The chef-owner at Zapoteca in Portland is starting the year off on a high note. She will cook at the James Beard House in New York City at the end of January, will compete on a new Food Network show in February and is working on a cookbook. In the fall, the Kennebunk resident plans to open her third restaurant — Spanish spot Toroso in Portland — with her husband, Tom Bard. Not bad for a woman who didn’t go pro until she turned 40.
Who: Shannon Bard
Restaurants: Zapoteca in Portland and Mixteca in Durham, N.H.
Cuisine: Contemporary Mexican.
Home state: Oklahoma.
Favorite kitchen gadget: Vitamix blender.
Culinary hero: Julia Child because she started cooking later in life.
You became a chef very recently. Are you are new to cooking?
I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma. Once my mom went back to work I was in the ninth grade and it was my job to cook for my family. So I’ve been cooking as a home chef my entire life.
Why and when did you decide to become a chef?
It wasn’t until my kids were in kindergarten that I wanted to do it. On my 40th birthday I enrolled in a local community college here. Their program wasn’t geared to what I was used to. Because my father was a yeller, a good-old boy from Oklahoma, I needed something more intense. I took an intense program at the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] in San Antonio.
Sounds like the timing was right.
There is a freedom that comes when the kids go to school. The kids are back in school, so why not now?
Zapoteca opened in June 2011 and is a standout in a flourishing food city. Were you successful right from the beginning?
I would say almost, yes. It was a little scary in the beginning because we had a very soft opening. We pretty much came in, opened the doors and didn’t let anyone know about it. Two weeks later we were completely booked. Now we are completely booked four nights out of the week.
You specialize in contemporary Mexican cuisine. Can you explain what that means?
It’s authentic in the fact that I don’t dumb it down. I don’t necessarily cater to the New England audience. I use authentic Mexican food with Maine ingredients. Being a farmer’s daughter I am very aware of my carbon footprint and what I am doing to the environment. We have such amazing seafood here.
Tell me more about your James Beard House dinner next week. The theme is Mexico meets Maine?
Yes. I will be cooking for 80 people, the movers and shakers of the food industry. The vice president of the James Beard Foundation will be there; he has booked a large table. There will be hors d’oeuvres, a five-course dinner reception with wine and margaritas; each course will be paired with wine or tequila.
You’ve been preparing nonstop since you got the call in November?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made this darn chocolate cake. It’s ancho chile-spiced devil’s food cake with piloncillo-hazelnut ice cream with praline sand. I’m pretty much chocolate caked out. I make it every single day. That’s the one I want to make sure is perfect.
Is it on the menu?
No, but it will be on the menu soon. I could make it in my sleep.
As you expand and reach a national audience, how do you keep the food in your kitchens consistent?
It’s like writing a novel. A novel has to have one voice and a restaurant has to have one palate. I can tell my staff, go ahead and recreate my recipes, but in the end it has to be my palate. It has to be the bold flavors, the salt, the flavors that I love.
How does travel inspire you? Do you have a great food and travel moment to share?
When we were living in San Diego we would we would go down to Puerto Nuevo, Mexico, and visit a fishing village known for their lobster tacos. And the minute you pull into the town you would smell grease and oil in the air. Every 30 feet there was a little shop that sold lobster tacos where they fried their lobster. It was such a great memory for me, I wanted to recreate something like that when we came here and opened the restaurant.
That became your signature dish, Puerto Nuevo langosta tacos?
Yes, it’s my ode to lobster. It has that Mexican fried taco feeling, but uses Maine lobster. So I take a Maine lobster and parboil it in Mexican beer and water and then we cut it in half and fry it in duck fat and a little chipotle butter.
Sort of like a deconstructed taco?
I am showing Maine that it is not just tacos and burritos, a lot more can be done. The same way the U.S. is not all hotdogs and hamburgers. We are more than that and Mexican food is more than that as well. I do sauces and moles that take six hours to make, but are so intricate in flavors.
Tell me about your new restaurant, your third.
Yes. It will be Spanish and open in the fall. We have three locations in mind. They are all here in town, I can’t say where. My husband would shoot me. They are all on the Peninsula.
You’ve handled becoming a new chef with aplomb. Did you know this was the right career for you immediately?
No. It was after many tears and cries. It’s a tough industry. I’m not going to sugar coat it. When I first opened I’d be carrying pots and pans filled with beans up and down the stairs. I went from being a girly-girl wearing high heels and getting my nails manicured to shoulder pain, which I can still feel.
Before you started cooking professionally, you were a corporate recruiter for 15 years. Any advice for others thinking of changed careers in midlife?
I want to set an example for other women. You don’t have to be 20 years old in order to start your career and be happy. You can be however old you want to be and change and go for it. As long as you are passionate and work hard.