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Riverhead native Justin Ranghell has been hired as the first-ever executive chef at Montauk Distilling Co. in Riverhead. (Credit: Tara Smith)

You’ll soon be able to grab a bite to pair with cocktails at Montauk Distilling Co. in Riverhead.

Local chef Justin Ranghell, 26, is set to start up a food menu at the distillery as their first-ever executive chef.

“It’s definitely a big step for me. I’ve never had the keys to drive a food operation before,” Ranghell said. “I’m young in this industry to be doing what I’m doing. It’s a picture that I get to paint and I’m super thankful for the opportunity they’re giving me.”

If you have a sweet tooth on the East End, you may recognize Ranghell as the man behind Papi’s Pastries, an Instagram-based dessert business he launched out of his apartment kitchen last year.

But his passion and love for the culinary world began much earlier.

 “I grew up in the restaurant industry,” Ranghell said. “I’ve been the buser, the runner, the dishwasher, the bartender; you name it, I’ve done it in a restaurant.”

Whether it was working in a restaurant or baking cookies to bring in for his classmates in high school, food was a constant part of his life. However, he didn’t always know he wanted to be a chef.

While recuperating from an accident coming out of high school, Ranghell recalled how he spent hours watching the Food Network and falling in love with cooking. From there, he got a job in food service at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead. 

“I learned that food is power. By being a food server on the [hospital] floors, I noticed that whenever I gave these people food, how happy and thankful they got,” he said.

A 2014 graduate of Riverhead High School, Ranghell eventually attended culinary school at Suffolk County Community College before he was hired to work under chef Stephan Bogardus at the Halyard in Greenport. Working with Bogardus showed him new levels of cooking and the chance to work with someone he now considers his greatest mentor.

 “The most validating and humbling thing for me is to watch someone who was so intent on learning develop and do their own thing,” Bogardus said in a recent interview, describing Ranghell as “persevering, driven and talented.”

Though he initially launched Papi’s Pastries as a side project, Ranghell said the business took off: He was selling over 1,000 cannolis by his third week and ultimately left his full-time job at the Halyard to focus on that when the partnership with Montauk Distilling came along.

“All it takes is one person to say ‘You can do it, too,’ ” Ranghell said.

Soon after launching Papi’s Pastries last year, Ranghell was selling over 1,000 cannolis a week. (Credit: Tara Smith)

While the menu is still being developed, the focus will be a fresh take on bar foods using local ingredients and, of course, local spirits.

“He wants to showcase a lot of our spirits with the food,” explained head distiller Matt Ellis, who was treated to a preview tasting recently that included bourbon barbecue chicken wings and oysters with a gin mignonette using their house made spirits. “He’s a really creative guy and it’s a great partnership.”

In addition to oysters and wings, Ranghell said he’s also hoping to offer pizzas, a tuna poké bowl, farmer salad and a gourmet grilled cheese using sourdough bread made by Aiyana Edmund of 1610 Bakehouse.

He also hopes to continue showcasing his desserts in a casual way at the bar — and will continue running Papi’s Pastries.

Ranghell is currently working to get the kitchen space ready for a launch in mid-May, potentially a Mother’s Day brunch. Mother’s Day weekend will also mark the official opening of their second location: a tasting room on South Etna Avenue in Montauk. 

“It’ll be a big weekend for us,” said tasting room manager Danielle Sweeney. “It’ll be good to bring our name out there finally.”

The distillery will continue operating in Riverhead and the Montauk location will offer a small tasting room and beach shop, Sweeney said.

Ranghell said he’s most looking forward to the chance to flex his creativity in the kitchen — and the chance to remain in Riverhead. 

“Growing up, I sought to get out of my community because of the struggle,” he said. “But now I get to stay and do what I love to do everyday.”