Tuesday, December 17, 2013
FT33 sous chef Misti Norris: “Just let food be food”
Hear more about her experiences working with chef Matt McCallister below.
DALLAS The kitchen at FT33 won’t be serving meals for another several hours, but it’s already buzzing. The roar of a Vitamix tears through the restaurant, while chopping and conversation fill the gaps between the appliance’s frequent declarations of pureeing supremacy. Misti Norris smiles every time it interrupts her.
“We do a lot of pureeing,” she says. “Is that going to be a problem for the interview?”
Problems. It’s something FT33 doesn’t seem to have many of lately, at least not from the critics’ and diners’ seats. As the acclaim and praise for the restaurant seem to mount behind chef Matt McCallister, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Iris, FT33's kitchen is a creative haven for the local minded and those who seek ingenuity through techniques whose ultimate plating belies their simplicity. And it’s where Norris finds herself as sous chef, butchering 350-pound Yorkshire pigs and plating precious leaves of cruciferious vegetables. We asked Norris how she found herself here, what it’s like working with McCallister, and how to fix a chef’s version of writer’s block.
Entree Dallas: Thanks for talking with us, Misti. We’ll start with a little background — what road did you take to get here?
Misti Norris: Well, before this I worked at Nana under Anthony Bombachi for four years until they decided to change the restaurant into a steak house. Not that that’s not cool, it’s just that a steakhouse wasn’t where I wanted my career to go. So I told them that I was going to leave when the restaurant changed. During that time, Bombachi was doing an event and he met Matt and he told him, “Hey, I have a rounds cook who’s looking for a new job, and I heard you’re opening a restaurant.” And then Matt got in contact with me and I ended up working here. Then about six months into it, Brady [Anderson, FT33′s initial sous chef] left and at that time Bradford [Hodgkins] came in as chef de cuisine and I was sous chef.
So how does the hierarchy work with a chef, a sous chef, and a chef de cuisine? Who’s responsible for what?
Well, me and Matt do the menu development and work on food and new ideas, and Bradford is more of an administrative role. I do all of the ordering and I make sure like all of the product look good, Matt and I do line checks, and Bradford does inventory, matching invoices, all of that good stuff.
So cooking at FT33, you seem to be doing some pretty edgy stuff. Is about pushing the boundaries every day?
Well, it may not be very noticeable to a lot of people, but I think our food is very technique driven. There’s a lot of care and a lot of thought put into everything that we do here. A lot of the things we do are very classical, it's just maybe plated a little bit differently. Or maybe it’s just things that haven’t been used very often or aren’t very common because it's almost been forgotten. Things that may be old school now, but if you make it something new and different in some way, people will think it’s unfamiliar even though its been around forever – I think that's really cool. Like the charcuterie and fermentation; all of this stuff has been around for thousands of years. People didn’t do it for a long time and now everyone’s kind of catching on to this trend, but it’s not new. We’re all just improving on it.
So you’re basically embracing techniques that have developed since the beginning of time?
(Laughs) Exactly! I think that’s super important. I think thats what makes food really well-rounded. You’re embracing everything, you’re not just seeing tunnel vision of what's new, what’s the trend now? We just focus on making the most of an ingredient’s natural flavors and textures. We just kind of work with that instead of trying to mess with it so much.
So, 10 millenia worth of culinary technique. Seems like that sort of approach might require more than a little study.
It does! But it’s really awesome. I definitely spend a lot of my time reading and researching and looking online, and Matt obviously has a lot of really awesome creative abilities. There are a lot of times where I’ll be good with technique, but sometimes he may see something and say, “Well, why don’t we do this instead?” Then that kind of starts making me think and then it kind of takes it to something that I probably wouldn’t come up with on my own, so yeah, its really awesome. It’s very cool.
Really, working with Matt is eye opening. The way he views food, the way he views product and his knowledge of plants and farms and how they grow is really amazing. You know, I’ve always wanted and I’ve tried to work with a more natural approach, to try to take a more natural approach to food but his knowledge is infectious. Everyone here, all of the cooks, everybody wants to learn more about it because of how enthusiastic he is about it.
What’s one of the biggest things you’ve learned here?
Just to let food be food. Just let a vegetable be what it is, you know? Don’t mess with it very much, you don’t have to manipulate the flavor, just let it be good. If you’re working with a good product – whether that means you take weeks out of your time to find it – it’s worth it because you are giving out a better product, and that’s something that you should be really proud of.
What's your process for inspiration? Is there one, or does is just kind of happen?
Oh, it’s a lot of different things. Usually I go through this roller coaster of emotions. I’m a very emotional person, so that affects the way I’m thinking. I can see a certain color and it will make me think I want to make a dish that looks like that, or I want these colors there. I read a lot, so I might see someone do one idea and I might try to do something else with it. Even listening to music is a huge thing for me. If I’m ever feeling like I’ve got writer’s block, music helps me a lot too. Colors, music -
Wait … chefs get the equivalent of writers block?
Oh God, yes. So bad. I just got out of having it for like two weeks and I was going crazy! I’m usually pretty okay about coming up with different ideas, but it wasn’t happening for me. So music is a good fix for me, and being outside is probably one of the best things – going out in the morning and picking garnish for service is also really big.
Going out and picking garnish?
Yeah – around Dallas, you can find so many places if you know there’s a water source or even a grassy area. You just look around. Keep your eyes open and you can find so much.
Any spots in particular?
Yeah, but I’m not going to tell you (laughs).
Fair enough. So, back to the kitchen – if you had to choose another Dallas chef to work with besides Matt, who would it be?
Oh, I know this one. David [Uygur, of Lucia]. I love Dave. There’s something about him. I just want to talk to him forever about food and restaurants, and he’s actually the person who taught me how to break down a pig. When I was waiting for FT to open, Justin was working there and I got in touch with David, and I asked, “Do you mind if I come in? I’m super interested. I would love to learn how to do this!” He taught me the cuts, the coppa the guanciale, the lonza, everything. I’d go in and I’d help break it down, it was so great.
But I messed up a prosciutto, which I felt really really bad about. He told me to follow the bone down, he walked off and he came back and I was like holy shit! I cut all the way through! I had traced it all the way down and it was like peeling – I freaked out and felt so bad. He was like, “Luckily, I’ve got eight.” So we ended up making like something else with it, but I felt so bad, I’m there helping and I completely f*cked up. I felt really bad, but he was so cool about it.
Anyway, he’s the one who initially taught me all of these things. He showed me a few times and I just kind of ran with it. It was one of the first things I had ever done in cooking that I just got. It just clicked. Usually there are things you do the first time and you have to do them over and over, but for whatever reason, fabricating animals was just really easy – like I just understood it. I kind of fell in love with it and I hold him accountable for that moment! It’s his fault that I need to break down animals (laughs)! And I love him for that.
You’ve worked with some pretty accomplished chefs in Dallas. Any hopes of having your own place in the future?
I absolutely do. That’s definitely one of my long term goals.
I want a butcher shop. I think it would be awesome to have an amazing butcher shop in Dallas that does something different. Almost similar to Cochon in New Orleans. I would love that. That would be very cool for me, I think I would be happy. We just picked up these two pigs for FT and that was a relationship I had formed through another farmer – talking to them for months; when I first talked to her, she said they still had like three or four more months. I’ve been so excited – I’ve been waiting and calling her and that whole thing is really fun to me. It’s really amazing these relationships you form and I would love to have that but have it for a butcher shop and a restaurant, even. I think that would be amazing.
We’ll let you get back to the kitchen, Misti, so you can hone those skills for the butcher shop! Thanks again for the time.
Of course – it was fun!
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