SLINGERLANDS — By 22, he had already been head chef at two restaurants. Now at 25, chef Michael Mastrantuono has made his most ambitious move yet as the new head chef at Roux restaurant in Slingerlands.
“I want to have a Michelin Star here in the next year,” said the chef. “I think there’s nothing in Albany or even Saratoga that’s going to be doing what I’m doing.”
Where two weeks ago Roux restaurant-goers were being served burgers and chicken wings, they are now eating butter-fried oysters with foie gras and caviar, or roasted chicken breast with asparagus, red delicious apples and bacon lardon, thanks to the new chef.
“Over time I’ve developed a lot of signature dishes. Every single one is one I’ve gotten home run reviews on, things I’ve tested with time – the best dishes in my arsenal,” all of which are now on the menu at Roux, said Mastrantuono.
He’ll be sourcing all ingredients locally, with a restaurant-exclusive garden located just off-site, frequent trips made to local farmer’s markets and all other ingredients sourced from local farms.
Mastrantuono has full reins of the restaurant from its owners, Marisa and Everett Teller, who reside in Bethlehem.
Roux restaurant opened nearly two years ago in the Vista Technology Park in Slingerlands, in sight of Shop-Rite grocery store. Mastrantuono now faces the challenge of revamping a restaurant that has struggled to make a name for itself in a region that is not known for its budding culinary scene.
At 19, Mastrantuono established himself in the Albany food scene as head chef of his family’s restaurant, Indulge in Latham, which closed after 10 months, then as head chef at another family-owned restaurant, Milestone in Glenmont, which closed in August 2015 after five years of business.
Both businesses began by flipping face at former failed restaurants- a known recipe for disaster in a business that is already difficult to succeed in. By the end of both restaurants’ lifespans, the Mastrantuono were receiving rave reviews, but were not generating the commercial success needed. The experiences left the young chef with a chip on his shoulder, which he’s ready to channel into his next venture.
“This time I said I’m going to come in and close right away. I said just give me five days, so we closed temporarily, and I came up with a whole new menu and switched around the kitchen.”
Farm to table is the concept, but it is a term the chef uses begrudgingly, as so many chefs brand their own food as “farm to table” without ever really committing to the concept, unwilling to make those 6 a.m. farmer’s market trips as Mastrantuono and his staff are.
“We’re doing old school cooking – everything ourselves,” he said. “We break down our proteins here, we’re buying whole fishes, making our own ketchup, our own bread. Anything we can possibly make, we’ll make. Everything else we’ll buy locally.”
After getting his feet wet as head chef of an already established restaurant, MezzaNote Ristorante on Western Avenue in Guilderland, where he was the youngest head chef in the restaurant’s history and the youngest head chef in all of Albany, Mastrantuono peaked after three years in the same role, making the same dishes every day. He was ready for a new challenge. So when his friend and former head bartender at Milestone, Angela Carkner, manager of Roux and the daughter of the restaurant’s owners, offered him full control of Roux’s kitchen, the offer was too good to pass up.
“She’s just as good with drinks as I am with food,” said Mastrantuono of Carkner. Which, coming from the confident chef, is undoubtedly high praise.
“He’s crazy and I love it,” said Carkner of Mastrantuono and his ambitious plans for success.
Carkner is studying to become a cicerone, the beer equivalent to a sommelier. Thanks to her, the restaurant holds an impressive list of beers and wines, but mixed drinks are her specialty.
“When people go out to eat it’s like Chinese food – they always get the same thing, so I’m trying to push them out of their comfort zone with our drinks. We don’t have Coors or Bud, but we can recommend a Druthers beer or an Ommegang or one of our cocktails,” said Carkner, who has taken reins of the restaurant, while her parents have taken more of a silent financial role.
“With all the hard work we’ve put in, we don’t want it to be mediocre by any means,” she said of the restaurant rebranding. “We hope this thing turns into a destination for people – locally and throughout the Capital Region.”
Carkner had been trying to get Mastrantuono to Roux since the restaurant opened, but the chef was weighing his options.
“If I didn’t do this, I was hitting the road and going to France. That’s it. It was here or France,” he said. “It was close. I put my house up for sale. That or I was going to Atlanta, where the food scene is huge, and they might be able to appreciate some of the things I wanted to cook. Because the food I’m doing is going to be trendy.”
Restaurant goers will be able to recognize ingredients he is using at Rough, but he said, the preparation and plating will be new for many restaurant goers in the region, making the restaurant a destination for those who want to try the latest food trends.
The young chef still thinks about traveling to France, and eventually opening a restaurant of his own somewhere. He still doesn’t know how he came to become a chef at 19.
“I really don’t know. I hit the ground running,” he said with a laugh when asked about his young start. “I grew up in the business. My father was in the business. My uncles were all in the restaurant business. I managed my first restaurant in Greenville at 16. So, when a lot of kids were playing baseball, I was making ravioli.”
Despite worries about the Albany food scene and whether locals are ready for the daring menu he has crafted, Mastrantuono remains ambitious. “I want it to be so busy that it takes two months to get a reservation,” he claims.
Roux is open for brunch, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Monday – Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday – Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, visit rouxny.com.