BUXTON, Maine — Bent down between rows of cabbage, radishes and fennel, farmer Jeff Fisher pulls up a purple daikon radish. Grabbing a pocket knife, he slices the organic root vegetable and offers samples. Standing next to him in a newsboy cap and jeans, chef Cara Stadler takes a bite and the creative juices start to flow. “It’s punchy and super crunchy,” she says.
Walking by a row of flowers at Bumbleroot Organic Farm on a sunny morning, culinary possibilities pop into the popular Maine chef’s head. Turning sunflower leaves into an oil or crushing them into powder, something she just saw on TV, intrigues her. “I’d like to mess around with them,” she says, “because, why not?”
This time of year a farm tour is like a playground for seasonally focused chefs like Stadler, who owns Tao Yuan in Brunswick and BaoBao Dumpling House in Portland. To show her appreciation for the farmers in her midst, she hosts a Maine harvest dinner series next month on alternating Thursdays at her Brunswick Asian fusion hotspot continuing through November.
The reverse of farm dinners, like the roving Outstanding in the Field, Stadler invites farmers in to showcase their harvest and mingle with diners over a meal.
“Everything from the cut flowers on the table to the last fruit in the dessert” is from a nearby farm, said Stadler. “These nights highlight the farmers themselves.”
Served prix fixe ($48 to $68), the menus are not completely developed. How could they be? A week before, Stadler and her chef de cuisine Saskia Poulos will receive a bounty of freshly picked, ripe and ready food from which to create. Seasonality dicates the dishes in her fashionable restaurants.
“We go with quality first,” said Stadler, who knows that “local is freshest.”
And that is the key to her rise. “People say, ‘Why does your food taste so good?’ And I tell them ‘because I use local ingredients,’” says the two-time James Beard Award nominee and Food and Wine’s best new chef of 2014 .
In the food world, quality and local have not always been linked. Relationships such as Stadler’s with Bumbleroot in Buxton tighten the links of the food chain. Melissa Law, one of the farm’s co-owners, is also a server at BaoBao, and can answer most vegetable-related queries from the floor.
At Stadler’s farm dinners, how will diners know what variety of cucumber is on their plate? They can ask that couple in the muddy boots seated next to them. On this culinary trip, the farmer who grew it comes with you.
Now in its second year, these farmers appreciation nights will pair produce from Bumbleroot Organic Farm in Buxton with venison from Applegate Deer Farm in West Newfield. On another night, dairy and lamb from Kennebec Cheesery of Sidney will be served with produce and fermented goods from Thirty Acre Farm in Whitefield.
“Everyone who came last year enjoyed getting to see local farms featured,” said Kate Holcomb, the restaurant’s farm-to-table program director. “Some came to all three.”
This year the series expands to showcase twice as many farms and an extra night is added. On Oct. 15, the chefs tackle an all-vegetarian meal from Six River Farm of Bowdoinham.
“It will be fun to see them craft an entire meal from vegetables,” said Holcomb. “They have the experience and knowledge it takes to highlight produce. Part of the fun of it is you sit down and don’t have to make any decisions. They take you on a trip.”
You can’t get closer to eating local than breaking bread with the man or woman who grew that heirloom tomato, harvested that sweet carrot and nurtured that succulent venison. Seeing how a superstar chef like Stadler, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, combines shishito peppers, fresh on the vine that morning, with just harvested meat, for example, is a rush for a farmer who has been digging in the dirt all summer.
“We wouldn’t miss it,” said Fisher after giving Stadler and Poulos a tour of his two-acre spread Monday morning.
“We love eating as much as we enjoy farming. It’s great to see someone take something we’ve worked so hard on and represent it really well,” said Fisher.
To Poulos, a farm dinner “really completes the circle.” Like wine dinners where the vintner is present, “customers like to say hi to farmers,” she’s noticed.
Tao Yuan’s harvest dinners are exciting for customers and farmers, but for no one more than Stadler, who deepens what she already knows with new possibilities.
“It’s a big challenge. These are things we don’t normally have on the menu. It’s completely different,” she said. And stimulating, too. “We just wanted to appreciate our farmers. Starting with a beautiful product is so central to what we do.”
To keep food fresh, beautiful and prevalent in Maine, Stadler is working on an aquaponics enterprise — a way to grow fish and plants in a greenhouse all year. Though in its planning stages, she has tapped Holcomb to find an educational partner. They hope to have a solar-powered system up and running this winter. The first step is research.
“The idea is to foster a network of anyone who would like to participate in an aquaponics farm-to-table operation in Maine,” said Holcomb. Ideally it would be located on a college campus at first. They hope to make an announcement in November.
To make a reservation for harvest dinners at Tao Yuan, call 207-725-9002 or book online at http://tao-yuan.me/reserve.html.