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Tony Gullace of Max Rochester (Photo: Kimberly McKinzie)

Home(town) cooking

Rochester's top chefs bring a lifelong passion for cooking to the table.

By DEBBIE WALTZER

Whether it was canning with Grandma or baking pies with Mom, fascination with food started early for chefs Tony Gullace and Jerry Manley. Their eateries are distinctive, yet they share a knack for eclectic and inventive cuisine.

"I've always been around food, whether plucking warm tomatoes off the vine or harvesting fruit trees on my grandparents' farm," says Tony Gullace, principal of Max Rochester, which includes a string of Max restaurants and a market in the area. "I was always exposed to the earth."

Gullace is a self-taught chef. He brings his passion for the earth and its pure bounty into his cooking. "It all starts with the raw ingredients, and it's all about simplicity," says Gullace, whose signature dishes at his award-winning restaurants include braised lamb shanks and potato gnocchi with Meyer lemon zest and shrimp; favorite ingredients are salt, olive oil and vinegar.

"It's a mistake to mask or hide flavors," he advises. "You don't need 14 ingredients to cover up food. Just let the real flavors through. If it's a good piece of fish in just a lemon grass broth, then so be it."

An avid tennis player and golfer who loves poring through his collection of more than 1,000 cookbooks, Gullace celebrates his close relationships with nearby growers and fellow chefs.

"I'm blessed with a lot of young, energetic chefs in my kitchen, and that's exciting," he says.

"Restaurants are all competing for the public's entertainment dollars, and my staff is here not because cooking is a default career, but because they want to be chefs."

Jerry Manley of Flour City Diner (Photo: Kimberly McKinzie)Jerry Manley spent many years working as an electrical laboratory technician for Rochester Gas and Electric Corp. as a way to support four kids in college. But the son of restaurant owners never strayed far from his first love.

Today, Manley is chef-owner of Flour City Diner, which a few years ago settled into digs in the Renaissance Apartments on East Avenue.

The 100-seat eatery serves an eclectic menu ranging from deep-fried meatloaf parmesan and chicken pot pies to macaroni and cheese topped with black truffle oil. The mile-high apple pie is baked with a whopping 17 Granny Smith and Gala apples.

"Actually, our busiest time is Sunday breakfast, when we serve everything from bourbon raisin French toast, wasabi Benedict and Irish oatmeal with strawberry fruit gazpacho," says Manley, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Kim.

Home cooking has always been a big part of Manley's life.

"Some of my earliest memories involved making pies with my mother, and years ago, I actually owned a sheep farm. All of our food at Flour City is regional, and I'm a regular at the Public Market."

He raves about the local availability of unusual food products; he applauds Rochesterians' taste for unique delicacies. And after a corporate career, Manley is delighted to once again be back in the kitchen.

"My favorite part of the day is early morning when I'm cooking by myself, with a pot of coffee going and talk radio keeping me company," he says. "Nothing could be better."

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