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Working: Laura Lopez of Carissa’s

Tue, 05/07/2024 - 12:19
Laura Lopez is an integral member of the kitchen team at Carissa’s Bakery in East Hampton.
Durell Godfrey

Laura Lopez came to this country from Ecuador in 1999 knowing little English but with three years of hotel management studies under her belt. Twenty-five years later, having taught herself English and worked at a variety of jobs while raising her three children, she is an integral member of the kitchen staff at Carissa’s on Pantigo Road in East Hampton.

“She’s really amazing and she’s invaluable,” said Lori Chemla, an owner of the eatery along with her husband, Alexandre Chemla, and its namesake, Carissa Waechter. “I don’t know what we would do without Laura.” She makes all of Carissa’s soups and dips, oversees a staff that includes the sandwich department, and “also acts as the head chef when we don’t have one in house,” Ms. Chemla said.

“When I cook, I always do it with love and passion,” Ms. Lopez said. She is largely self-taught in the kitchen, which makes sense for someone who grew up in a family of seven,

but she said that Ms. Chemla had taught her a lot about Middle Eastern and North African dips, such as hummus, babaganoush, and the Tunisian pepper dip. As she became more involved in the day-to-day machinations of the restaurant, Ms. Lopez said, she also learned a lot from Alex Lee, a chef who came on weekends at the beginning to teach the kitchen staff. She does not use recipes, she said, but rather relies on her own instinct and taste when she is cooking.

Years before Carissa’s opened and six months after arriving in the States, Ms. Lopez got a job at Villa Italian Specialties, working for five years for the Naclerio family and staying on for two more after they sold it. There she learned English words for the various meats and cheeses to go in the sandwiches customers asked her to make, and Carmela Naclerio also encouraged her to learn to read customers’ lips, a valuable skill in a busy and noisy lunch spot.

She worked as a housekeeper and cook for Ms. Chemla and her husband before she transitioned to Carissa’s, first delivering Ms. Waechter’s famous bread from South Fork Kitchens to restaurants on the North and South Forks, baby in tow, and soon working in its first location on Newtown Lane making soups, sandwiches, and food to go. Now, all three of her children — her pride and joy — are almost all grown up: Ricky, 21, and Amy, 18, are in college, and Vicky, 12, is still at home.

When Carissa’s opened its second venue on Pantigo Road in 2019, Ms. Lopez stepped up to do anything that was needed, whether working the cash register or making sandwiches or selling tinned fish, Greek olive oil, and other retail items. When the restaurant did pop-up dinner service, she would work until 11. During the pandemic, she became indispensable to the day-to-day operations.

As for what the future holds, Ms. Lopez said, “I want to continue cooking and also travel, get to know other places . . . and I’d like to finish my studies in hotel administration and maybe open a hotel in my country. When you work in a hotel, everything is connected.”

Working: Laura Lopez of Carissa’s

Laura Lopez is a key member of the kitchen staff at Carissa's Bakery in East Hampton, making soups, dips, and sometimes acting as head chef.

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