Chef Maggie Huff will never forget Betty Crocker’s International Cookbook. A treasure trove of recipes from faraway countries and glossy full-color pictures, it fascinated her as a child.
“I was a geeky kid. Seriously,” she says, “you’d hand me a book and whatever it was, I’d read it. I’d read cookbooks cover to cover like novels. I spent a lot of time with that book.” After school, since she and her little brother weren’t allowed outside until their mother got home, the kitchen was their playground; afternoons were spent baking cookies and whipping up homemade dinners. They worked through the Betty Crocker book, learning to form egg rolls and make wontons from scratch. Although she trained for six months at The French Culinary Institute in New York, where she learned more delicate culinary arts like working with chocolate and spinning flowers out of sugar, her true training ground was her childhood kitchen.
Her territory these days is a little sleeker. She is the pastry chef at FT33, Chef Matt McCallister’s reinvention of fine dining in the Dallas Design District and this year her work earned her a nomination for a James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. FT33 presents farm-to-table cuisine in lyrical combinations and recently took their seasonal concept a step further by limiting themselves to only ingredients grown and produced in Texas.
Steak, potatoes and crème brûlée have loving homes in every other fine dining restaurant in Dallas. But they’re not on the menu at FT33. In FT33’s revolutionary kitchen, odd couples like butternut squash and Mustang grape meet on the plate—and are put on the dessert menu. Though their methods are traditional, even old school, the results are unprecedented. Once she made a pecan pie, which Matt examined, tasted and then suggested she blend into a purée.
“I do much more than just pastry,” Chef Maggie Huff says when we meet at FT33 to talk. “I’ve learned how to butcher since I’ve been here. Last time we had a pig I broke down half of it myself. I was making pasta before you walked in.” She describes open conversation in the kitchen where everyone is free to chime in with their own ideas. When we meet I can actually hear the noise from the kitchen, a mixture of teasing, instruction and suggestion as the crew forms hundreds of ricotta-filled cappelletti.
Chef Maggie breaks it down: “As far as the growing season in Texas, we’re dealing with winter squash, butternut and acorn squash already. Strawberries—in New York you can get strawberries right now and they’re beautiful, but here, strawberry season is very early spring. We’re lucky if it lasts for a month.”
Growing seasons in Texas are notoriously short and unpredictable, so she plans ahead. “If I get 40 pounds of figs, that’s all I get until next year.” She uses some fresh, but saves most with ancient preservation techniques, the “old ways of doing things,”
“I’ve had to rethink how I build a dessert. [I don’t get] a lot of the things most pastry chefs depend on—chocolate, coconut, vanilla, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios—I get pecans. I get a lot of pecans.” She laughs. “I have to be more creative.”
Ignoring what she doesn’t have, Chef Maggie focuses on what she does. She has Texas olive oil and jujubes—Chinese red dates that grow wild in Texas and which she has spread out on baking sheets, drying in the sun. There are plenty of tomatoes thanks to the bountiful tomato harvest Texas enjoyed this year. She has wild Mustang grapes, preserved blueberries, popcorn and melon.
The result: a buttery ricotta Bavarian tart on a wholesome oat crumble topped with Maggie’s preserved figs.
Or: a grape and butternut squash torte—conceptually akin to pumpkin pie—with sprinkles of pecan toffee and a stunning grape sorbet.
“I hear people say that they usually don’t like dessert, but they like mine because they aren’t too sweet,” she explains. Words like “crazy” and “picky” no longer exist in her world.
This year, Chef Maggie’s nomination for a James Beard Foundation award proved she can thrown down with the best of them—and do it without chocolate or sugar flowers.
“I had no idea. Not until that list came out.” Every year, the James Beard Foundation releases a list of their nominees. A place on that list is one of the highest honors any chef can receive. “I was actually looking through the list to see who else in Dallas had been nominated among my chef friends,” she says. “I just about fell over when I saw my name.”
The James Beard Foundation only nominated 20 pastry chefs, and Chef Maggie was the only Dallas chef in her category. She had met a major career goal and fulfilled a lifelong dream.
“Whoever nominated me, however that happened, thank you, thank you, thank you,” she says fervently.
FT33’s standards are undeniably high and now that she’s been recognized nationally, Chef Maggie finds many eyes on her.
“For me, it’s not stressful. It’s invigorating,” she says. “To be a good chef you have to be able to think on your feet and adapt. Things go wrong. Maybe a farmer calls in the morning to tell you that bad weather knocked out a whole crop. It’s all right; we have the afternoon and we’ll figure something else out. I think about what I can substitute for it—or do I even want to substitute it? Maybe I’ll do something entirely different. In order to progress and grow, change is necessary. It’s interesting and exciting.”
Chef Maggie Huff looks up expectantly. “Is that it?” She brushes off her apron and walks back behind the counter to keep working.