Most students know Big Tree Inn as the fancy restaurant on Main Street where they can blow the last of their meal plans at the end of the semester. What people might not know is the mind behind the meal: executive chef Zan Mauler. Mauler’s cooking career began at an early age while watching his parents cook and eating their delicious creations. Back then, however it was merely an interest. It was not until Mauler was in high school that he realized he wanted to make a career out of his love of food.
“The chef piece probably came around freshman or sophomore year of high school,” Mauler said. “I realized I can do something I love and get paid for it.”
Thanks to advice from his mentor and role model Jacque Pepin, Mauler opted out of attending culinary school post-graduation. He decided it was not worth the money when at the time, many chefs were moving up the ranks by starting as dishwashers and proving their abilities on the job.
“A chef who starts as a dishwasher knows how difficult it is to get scorch marks out of a pan,” Mauler said. He went on to explain that a chef who knows that will take care to not burn any pans. Mauler noted that starting at the bottom has its advantages, such as knowing the layout of a kitchen and understanding every individual worker’s role.
Mauler has worked a variety of jobs across the country, including a stint at a Pacific and south Asian restaurant in Hawaii. He also worked numerous jobs in the southeast and northwest areas of the United States.
“I try to bring some of those things that I really loved cross-country,” Mauler said. While people in different regions have different tastes, Mauler noted that he tries to incorporate his favorites into menus no matter the location.
Mauler has worn a variety of hats in his career in the food industry including chef di pardi at Trump’s Plaza in Atlantic City––where he fed numerous celebrities––food truck owner, executive chef at high-end golf courses and resorts and even made multiple appearances on Food Network as the executive chef of a trendy restaurant called Rococo in Philadelphia.
“I’ve been able to cull from those experiences what I love to eat,” Mauler said.
After being hired at Big Tree Inn in January 2014, Mauler reorganized the menu to make it more cohesive and also incorporated his own cooking style, which is “honest cuisine.”
“When I came through the doors of Big Tree, it really spoke to me as a building,” Mauler said. He said that he wanted the dining there to match the homey and unique qualities the restaurant had by creating meals that couldn’t be found anywhere else.
Mauler emphasized his belief that food should be healthy and of a certain quality, and that genetically modified organisms and artificial colorings and flavors do not measure up to that quality.
In addition to resourcing where Big Tree buys many of its ingredients to make them more natural and local, Mauler also decreased the amount of salt and sugar in many of the dishes. He jazzed up some of the more typical items on the menu–– he added fancier cheeses to the classic grilled cheese sandwich and eliminated plainer burger options.
Apart from cooking, Mauler’s other interests include martial arts and music. He is a fourth degree black belt in tae kwan do and writes his own music to unwind.
“It’s very cathartic and therapeutic to me,” Mauler said. “I think a lot of people have some artistic or creative outlet that they use to get away from their vocational problems or issues.”