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(Credit: Paul Squire)

After digging into the lobster roll, the tuna steak or the crab dip appetizer at the Old Mill Inn, you might ask to send your compliments to the chef. But, strangely, there isn’t one to thank.

For the first time in at least a dozen years, the restaurant has no head chef. There’s no sous chef either. 

General manager Alexandria Lopez said she and co-owner Bia Lowe had trouble finding someone to fill the seasonal position, so they decided instead to hire four local students — including a Riverhead High School senior, a Mattituck native and two local culinary students — to serve as line cooks, giving them a paid gig and experience working and cooking in a restaurant kitchen.

And the students are thriving, said Ms. Lopez, who oversees them in the kitchen.

“They’re almost pros now,” she said. “So far, they’re exceeding my expectations. They take a lot of pride in what they’re doing and they constantly want to learn new things and get better and perfect the craft of cooking all the things we have on our menu.”

Ms. Lowe said the experience — which is unlike anything she’s done before at the restaurant — has been like “stepping off the lip of a cliff.”

“But there was a wonderful net there,” she said. “There’s a real sense of camaraderie and friendship and love. They’re proud of what they’re doing and they’re proud of each other.”

Ms. Lowe said it was important to find local students to teach, adding that the four line cooks — Ashley Becker, Jiar Pereyda, Sharrise Martin and Victoria Perez — have learned to expertly cook everything on a menu that ranges from classic fried fish options to more experimental items like Lobster Tater Tot Poutine and Penne à la Bia.

“Working with our manager, they’re [gaining] experience,” Ms. Lowe said. “And it’s certainly working out for us, because everyone’s really liking the food.”

(Credit: Paul Squire)
The four go to work last Friday. (Credit: Paul Squire)

For all four cooks, the work behind the grill at Old Mill Inn is their first professional restaurant experience.

“It’s pretty different, transitioning from Wendy’s to a traditional restaurant,” said Ms. Becker, a 20-year-old from Mount Sinai who studies baking at Suffolk County Community College. “It’s an amazing feeling, getting that rush, prepping the food and the fastness.”

Ms. Becker learned of the open position through a job fair at her school, and said she was inspired by Ms. Lopez, who, despite being only 24 years old herself, has already managed several restaurants.

“She’s an inspiration,” Ms. Becker said.

Mr. Pereyda, 20, of Holbrook is also a culinary student at Suffolk County Community College. “JP,” as he’s called in the kitchen, had job offers on the table from other restaurants, but decided to make his start at the Old Mill Inn.

“Something told me to stay here,” he said. “It’s a real exciting experience, especially in here. [Ms. Lopez] is always motivating us and encouraging us.”

Not all the line cooks aspire to be chefs. Ms. Martin — an 18-year-old Riverhead High School senior — said cooking has always been a part of her family in Flanders. She plans to study chemistry in college and said she’s enjoying her time at the Old Mill Inn simply because she loves to cook.

“I never really cooked seafood before, so it was kind of fun to do it,” she said. “The people are really friendly and I’m learning to do stuff that I haven’t done before.”

(Credit: Paul Squire)
(Credit: Paul Squire)

At 22, Ms. Perez is the oldest member of the line cook team. A Mattituck High School graduate, she said she wants to get into event planning. After seeing an ad for the opening in The Suffolk Times, Ms. Perez said she realized a spot in the kitchen at the Old Mill Inn could be a first step.

While she enjoys cooking, Ms. Perez said it’s the camaraderie among the young cooks that keeps each grueling shift fun.

“We all just kind of joke around with each other and keep things light,” she said.

As the dinner rush began Friday afternoon, the crew was hard at work. Ms. Becker prepped a batch of fries as Ms. Perez cleaned shrimp. Mr. Pereyda manned the grill and gathered supplies while Ms. Martin prepped a salad.

The crew would shift places throughout the night; each of them has trained to work every part of the kitchen, so they can adapt to the needs of the restaurant as customers stream in.

Still, despite the heat of the kitchen stoves, the crew was smiling.

“Every night at the Old Mill it’s them cooking,” Ms. Lopez said. “[It’s] the busiest part of the day and they’re executing it flawlessly.”