Celebrity Chef – J. Zan Mauler – Big Tree Inn, Geneseo

by Tina Manzer

Chef Zan joined Geneseo’s historic Big Tree Inn in 2014, but his career spans 45 years and restaurants across the country – from Janos in his native Tucson to Bally’s Park Place in Atlantic City. He was the executive sous chef at the Woodcliff Hotel and Spa in Fairport before donning his apron at The Big Tree.

As executive chef, Zan wanted a menu that matched the unique and homey atmosphere of the Big Tree’s landmark building. The “comfort” dishes he creates there today – Farmhouse Chicken Pot Pie and the Red Wine Glazed Meatloaf, for instance – are customer favorites. “People enjoy coming here knowing they’ll find their standard favorite dishes, as well as some new and uncommon additions,” he told us.

“Our guests encourage and welcome creativity,” Zan continues. “I love interfacing with them and sharing their experiences related to our property. The guests are my barometer – they help me gauge improvements and edit our menu.”

His Fire-Grilled Duroc “Porkerhouse” features all-natural pork, Zan’s spice rub, cinnamon java butter, mashed roasted sweet potatoes, and a medley of zucchini, yellow squash, green beans and red pepper. “It speaks to my roots, in the culinary sense – the Southwest, the Deep South, and family sit-down dinners,” he explains. “All of those continue to influence my menus and recipes.

“My parents, Jim and Patsy, were both amazing in the kitchen,” Zan remembers. “I loved the chicken flautas and the cheesecake my mother made, and my father’s Texas red chili, ‘slumgullion,’ and stewed chicken livers and gizzards on toast.”

They taught him their skills and let him experiment in the kitchen. “I started out making the salad dressing for our family dinners. Everyone was very gracious about tasting it, even though there were some real bombs,” he laughs. “But I always loved cooking, and once I found out I could get paid to do it, well, that was it for me.”

Instead of heading to culinary school, he went straight to the restaurant kitchens and climbed up through the ranks – dishwasher, prep cook, line cook, sous chef. Along the way, he collected cooking tricks and techniques from the experts. “I worked for some famous, and patient, chefs during the genesis of my career,” Zan explains. Among them were Janos Wilder and Heiko Bendixson, and collaborations with Mark Miller, Georges Perrier, Grady Spears, Al Paris, Zarela Martinez and Lidia Bastianich. “I also did a short stint with Jacques Pepin, and became friends with Masaharu Morimoto and Michael Lomonaco.”

The Big Tree’s salmon dish, one of Zan’s favorites, is built with takeaways from his past. The pickled mango and asparagus salad comes from his work at a restaurant in Hawaii, the chipotle rub is typically Southwestern, and the corn fritters are his mom’s.

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