Welcome to the December edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Cara Stadler. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on Instagram, so stay tuned.
Cara Stadler was only sixteen when she graduated from high school, eighteen when she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and twenty-four when she opened her first restaurant. In 2014, she was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine and nominated for Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation. Since then, she’s tacked on three more JBF nominations.
In 2011, after cultivating her skills both near and far at prestigious restaurants like Guy Savoy in Paris and Gordon Ramsay Au Trianon Palace in Versaille, Cara settled in Maine. Along with her business partner and mother, Cecile, she opened her first full-service concept, Tao Yuan Restaurant, in Brunswick in May 2012. Cecile runs the business while Cara runs the kitchen. The small plates menu has a heavy Chinese influence and is built around locally-sourced ingredients.
Cara and Cecile have two more dining concepts under their company, Eighty Ate Hospitality (eight is considered a lucky number in China). Their second restaurant, Bao Bao Dumpling House, opened in 2015 in Portland’s West End. Since March, Bao Bao has been weathering the pandemic as a to-go restaurant. Luckily, Chinese food is the second most popular takeout food in the U.S., after pizza.
Cara’s latest concept, Zao Ze, launched in response to COVID-19 and the temporary closure of Tao. She wanted to offer ‘fun, easy, not fussy food because that’s what we need right now. We might as well enjoy the little things while we can during this crazy time,’ she explained. Zao is currently running out of Tao’s kitchen and will eventually move into the first floor of the Canopy Farms building. Zao will operate as part cafe part grocery store where customers will buy housemade Asian staples like buns, dumplings, kimchi, hot sauce, sambal, and soy sauce.
Canopy Farms was developed in 2013 by Cecile, Cara, and her life-long friend, Kate Holcomb. The aquaponics greenhouse is currently operating at fifty-percent and supplies its restaurants and a CSA with a bounty of produce. “As an L3C entity, we are a for-profit company, but mission-driven. Our mission is to promote the industry and development of sustainable year-round agriculture,” Kate Holcomb explains. Canopy Farms offers public tours, community education, and immersive internships through the University of Southern Maine. Public tours are available on the second Saturday of every month.
In this month’s edition of My Kitchen Their Table, you’ll discover which ‘weird’ dish at Zao Ze is Cara’s favorite, what she loves most about being a chef in Maine, and where she goes in Portland and beyond for a great meal.
AA: What is one of your most popular dishes?
CS: The most popular dish in my company is, without a doubt, the 88 Slaw. We serve it at all three locations. It’s a riff on a dish I’ve had many times in China modified for the American palate. It’s not as sharp. I use less vinegar and more fat. It has carrots, cabbage, snow peas, fried shallot, rice vinaigrette, peanuts, cilantro, and scallion. It’s never what I thought would be the bread and butter of my company, but people love it.
AA: What is your favorite dish on your menu?
CS: I like the weird things; the items people read on my menu and have no idea what it is, like the sheng jian bao at Zao Ze. It’s a cross between a dumpling and a bun. The dough is yeasted but thinner than a bun and thicker than a dumpling. Usually, it’s made with pork belly, but we make it with Peking-spiced duck. It’s so greasy, it’s almost like a soup dumpling, but with animal fat. It’s really unhealthy and really delicious.
AA: How has your team contributed to the success of your restaurants and keeping the doors open through a pandemic?
CS: The team is so essential. They’ve gone through so much. The first week was insane. Transforming a restaurant that does in-house dining to takeout in the span of a week is nuts. It was very stressful and took a lot out of everyone. I’ve been very fortunate to have great people on my team.
AA: Why do you think we have such a vibrant food scene?
CS: Maine has the best farms. The produce here is insane. It’s so beautiful and it’s done in all of the right ways. So many are family-owned and operated; Mainers support that as an identity. And then there’s the seafood! The oysters, clams, lobster, mussels… Bangs Island produces the plushest mussels and there’s never a single piece of grit in them. We have cheese, Maine Grains, so many breweries, I could go on and on.
AA: Speaking of farms, what made you want to start your greenhouse project, Canopy Farms?
CS: We’re not here to compete with the local farms. We’re doing a different kind of sustainable farming. Our goal is to create a financially viable system that can be used anywhere year-round. I also wanted to grow weirder stuff and things I can’t source here, like ngò om (aka rice paddy herb). It’s a Vietnamese herb that tastes like citrus and cumin.
AA: Do you eat Chinese food out?
CS: I go to Sichuan Kitchen. Their food is legit. It’s nice to have some flavors that are aggressively Chinese and not watered down for the American palate. The mapo is really good. It’s greasy in the way that Chinese food in China is greasy, where fat is flavor and a vehicle to stretch ingredients. For example, in America we trim fat, but in China trim is a whole other dish. They waste nothing.
AA: What restaurant or dish have you tried recently that impressed you?
CS: The pizza at Radici. I’ve had them all. I ordered the whole menu for a staff member’s going away party. The marinara is delicious and the ragu is killer. Get the anchovy sauce and chili oil, too.
AA: Where do you recommend going for a great dessert?
CS: Leeward. Kate Fisherham is one of the most talented pastry chefs in the state. I went a little while ago and had the olive oil cake and all of the ice cream flavors, which were chocolate, peach raspberry, and corn at the time. Her desserts always introduce new flavors but still feel familiar at the same time. They’re surprising and comforting.
AA: What are your go-to restaurants in Portland?
CS: Izakaya Minato is my favorite. I love what Thomas and Elaine Cooke do. I think they’re some of the most genuinely wonderful human beings in the world. I like the aged ochazuke. It’s a fried rice ball in fish broth. They offer it with plum or ikura (salmon roe), but I like to get both and add uni. Also, how could you not get the sashimi plate? It’s a steal!
AA: Where else do you recommend going for a great meal?
CS: I love Portland, but in my opinion, some of the best food in Maine is outside of Portland. You have Primo in Rockland where chef-owner Melissa Kelly brings an ethos and mentality about food to a place that is so remote. It takes a ton of talent to do and do well. There’s Suzuki, too. Her food is so simple and so good. It’s perfectly executed. Long Grain in Camden is also lovely and Oyster River Winegrowers is on the way. The owner, Brian Smith, is a teeny winemaker. It’s just him and his family. The pét-nat is so perfectly made. There are so many people doing small beautiful projects that aren’t in the interest of expansion, but stability for themselves and their community. That’s what makes Maine, Maine.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A few notes on the restaurants mentioned in this article…Sichuan Kitchen, Radici, Suzuki, Long Grain and Leeward are all open for takeout. In addition takeout, Izakaya Minato also has outdoor seating; Primo has both indoor (through this weekend) and outdoor seating. Oyster River is selling wine for pick-up at their location in Warren.