words by Sarah Borruto
photos by Andrew Theodorakis
It’s not every day you walk into a restaurant and see an 18-year-old in the back, helping run the kitchen.
Madison Bender at Maui Chop House in Rocky Point is the exception.
Bender, 18, has been a sous-chef at Maui Chop House — located at 49 Route 25A — since August 2020.
The Rocky Point native says she’s been working in restaurants since she was 14, as a hostess, waitress, and busser, but always had the goal in mind to one day move her way up to the kitchen.
Bender graduated from the Eastern Suffolk BOCES Milliken Technical Center’s culinary arts program in June 2020, and has since then defied the boundaries of this male-dominated industry, and as a teenager.
Bender landed her first job as a cook at Ralph’s Fishing Station and Marina in Mount Sinai before securing her current gig at Maui Chop House.
The Hawaiian restaurant discovered Bender through Rocky Point High School, and management was immediately impressed.
On top of being a sous-chef, Bender also juggles the responsibilities of a student at Suffolk County Community College, where she’s studying education.
“I’m hoping to stay here as long as I can and get as much experience,” Bender said. “When I get older I want to teach kids. My BOCES teachers really helped me out a lot, so I’m hoping I can do that for someone else.”
Although she sees her Maui Chop House position as a great learning experience, owner and head chef John Louis, 44, says the restaurant has learned a lot from her in return.
“She’s great; she comes up with specials and new menu items,” Louis said. “She’s got a ton of energy, which I lack these days. She brings a very welcoming youthfulness to the whole atmosphere.”
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One recent item Bender whipped up is fried pickle chips.
“I try to create what I think kids my age would go for,” Bender said. “Most of the time when you go out to places like this, there’s not a lot of things that target younger people; it’s mostly expensive items. So I try to come up with what my age bracket would order.”
Bender says her specials have already brought in a younger crowd, especially her own friends who come in just for her food.
Louis says the kitchen has had a lot of turnover — not uncommon for a new restaurant — but when Maddison came along, they became the dynamic duo.
“She’s like an extension of me,” Louis said. “We just clicked right away and we know what the other one is going to do before they do it.”
According to the U.S. Census, only about 23.9 percent of chefs and head cooks are female.
Yet the kitchen at Maui Chop House is predominantly female. Louis says that he’s actually the only male cook in the kitchen.
The same data shows that the average age of chefs and head cooks is about 40, but the humble teen handles her position while juggling school.
But, she says, she has her Maui Chop House crew supporting her every step of the way.
“It gets a little nerve-wracking sometimes when we’re busy,” Bender said. “But John has helped me so much. He really does so much for me. I owe my success to him.”
With her sister in mind
Arianna’s Buffalo Chicken Sandwich is another menu item Bender created, inspired by her 16-year-old sister who was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 12 and also suffers from Endometriosis.
And her employers have her back.
For every buffalo chicken sandwich the restaurant sells, 20 percent of the profits will go towards a Go Fund Me that is raising money to help pay for surgery.
It’s not required to buy a Buffalo chicken sandwich to donate, contributions through cash, check, or Venmo to @Maddy-Bender-1 are also accepted.