Michael Matassa and Debi Bell-Matassa call their scratch-made cuisine at Alchemy Elements cross-cultural and multi-cultural but also local.
“We manipulate raw products and put magic on the plate,” Bell-Matassa says, in reference to traditional alchemy science that mysteriously transforms base metals into gold.
“We take raw, fresh ingredients and create gold on the plate,” Matassa adds.
Together, they make “magic” and the results are exciting both to the eyes and the palate. Menus selections like crab cakes with a “twist,” a harvest grain mustard crème, steak alchemy in a Dijon Worcestershire brandy cream sauce, or a half rack of lamb in mustard herb crust highlight their offerings. The pair amends the menu every three months to add seasonal touches.
The Matassas prefer to describe their use of ingredients as locally sourced, a nod to top American chef Thomas Keller. Sure, they prefer including locally grown produce from their partnered local farms. Some even grow specific vegetables for the restaurant like lettuce raised hydroponically year-round. They stock up on summer vegetables like Maryland corn, freezing a supply of up to 15 bushels a summer for use during the non-harvesting seasons so that they can roast fresh corn all year. They peel and freeze locally grown tomatoes for use in stocks and recipes.
“We buy local ingredients when they are locally in season,” says Bell-Matassa. “Every place in the world has its own season … Sometimes I want the biggest, fattest, juiciest
berry I can get.”
Logistics have changed today’s food service dynamic, Matassa remarks.
“Grocery stores stock things you never saw before,” says Matassa, who sports the words Alchemy and Chef on his tattooed arms. “And, they can transport things faster than ever. You can buy from around the country, all over the world, and (it is) fresh.”
That means they may get crabmeat from Virginia, oysters from Hollywood, Md., and other ingredients from other states. It keeps their menu fresh, a necessity as everything from ice cream to vinaigrette dressings are made in house.
The couple also worked hard to create the perfect atmosphere at Alchemy Elements. Their “cool and eclectic vibe” is reminiscent of a trendy New York or Washington, D.C
. haunt, yet it is located in the comfort of Harford County, in the Bel Air Town Center, 528 Baltimore Pike. Classic wood furniture accented with hand pounded custom copper accents, and a bar with custom-made onyx panels with Brazilian stone and wide and leather bar stools provides the casual but eclectic feel that enables customers in khaki shorts and a t-shirt feel comfortable seated near a couple on a specialty date clothed in a party dress and suit.
Locals know Alchemy Elements is also the place to go for nightly specialty fare. Tuesdays’ BBB (Burger Bourbon and Beer) for just $15 and Thursdays’ TMT (Tacos Margarita and Tamale) also at $15 provide a chance to taste their creativity for a great price. Saturday and Sundays offer a bottomless mimosa and Bloody Mary opportunity during brunch, offered both days to accommodate the schedules of busy patrons. The brunch features a special menu made to order with crepes, omelets, waffles and more. There’s also live music on Wednesdays and a Progressive Happy Hour with tiered food pricing from 3:30-6:30 weekdays.
Alchemy Elements secured a catering license last spring, and with a customizable menu, they can fulfill any taste requirements for all special events. There’s also the Tailgate Takeover, which provides three “downs” or options of appetizers and salads from chicken ribbons to chopped salad to sliders to crab dip, at $100 for 10 guests.
The pairing of the husband and wife ownership team dates back to 1990 when both worked at Barry & Elliott’s in the Hyatt Regency Baltimore. He, a sous chef, and she, a part-time manager and server, found love over polenta.
Both Harford County natives, they longed to open their own restaurant, which came in the form of the popular Fusion Grille in Fallston in 1998. After 9-11 and the subsequent fall of the economy, Bell-Matassa fought breast cancer. As they also endured a 30-percent drop in sales, they sold the restaurant to concentrate on her health. While Matassa filled a corporate sales position with Sysco, his experience helped clients with creating menus, training staff and negotiating food costs. After beating cancer, Bell-Matassa also returned to the corporate sector.
They took the plunge again and opened Alchemy, on 36th Street in Baltimore in 2010. They tackled many obstacles – minute kitchen, challenging layout and parking difficulties just a few – and operated the 68-seat eatery with a four-seat bar upstairs successfully on The Avenue in Hampden for six years.
Wanting a more local place to call their own, they opened Alchemy Elements in December 2015, to a packed house of friends and followers, schoolmates from long ago and family. They attribute the March closing of the Baltimore restaurant to the economy and the location’s logistical challenges.
Today, in addition to their hometown restaurant and craft bar, the pair also operates Fork and Knife Consulting, helping other restaurateurs manage such challenges as labor costs, networking, financing, food costs and retirement planning. Sharing their knowledge while helping others is rewarding, according to Bell-Matassa.
“Michael is an amazing chef – he runs a tight ship – and I’ve got the cleanest kitchen around,” she says. “It’s neat to show other people how to keep things clean, keep products rotated, and give advice on wine lists, service points, and HR.”
Working together all day, “crushing” crazy, long hours is tough, but separating work life and home life keeps their marriage fresh and successful, Bell-Matassa explains.
“You can’t go home and talk about what happened all day because your partner is on the pillow next to you,” she says. “When we walk in the door at home, we’re a couple. Nobody has my back like this man, no one cares more about my health and my life like this man, and there’s nobody I would respect or trust more than him.”
When they’re not at the restaurant, they are reading industry magazines and cookbooks about new trends in bar-keeping or new fish and how to prepare it. They spend time with their three-year-old granddaughter, who is “Poppy’s girl,” according Bell-Matassa, who says there’s nothing like seeing a “hard line chef in the kitchen turn to melted butter when that little girl is around.” I95
Photos by Amy Jones amyjphoto.com