Tony Castillo has become one of the most exciting young chefs in the Houston food scene.
The 33-year-old executive chef of Mastrantos, 927 Studewood St. #100, was recently promoted to the role of partner, along with restaurant founders Mari and Xavier Godoy.
Growing up in Cypress with a Filipino mother and Mexican father who also is a chef, Castillo said he gained an appreciation for Houston’s multicultural food scene. He spent summers in rural parts of Mexico like Aguascalientes and learned about cultivating crops and milking cows, skills that helped prepare him for a culinary education at the Art Institute of Houston.
“When I visited my dad, everyone would say, ‘You’re little Tony, you’re the chef-to-be,’” Castillo said. “So it was a tall order to stand up to. It was kind of like a competition, from that standpoint.”
When Castillo began working in a professional kitchen, he had three clear goals in mind: The first was to become a sous chef by age 25, which he accomplished at 23 at The St. Regis Hotel in River Oaks after starting with Daily Grill in Uptown.
During his first job at Daily Grill, Castillo said his boss told him not to think like a cook, but rather, to “think like a chef” and pay attention to detail, thinking about the big picture and the future, not just the immediacy of preparing each dish.
Secondly, Castillo hoped to hold the title of executive chef by age 30, a goal he achieved at 27, the highlight of a seven-year stint at Tiny Boxwoods in River Oaks.
After a fateful introduction from a mutual friend of the Godoys, Castillo connected with the couple’s vision for Mastrantos, and joined their team in 2018.
“Tony and Xavier are the dreamers,” Mari said.
Xavier said he knew he could tap into Castillo’s potential by encouraging him to think outside the box and push the boundaries outside the commercially popular comfort zones he said many menus are tailored to.
“The first menu that Tony brought in was very basic,” Xavier said. “It was very commercial, in a way. We said to him, ‘Tony, the way that you express yourself through food, it doesn’t show up on this menu.’ He understood what we were looking for, and he opened up and he said, ‘Can I go that way?’ (I believe) that’s actually why we met, (there are) no coincidences in life, and that’s why we’re friends now.”
Castillo went back to the drawing board, and the Godoys were impressed with the determination he showed to improve his craft.
“Most chefs, when you’re working under certain owners and certain places, you kind of have to follow a guideline when it’s not your concept,” Castillo said. “When I created that first menu, you’re still kind of in that box of, ‘Let me give you the basics.” I was like, ‘What do you mean? This is what everybody wants.’ And (the Godoys) said, ‘We don’t want everyone.’”
One example of Castillo’s innovation and the creative freedom he has been able to unleash with the blessing of the Godoys is the Chorizo Carbonara, a dish he said was inspired by the rich Mexican-American cuisine scene in Houston.
“(The Chorizo Carbonara) infuses two types of cultures that you would probably never see anywhere (together),” Castillo said. “It’s not so much a Mexican dish, and it’s not so much an Italian dish. I would call it a Houstonian dish. You can’t go anywhere without eating chorizo in Houston. We took a traditional Italian dish and made it our own.”
The three partners are aligned in their goal to keep pushing the envelope and experimenting to match their tagline of “global tastes.” Xavier said he wants to be “where Houston is going, rather than where it’s been.”
Castillo hopes he can maintain a connection to the Heights while also expanding Mastrantos' brand around the Houston area.
“I want to be the neighborhood restaurant in the Heights,” Castillo said. “When you have a neighborhood restaurant, (the residents) defend their restaurant and love it. That’s their heart and soul. Throughout these next coming months and years, we’d like to see that base grow. Let people in Katy, The Woodlands and Sugar Land know that if they want to eat great food, they can come to Mastrantos.”