Cara Stadler got her start in restaurants at age 16, at a place called Cafe Rouge in Berkeley, Calif. Within eight years she’d apprenticed at Michelin star restaurants in France, cooked in Singapore and Shanghai, and started an underground supper club with her mother, Cecile, in Beijing.
In 2012, she and Cecile opened Tao Yuan, a Brunswick eatery that features Stadler’s bold, inventive food: fundamentally Chinese, but with French, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean influences. In February, she was named a semifinalist for James Beard’s Rising Star Chef of the Year Award, given to chefs under 30 who display “impressive talent” and are “likely to make a significant impact on the industry.”
While her skill and creativity has sent her to the top of the list of young American chefs, it’s Stadler’s work ethic that’s kept her going. She will open a Chinese dumpling house in Portland this summer; she and Tao Yuan (pronounced “U.N.”) staff are working on building a greenhouse and aquaponics setup to supply the restaurant with greens and Asian produce year-round. We talked with Stadler about travel, chopsticks and her favorite obscure dish.
Who: Cara Stadler, chef/co-owner, Tao Yuan, Brunswick
Hometown: Harvard, Mass., and Berkeley, Calif.; spent summers in Phippsburg, Maine
Why did you want to become a chef?
Because I didn’t want to go to college, and my dad told me I couldn’t sit around and do nothing. I also come from a family that cherishes food and the meals we eat together.
If a complete stranger asks, what do you tell them about the food you make at Tao Yuan?
That’s a question I’ve been wrestling with for a long time! I think I’d say Asian-inspired small plates. It really varies where we’re pulling from. It’s it’s own little thing. There a French influence. There’s Vietnamese, Thai. It’s all over the place. I can’t put my finger totally on it.
Tell us about your time in China and Singapore. Was it risky, as a young, inexperienced chef in a foreign country? What were the biggest lessons you learned?
I went for my last year of high school in Beijing, when my parents and brother were living there. With Singapore, I’d never been, but I already had a job lined up when I arrived. I had also already lived and worked in Paris, and once you work in another country in a different language, the risk doesn’t seem huge. The biggest risk of all is getting a visa as an American citizen. I think living outside of your home country is always a bit uncomfortable, but that’s also what makes it so amazing. The biggest lesson I learned was patience. When you’re working in a different language you have to learn to be patient.
Aside from living in different countries for work, do you travel a lot? Any special culinary travel stories?
I love Thailand more than anything. The food, the people. It’s beautiful. Vietnam, too … I just went to London and Paris, and also Switzerland, which is such a majestic place. You see Swiss food, and it’s all meat and cheese and really hardy stuff, but when you’re hiking in the alps it just makes sense. I like learning about food in that way.
What’s the most beautiful or inspiring dish you’ve encountered in your travels?
Lievre a la Royale. Look it up for a recipe. It’s crazy, delicious, deep flavor, and a pain in the ass to make.
You’ve said before that you and your mother Cecile have a great dynamic. What’s the best and worst part about a mother-daughter team?
I can always count on my mom! We understand what needs to get done, and our standards are the same and we can rely on those standards always being met. The worst part is probably that we fight like family, and that can sometimes throw the staff off as we hash out our opinions. Even though we always come to the same resolution, getting there can be an intense process.
You’ve got a lot of things in the works, between the greenhouse and the dumpling restaurant. Tell us about both endeavors, and how you’re juggling everything.
We are timing it out so construction at the greenhouse and expansion will commence when we open the dumpling house, which will give me time to get that up and running in Portland. I will also be living above the restaurant, so I’ll be there every day and night … This industry never gets easier, and with every bit of growth, you work a little bit harder. That is what I signed up for the moment we started working in a kitchen, and I love every moment of it. It also is essential that I have an amazing team around me, that this would not be possible without.
What’s your favorite kitchen tool?
In French kitchens, you use spoons. In American kitchens, you use tongs, but they can damage food. Wooden chopsticks are the best. They are the most delicate way to deal with your product. It’s so easy to flip, poke, prod, move things around. You have more control with chopsticks. I love them.
When you’re at home at 2 a.m. and you want a quick but tasty snack, what do you make?
Ramen. Always ramen, with a million different variations that involve whatever’s in my fridge. Ramen with eggs, bacon, kale, sweet potatoes, scallions, ginger, garlic, herbs, curry… anything that’s around.
Besides your own restaurant, where do you recommend people eat in Maine?
I love Long Grain in Camden, Suzuki and Primo in Rockland, and Piccolo, Portland Hunt and Alpine Club, Central Provisions, Eventide Oyster Company, Duck Fat and Novare Res, all in Portland. I haven’t been to Cafe Francine in Camden, but I’ve heard amazing things. There are so many.