Chef James Lenzi of The Mill, Spring Lake NJ
The Mill, (formerly the Old Mill Inn) at Spring Lake Heights, has been through a renaissance since its inception back in 1938 when original owner Karl Kost, opened the doors of the rustic inn. Nestled on a lake shared by fowl life, it soon became a mainstay for local and vacationing guests craving the ultimate dining experience. When turned over to subsequent owners, Ray Kraemer and then Joe Amiel, the restaurant matured with the tranquil view of water, flora and fauna. Whether from the large picture windows in the dining areas or the lovely garden path leading to a gazebo used for private wedding ceremonies, this romantic lookout has allured its guests over the years as a perfect compliment to any meal or celebration.
Betty Bennett has grown through the changes as a full-time, exclusive employee of 43 years at the location. Ms. Bennett, a sought-after waitress from the old school of service, has witnessed countless marriages of employees, guests and other memorable events since she came on board in 1964. She has also observed the transformations that have taken place through changes in venue and ownership. Now with owners Tamar Tolchin and Anthony Cirillo at the helm, and Executive Chef James Lenzi running the show in the kitchen, Bennett, who describes The Mill as my family, may never consider leaving her home away from home.
The Mill has metamorphosed under the direction of Tolchin and Cirillo. The space, menus and venues are all updated yet maintain the best attributes of its history. Their hands-on approach and meticulous attention to detail has been polished and refined since they took ownership in 2001. For Executive Chef James Lenzi, the natural progression of change, both subtle and obvious is second nature, given the places and spaces he has been.
Lenzi, an honors graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, first became smitten with the culinary world when on a cruise as a teen. Born and raised in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, he was impressed by his observations of Garde Manger chefs working on their ornate displays for the ships elaborate meals. This led him to pursue employment in an upscale country club kitchen near home. While enjoying hands-on work from prep to finished dishes, he became curious about the origin and life cycle of food. Lenzi would research the what, why and where of a particular item, then trace the food in his head while preparing it. His Dad, an owner of a butcher shop, voiced his concerns about a culinary profession for his son when Lenzi expressed his desire to study at the CIA. Knowing first-hand the implications of hard work and long hours associated with the food industry, the elder Lenzi asked him apply to local Philadelphia colleges also. Two days prior to move-in day at Saint Joseph’s University, Lenzi got word of his acceptance at the CIA and off he went at 17, to pursue his dream career.
Lenzi learned and developed his skills amongst his peers with whom he still remains in close contact today. An instructor, Chef Claudio Peppini took a liking to him and would stay after class with him to refine his skills. He subsequently offered Lenzi the opportunity to apprentice in restaurants in Rome, Sardinia and Tripoli. Lenzi spent 18 months doing just that, which included the opportunity to help open The Jockey Club in Tripoli. During the course of his European experience, Lenzi sharpened his knowledge of classical Italian and French cuisine. He also received a bonus – an unexpected, education of the international foods familiar to employees he worked with of Pakistani, Lebanese and Middle Eastern decent. When political conflict arose in Tripoli, Lenzi packed his bags and headed home, working in the Philadelphia area before traveling up the turnpike to New York City.
Manhattan proved to be the place where Lenzi thickened his resume with top-rated jobs, restaurants and accomplishments. Starting as Chef de Cuisine at The Terrace Restaurant he then moved on to famed Lutece under the direction of hands-on owner and chef Andre Soltner. Lenzi became Saucier amidst working with quail, foie gras, sweet breads, morels and chanterelles, back when these items were rarely offered on a menu and rarely executed well. After a three year run, Lenzi moved on to become Executive Chef at one of Manhattan’s historic restaurants, Caf Des Artistes. This country-French elegant bistro known for its romantic setting, excellent food and Howard Chandler Christy nude murals is owned by noted restaurant consultant, food historian and chef George Lang. Lenzi describes Lang as a walking encyclopedia on food, who had the same approach as Soltner – serve food that you would eat on a Sunday night, while not making it a chore to order. Lenzi held his position for seven years until he was ready for a change. With his resume selected from 2000 applicants to open a new restaurant across from Carnegie Hall, Lenzi had his first encounter with The Mill. The owner at the time, Joe Amiel was expanding his restaurant repertoire. He was on the search for an Executive Chef to open the Symphony Cafe, a soon-to-be hot spot for artists, publishers and literary types. Amiel invited him to The Old Mill in September of 1988 for an interview for the New York position. They opened a month later to great reviews.
In 1995 Amiel decided to sell and Lenzi was going to join him in New Jersey. But as fate would have it, while pushing his son in a stroller down Columbus Avenue, Lenzi bumped into a gentleman coming out of a restaurant which sparked his curiosity. In passing on this familiar route, he noted that the busiest nights were always Thursday and Sunday and questioned the gentleman about it. He learned Levana Restaurant an upscale, non-dairy, Glatt Kosher restaurant was in need of an Executive Chef. Lenzi, not quite ready to leave the city just yet, assumed the position. He was immediately embraced by the community with open arms. He described his stay there as a wonderful experience, and remained for several years until a serious kitchen accident had him off his feet for an extended period of time.
During his extensive recovery, Joe Amiel contacted Lenzi when learning of his fate. No longer the owner of the Spring Lake Heights location, he updated Lenzi on the
happenings at The Mill. With Tolchin and Cirillo looking to refine the menu, Amiel persuaded Lenzi to meet with them to offer his expertise. Lenzi describes that first meeting as a click, and was impressed by the genuine everyone-is-treated-like-family sense conveyed. He agreed to extend himself in the kitchen for a season. That season isn’t over yet.
Lenzi has gradually updated the classic American cuisine, reflective of his years of experience. In the coming weeks the menu will be redefined again with a stronger steak-house influence and the introduction of more fish and seafood. The lunch menu will also be modified to include a more casual, lighter, contemporary twist on regional American standards. Although some mainstay, original Mill recipes are scattered through the menus, enticing new fresh selections are being introduced continuously tempting even regulars to deviate from their old habits.
As the perfectionist that he is Lenzi hand-picks everything, from the Prime, dry-aged steaks to choice ingredients flown in from around the world. He seeks out local fishermen and organic farmers for their seasonal best as well. Additionally precious, short-run offerings, such as ramps or fiddleheads are highlighted at their peak on the menu making the savvy diner salivate with anticipation. These and other subtle Lenzi touches such as the homemade potato chips laced with truffle oil can make even an ordinary accompaniment extraordinary.
Lenzi also puts great effort into menus for private functions. Although there are a bevy of packages to choose from, he is willing to customize any one of them to suit the
needs and tastes of the hosts and their guests. Much detail and care goes into the main course for each event, making sure every plate is balanced with flavors and textures.
Lenzi and The Mill have much in common. Each has a rich history with many stories to tell. Both have endured their share of change. Each holds the reputation for maintaining high standards set through the years. Together, this winning combination will continue to keep The Mill a Jersey Shore tradition for many seasons to come.
The Mill at Spring Lake Heights.Old Mill Road, Spring Lake Heights, NJ 732-449-1800. www.TheMillatSLH.com. Open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner, with Sunday Buffet Brunch. Seafood Buffet featured in summer months. Banquet facilities for parties up to 250. Special Events, Supper Club Shows and Big Band Nights. Accepts all major credit cards. Reservations suggested.