‘Rock star’ Dallas chef Matt McCallister organizes a festival in Lee Park to bring attention to the way food should be
With his tattoo sleeve (one arm only, natch), T-shirt-and-jeans casualness and aggressive, well-respected cuisine, Matt McCallister is as close as Dallas comes to a rock-star chef. He fusses over food so that people can enjoy it un-fussily — high-end without being high-brow.
And like a true rock star, when he does something single-mindedly, he does it big. That’s why, for the food festival dubbed Mixin’ It Up on the Boulevard — which takes place in the gayborhood’s Lee Park on May 6 — he has assembled 40 chefs from across Texas and half-again as many food purveyors and farmers … though he’s never done anything like this before.
It all arose out of an organization McCallister started about a year ago, Chefs for Farmers, which sought to cross-pollinate cooks around Dallas with growers who provide the ingredients for their dishes.
“It’s hard for chefs to find out what’s out there,” McCallister says over a table at Scardello, an artisan cheese shop on Oak Lawn. “A lot of chefs know a few farmers, but not many will, on their day off, drive around [North Texas] seeing what’s out there … I mean, I do it all the time, but I’m a little weird.”
McCallister founded Chefs for Farmers as a networking opportunity, where chefs and ranchers could exchange business cards. He introduced a chef to a goat-cheese maker who now supplies all that chef’s cheeses.
“At first, it was just meant as a party with some of my friends who are chefs — just to drink wine and cook for some people,” McCallister says.
But when your “chef friends” include the likes of Stephan Pyles, Kent Rathbun and Dean Fearing, it’s easy for “a little get-together” to become a big deal. Which is what Mixin’ It Up has become.
Already Chefs for Farmers has held a series of successful dinners, but the event on May 6 will be of an order of magnitude bigger.
“The first dinner, there were 105 people; for this, our first food and wine festival, we’re expecting about 1,000 people to attend,” he says.
Those participating are a who’s who of the Dallas culinary scene: Abraham Salum (Komali), Brian C. Luscher (The Grape), Bruno Davaillon (The Mansion), Garreth Dickey (Dish), Janice Provost and Chad Houser (Parigi), Tiffany Derry (Private|Social) and Tre Wilcox (Marquee Grill).
It’s the first time McCallister has ever organized an event like this, and there’s a lot more involved than he expected. They decided early on to locate the festival in Lee Park (McCallister likes the neighborhood — he lives across the street).
Thousands of dollars will go toward the charities: Meals on Wheels of Tarrant County and Water for Chizavane, an African relief project and pet charity of honorary lead chair Stephan Pyles. Rathbun and Fearing will also be honored for their support of local growers.
It’s a bit of a homecoming for McCallister, who rose to prominence at Pyles’ Downtown restaurant, rising to the position of executive chef before branching out on his own. Last year, he was the consulting chef establishing the menu as Campo in Oak Cliff; this summer, he’ll open his own restaurant, FT33, in the Design District.
He says FT33 will showcase “farm-inspired modern cuisine,” but there’s one buzzword he will not use to describe it.
“I hate the term ‘farm-to-table,’” he says — not because he doesn’t endorse the concept, but because the phrase has become “little more than a marketing gimmick. Only in America can we take what people should be doing anyway and [make it seem unique]. In Europe, that’s how they’ve always done it.”
It’s not always possible to be completely local. “There are some ingredients I can’t get locally, like foie gras, so I have to outsource it.” And if you want tea, coffee or chocolate, there’s nowhere in the continental U.S. where you can get those. But that doesn’t diminish his commitment to local produce — and not just the conventional wisdom about seasonal items.
“Because of the weather we’ve had lately, I can get heirloom tomatoes right now. Sometimes in Texas, we get a second season of artichokes in the fall,” he says. He’s looking forward to getting these ranchers, farmers and artisans under one tent with chefs.
Well, not really one tent — McCallister is intentionally pairing restaurants with purveyors they don’t usually work with in order to cross-pollinate. To do that, however, he first needs to get back all the worksheets (now overdue) from some of the chefs. Getting creative people to comply with deadlines, he has discovered, is like herding cats.
“I’ve been that guy before, and I’m paying for it now,” he sighs.
The life of a rock star isn’t as glamorous as it seems.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 20, 2012.