Every Thanksgiving, Matt McCallister would labor over the stuffing with his mother, air-drying loaves of bread and stirring the onions, carrots, and celery for the mirepoix. “I still make it the same way my mom taught me all those years ago,” says the baby-faced chef-owner of Dallas’ FT33. “I grew up with a huge garden, and although my brothers didn’t care about this stuff, I was always into food and horticulture.”

These fond childhood kitchen rituals led McCallister, a Scottsdale native, to his first restaurant job, stacking sandwiches with salami and mortadella at an Italian deli. As a teen, he was enamored with cooking, but not as much as partying. After a rebellious stretch, a newly focused McCallister found a fresh start in Dallas as a line cook for Stephan Pyles. Quickly, he rose through the ranks to executive chef—a shock considering his lack of formal training. “I intended to go to culinary school, but by the time I got around to it, I was already sous chef, so what was the point?” he recalls. “I just busted my ass and told myself I was going to work really hard. Because of some of my life choices, I just felt I was behind everyone else.”

After a while, when you’re not cooking under people, your true style emerges.

Being top dog at another man’s restaurant wasn’t fulfilling, so McCallister left to stage in some of the country’s most celebrated kitchens, including Daniel, McCrady’s, and Alinea. In 2012, when he opened uber-seasonal FT33 in Dallas’ Design District, critics were skeptical. But the self-taught chef’s ambitious dishes—ash-roasted beets, candied oxtail bao buns, and charred octopus with cashew miso—soon gained footing in the earthy, urban-industrial space.

“FT33 is a very good expression of my personality, even down to the little touches, like the skateboards and the graffiti,” he says. “It weaves in my interests subtly to create this fun, warm, welcoming environment that isn’t stuffy and pretentious, and it also takes food and beverage seriously.”

As McCallister wraps up year two of the restaurant, he says he’s finally found his groove, providing patrons with a comprehensive experience—from a barrel-aged Last Word at the bar, to autumnal butternut-squash ricotta gnocchi in ham brodo. “It’s going as smoothly as possible,” he says. “After a while, when you’re not cooking under people, your true style emerges and you just keep going.”

These days, McCallister is indeed charging ahead—on his own terms. From uni devoured fresh off the boat in Tasmania, to the simple chicken and dumplings mom made when he had a fever, here are 10 of the dishes that inspired McCallister to forge his own creative path in the kitchen.

Mom’s Derby Pie

mccallister_derbyThis is one of those nostalgic dishes where everyone thinks their mom’s version is better. During holidays, or on birthdays, she would make this and it was like the best warm chocolate-chip cookie out of the oven, but with toasted pecans and a pie crust. To this day, it’s my favorite slice of pie. (Photo: derbypie.com)

Papas, Gambas y Uni at La Tasquita de Enfrente (Madrid, Spain)


Tucked away in an alley in Madrid’s red light district, this restaurant is known for serving authentic Spanish food. Ironically, I think I got food poisoning from tripe here, but that didn’t stop me from eating this dish. It was super garlicky and mayonnaise-y potato salad with chilled and diced shrimp and a piled mound of uni all over it. I think there were chives on top, but I ate it too fast to remember that. It was a game-changer for me. It’s funny that most of the things I appreciate are the simplest. (Photo: teveoenmadrid.com)

King Fish-Caviar at Le Bernardin (New York, NY)


I was having pizza with Josh Ozersky last year and was deciding on where I should go grab a bite to eat for the evening. He said that I had to go to the bar at Le Bernardin and have this. I did, and that single dish changed the small amount of knowledge I have about food. Ripert’s style of cooking is so nice, using just a few ingredients. Once I ate this, it just clicked for me. Much of my cuisine now is centered on vegetables—it’s really hard to cook when there is so little to manipulate, because then you have to be perfect with what you do. That’s what makes it fun. (Photo: Facebook/Le Bernardin)

Uni and Fresh Wakame in Tasmania


I was off the coast of Hobart and went scuba diving with this guy James Ashmore—of Ashmore Foods—and his daughter. We harvested sea urchin, abalone, fresh kombu, and wakame for six hours. Then, we sat on the teeny boat and quick-blanched the wakame and wrapped it around urchin roe, and dipped abalone in soy. It was a transcendent experience, but again, pretty simple. After that, I didn’t know if I could ever eat uni again. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Corn, Corona Beans, Fermented Serrano, Gulf Crab at FT33


We had a great summer, with all this amazing produce from the farms. We had just gotten these awesome corona beans in, so I was specifically inspired to make this dish for FT33. I wanted the creaminess that coats your palate and didn’t know how I was going to get it, but it is one of those random Hail Marys that just came together. It sounds easy, yet it’s a complex infusion of flavors, with a popcorn aioli and a corn puree. (Photo: The Dallas Morning News)

Pollo Con Queso at Ajo Al’s


Ajo Al’s is a Sonoran Mexican place in Scottsdale serving a million bowls of warm, salty tortilla chips. I grew up on their Pollo Con Queso, which is almost like a chimichanga. They braise chicken with peppers, onions, and herbs, and then roll it up and deep fry it. Then they coat it with jalapeño cream cheese and cheddar, and boil it until it’s super crispy. When I’m in Scottsdale, I have to eat one. (Photo: Ajo Al’s)

Italian Subs at Guido’s


My first cooking job was at this Chicago-style Italian deli in Scottsdale, where they baked the most amazing loaves of semolina bread. I made a ton of basic, meaty Italian heroes and they were the shit, with a dressing of fresh lemon juice, olive oil, Parmesan, and pepper on top. The owner knew me as a kid, and I’m still in contact with him. There’s an Italian grocer in Dallas that does a really good job making subs, and it’s almost like Guido’s is here. (Photo: Food Network)

Mom’s Chicken and Dumplings


When one of us was sick, along with orange and lemon mulled Russian tea, my mom would make chicken and dumplings. She would throw the whole chicken in and cook it through. Sometimes there would be vegetables in the broth, sometimes there wouldn’t be. I’m technical, always measuring things out in grams, but my mom just cooks like a mom, eyeing everything out. It was super simple. Chicken is one of the few dishes we cooked together, and it’s a homey thing for me. (Photo: Dishmaps)

Roasted Windy Meadows Chicken Rubbed in Smoked Schmaltz


I know people say they don’t like to order chicken, but I always take the extra time to make an awesome dish out of it. I have been working on perfecting the most amazing roast chicken. In one of our early trials, I wanted to smoke the skins first. We brine the bird in salt for 12 hours, then rub it in smoked schmaltz for 30 minutes to get the perfect little bit of smokiness that adds an interesting layer. (Photo courtesy Robert Strickland (RS) Photography)

Peas, Violets, and Snails at Can Fabes


Eight years ago, I was eating at Can Fabes, the beautiful restaurant outside of Barcelona that was one of the first in Spain to receive a Michelin star. I remember the room I was sitting in and this amazing dish. The actual plate was even more amazing, though. It was made of fine china, but it was matte. There was a four-inch rim, the lip had a small dip in it, and there were a million holes drilled in it. It was a perfect dish and for some reason it’s stuck in my head. When I was looking into the plates for FT33, I went to a china, glass, and silver place near the restaurant and saw this exact plate. I had to have it. Then I noticed it was $400 wholesale and I realized I didn’t want it after all. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)