A Chef’s Decisive Odyssey
When Cara Stadler, chef/owner of Tao Yuan in Brunswick, Maine, and BaoBao Dumpling House in nearby Portland, was 16, she sat down and wrote a 10-year plan for herself. She had just graduated from high school in Berkeley, California, where she’d been living with her aunt, after a junior year spent abroad in China and craving more diversity than her small hometown in Massachusetts could offer. Younger than her peers, and not as interested in academic achievement as her siblings—who had both scored perfectly on their SAT exams—she had no desire to continue on the traditional collegiate path. Even at that young age, when most teenagers barely know themselves, Chef Stadler understood that she wasn’t a standardized, one-size-fits-all type of person.
Regardless, her father gave her an ultimatum: college or a job.
Stadler chose to get a job. She’d always enjoyed a positive relationship with food, coming from a family that had a genuine affection for culinary pleasures, so she landed at Café Rouge in Berkeley. That’s where, she says, the relationship grew more serious. Almost instantaneously, she “fell in love” with the industry. She’d expected to find something to occupy her time while she figured out what she wanted to do with her life; instead, she discovered her true vocation: chef. She immediately penned an outline for the next decade of her life, a not-unusual occurrence, says her Michigan-raised mother, Cecile, who told the Portland Press Herald that her daughter had already written an autobiography—when she was 5.
For the final year of Chef Stadler’s ambitious decade-long plan, which included a culinary education with top professionals from around the world, she set herself the ultimate goal of opening her own restaurant.
Of course, things didn’t go entirely as she had defined on paper. As luck—or rather, skill—would have it, Stadler wasn’t 26 when her Chinese-inflected establishment, Tao Yuan, debuted to national acclaim. Instead, she was only 24.
The road that led Stadler to the small coastal village of Brunswick, to a 2014 Best New Chef Award from Food & Wine Magazine, and to consecutive semifinalist nods for the James Beard: Rising Star Chef of the Year Award in 2014 and 2015, was a global one. After her stint at Café Rouge, Stadler headed east to the Striped Bass in Philadelphia, then continued across the pond to attend culinary school in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu. There, she staged at Guy Savoy and worked at Gordon Ramsay’s Au Trianon until her visa ran out. At that point it was 2008 and she took her skills to Singapore, honing them further at Saint Pierre, a French-Japanese restaurant, and then moved to Beijing, where her parents were living.
In 2009, Stadler and her mother, whose parents were both from Shanghai, decided to go into business together, debuting a supper club called Underground Beijing. It operated for about eight months, Chef Stadler says, and was “a tremendous amount of work. It’s not like a restaurant where you have employees to do different tasks. You have to do everything yourself.” After the experience, Stadler notes that both she and her mother—whom Stadler describes as “an incredible home cook,” but one who didn’t want to make it her profession—swore they would never work with each other again. “The problem was that our roles weren’t defined,” she says. “We were constantly stepping on each other’s toes.”
The mother-daughter pair split up after that. Stadler’s parents headed back to Maine, where the family had owned a home in Phippsburg for four generations, and Stadler moved to Shanghai. For the next couple of years, the chef continued to sharpen her worldly technique as a sous chef at Laris, one of the pre-eminent restaurants under restaurateur David Laris. Later, she opened Laris’ widely renowned private-dining restaurant, 12 Chairs.
Craving a change of scenery and a breath of fresh air (literally), Chef Stadler returned to Maine in 2011. “I loved China but it was so polluted. It’s unhealthy to breathe there,” she says. Plus, she wanted to be closer to home and to realize her goal of opening her own restaurant. The timing of exactly when she would do this had always been her big question. But after a couple of brief stints at respected local restaurants, including Five Fifty-Five, the space in Brunswick that would become Tao Yuan became available sooner than her plan commanded. And like many mother-daughter teams who share certain indelible ideas—in this case, an adoration of the heritage Shanghai food they had been consuming their entire lives, coupled with an attraction to the fresh, native ingredients that are so immediately available in the Maine region—Chef Stadler and her mother found themselves attempting a new partnership.
This time, the pairing of their personalities plus Stadler’s youthful methodology and ingenuity worked. Spectacularly so. “We’ve had a very fortunate run,” Stadler understates.
Indeed, Tao Yuan opened to raves from Maine critics, who enthused about Stadler’s work ethic, creativity, and skill as a chef, making much ado about her age, and the “smart, elegant, uncommon, and clarifying” qualities of her dishes. Those small, French-Asian plates, an unusual but happy addition to the Maine arena, change constantly according to what ingredients are in season. For instance, the peaches—from the out-of-the-way orchard that Tao Yuan is named for—may only be around for a week or so. But diners can almost always count on having the popular steamed buns from Stadler’s great-grandmother’s recipe.
Division of Labor
Part of the success of the mother-daughter team this time around is because “we each have our own responsibilities,” Stadler says. On the business side, Cecile “makes everything happen” at both restaurants.
Chef Stadler also gives a lot of credit to her life partner and Tao’s chef de cuisine, Saskia Poulos. She and Poulos personally shop local Asian markets and seafood wholesalers for produce and shellfish, adding fresh finds to their usual order of lemongrass, cilantro, mint, Thai basil, mangoes, papayas, eggplant, Maine shrimp, dayboat scallops, oysters, and clams. Like Stadler, Poulos is a vibrant, independent spirit who may spend a season working on a farm in Great Britain just for new ideas and to see how things are done. Stadler, who is turning 28 this month and beginning to think in longer terms about family, privacy, and sustainability as opposed to the immediacy of celebrity, says Poulos “has a major impact on the menu and how things operate at Tao.”
Although Tao Yuan had only been operating since 2012, Chef Stadler opened BaoBao, a dumpling house located in Portland to which she commutes daily, in 2014. It was another immediate triumph, although Stadler doesn’t find it quite as stimulating as Tao Yuan. “My expectations are much higher at Tao than BaoBao,” she says. “BaoBao has a certain amount of monotony. We serve thousands of dumplings, so you know you’re going to be there for eight hours and flip dumplings all day. It’s like frying thousands of eggs. There’s not a whole lot of finesse involved. Cooks are more nervous to move to Tao Yuan, where it’s more mentally engaging and challenging.”
That may well be true in the back of the house, but as far as customers are concerned, both restaurants are distinct winners—and another venture is on the horizon. Chef Stadler is bringing in her father, John, as caretaker of the company’s forthcoming non-profit aquaponics greenhouse. Now that Portland’s BaoBao is reaching its one-year anniversary, Stadler figures it’s time to break ground on what is going to be a sustainable model for raising both fish and vegetables, and it’s a model that others will be able to copy.
The implementation process, as she sees it now, is twofold. For one, she needs to decide if she actually wants to place it on the ground in the lot behind Tao Yuan, or if she wants to put the concept rooftop. Secondly, because the whole point of building such a system is to become a research facility that offers reproducible eco-friendly practices, she’d like to have university involvement. “Maybe Bowdoin [College],” she says, thinking out loud about who might be interested in pairing up. She is discovering, however, that “university time is always in flux.” And while she would like to make some decisions about the aquaponics greenhouse, which will raise tilapia to start as well as an assortment of greens and roots (including wasabi), by late fall, she’s also pragmatic. “It’s a big investment, so we don’t want to botch it.”
That frank matter-of-factness extends to how she treats her employees. “We don’t have an industry that treats people well, and we should. We should have a system that gives cooks more time off and pays servers hourly. I root for minimum wage for servers so that we can divide tips among the entire staff. I’d even like to give benefits. Every day I’m trying to make something better, make it not just a generic hourly job, but one that allows employees to be long-term. I’m so excited about the company that we’re growing and the people who can grow with us. But I have to make it the right venue for people to grow.”
Her enthusiasm is contagious, and her ideas are certainly something she both learned abroad and has thought about for the good of her company. Like other chefs, she is feeling the shortage of line cooks—in a profession where aspiring chefs have watched too many glamorous Food Network shows and aren’t willing to start at the bottom. These are shows that she has turned down opportunities to make appearances on, feeling that perhaps they aren’t the best stage for her, considering the message that they send.
“Like other chefs, I want the best talent, but I also want [my cooks] to have a life. I can work 80 hours per week and 11 months per year but I need a reprieve for a month. In France you work like that, but you get a month’s paid vacation. Here, entry-level line cooks have no vacation time, ever,” she says. “No overtime pay. No downtime. A cook either needs that, or a five-day workweek. It’s not conducive for employee or employer.”
While Stadler’s ideas may not be popular with older chefs who may see the rigor as a rite of passage into a culinary career, her millennial philosophy is appealing to those around her. In fact, she’s kept employees longer than the average chef, and one line cook who has been with her since the beginning of Tao Yuan is now kitchen manager at BaoBao.
Clearly her passion for fairness is one reason why her employees are loyal. She’s the first to admit she can’t always make it happen, but she insists, “I’m trying to find an appropriate work-life balance.”
Perhaps, after the aquaponics greenhouse project takes off, she’ll start with practicing that advice herself. But chances are, with Cara Stadler, there’s already another 10-year plan in the works.