels when they can become a vinegar.
He's even making a vinegar from the needles that fell from his Christmas tree. (It's not the first time he's eaten the tannenbaum.)
Comical, perhaps. But so much hot-air lip service to sustainability has been spouted by so many chefs for years that it's refreshing to see one who adheres to it with such devotion and purposeful determination.
The new four-course menu
Until very recently, FT33's menu was a la carte, offering individually priced "beginning," "middle" and "end," along with a couple of tasting menus, depending on the night of the week. Now there are four courses, with four dishes offered in each, and uniform pricing in each: "to start" ($15); "beginning" ($19); "middle" ($38) and "end" ($12). These can be ordered a la carte, but McCallister is hoping diners will instead choose the four-course fixed-price menu offered at $65, which is $19 less than ordering all four a la carte, and $4 less than ordering a beginning, middle and end. An additional $45 per person adds a beverage pairing, and $155 buys you a tasting of the entire menu — all 16 dishes.
New 'selection of snacks'
McCallister has done away with the charcuterie board and elaborate "vegetable composition" (a sort of vegetable tasting board), replacing them with a "selection of snacks." Listed at the top of the menu for $15 per person, it consists of seven or eight small bites the chefs select from a roster of about 15 at any given time, to be ordered either at the bar, or at a table in advance of the four-course menu.
New menu style
If you've ever dined at FT33 and been amused or intrigued or vaguely annoyed by the painfully oblique menu descriptions ("cuttlefish, escalivada, cardinal basil, saffron"), you'll be on more comfortable footing with the new, much more natural style, which includes niceties such as articles, conjunctions and sometimes even cooking methods. Now you might consider "black grouper with herbs, winter squash kimchee, and a hollandaise of mushroom fumet," or "buttermilk pie with a shortbread crisp, grapefruit, and candied fennel." Says McCallister, "I got tired of the ingredient, ingredient, ingredient stuff. It just got old, and I like the slightly more descriptive wording." Yep — I'll bet diners will, too.
It will be fascinating to see how all the changes — particularly the push to be 100 percent local — will play out on FT33's plates. "I feel that pushing into this constraint will lead me to new ideas and drive creativity even further," says McCallister. "I haven't been this excited about what we are embarking on since, I guess, embarking on opening FT33."