By the age of 24, Chef Cara Stadler of Portland had checked off all the items on her 10-year-plan – the one she made when she was only 16.
“I promised myself I would only work for good chefs, that I would learn how to run a business, run a kitchen, and be in a position to own my own restaurant,” she says, ticking off the highlights of the plan she accomplished two years ahead of schedule.
Just 27 now, Stadler is half-owner and the creative force behind two very different Asian restaurants: Bao Bao, her new dumpling house in Portland’s West End, and Tao Yuan, an “Asian fusion” small-plates eatery in Brunswick, that opened in 2012.
The rave reviews for Tao, along with the inventiveness of her offerings, made Stadler a semifinalist for James Beard’s Rising Star Chef of the Year Award a year ago. The award is given to talented chefs under 30 who are likely to make an impact on the culinary world. More recently, she earned the honor of being one of Food and Wine Magazine’s 10 best new chefs in America for 2014.
“After the James Beard award, that was totally unexpected and surreal,” says Stadler as she sits in the dining room of Bao Bao on a Sunday morning. “It means you are legitimate. It’s a validation.”
Stadler’s cooking career started after she moved to Berkeley, Calif., to live with her aunt when she was 16. She got a job as a line cook at a local cafe? and fell in love with the work. She knew she didn’t want to go to a traditional college, but her father said he wouldn’t pay for culinary school until she’d worked three years in the business. Her parents had moved to China (her mother is Chinese), which afforded Stadler the opportunity to work in several restaurants in China after she’d graduated from high school. By the time she was 24, she’d worked in Shanghai and Singapore, apprenticed at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant in Versailles, France, and opened a supper club, Gourmet Underground, with her mother in Beijing.
Stadler and her mother, Cecile, formed a business partnership in 2009 and began making plans to move to Maine to open a restaurant together. Stadler’s family has a summer place in Phippsburg that has been in the family for four generations, so they knew a lot about Brunswick and thought it would make a great spot for an Asian restaurant. The presence of Bowdoin College provides some of the clientele, but Stadler adds that the mid-coast area is filled with “pockets of people who love food.” Stadler caters to that clientele by offering special prix fixe menu events, such as the current “Gastronomic Tour of Asia,” a series in which the cuisine of one particular Asian country is featured each Sunday.
While Stadler designs the menus and hires her culinary team, her mother is the brains behind the physical and financial aspects of the restaurants. This sometimes makes for some “creative differences.”
“I just bought wasabi (which is very expensive) and she wanted to rip my head off,” Stadler says.
Both of Stadler’s restaurants are influenced not only by her experience in China, but also by the distinctive tastes of Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Korea and France. Otherwise, the restaurants are quite different, with Tao being a more upscale, slower dining experience, and Bao Bao being more “fast, casual” and family-oriented. Whereas a dining experience at Tao might last two hours, the food comes out in 10-15 minutes at Bao Bao, Stadler explains.
“Some lunch customers are out and back to work in 45 minutes,” she says.
While Stadler says both restaurants are successful thus far, she admits that winter has been rough on Bao Bao.
“We’ve had people have to leave in a hurry because the tow truck was outside,” she says. “Portland’s parking bans have been a killer.”
Stadler says the key to running two successful restaurants is to be surrounded by a great team. The manager of Bao Bao first worked for Stadler as a line cook at Tao, while the manager at Tao was the sous chef at Primo in Portland.
“You’re only as strong as the team you have with you,” Stadler says. “Everyone that’s here wants to grow. I hope to grow with them.”
Speaking of growing, one of the servers at Bao Bao is a lifelong friend of Stadler’s who is anxiously awaiting spring so she can start overseeing their solar greenhouse. The greenhouse, being planned behind Tao Yuan in Brunswick, is part of Stadler’s newest 10-year plan. She’d like to be growing the restaurants’ greens and Asian produce year round as soon as this summer.
“In the summer, 90 percent of our produce is local, but prices double in the winter,” she says.
Another item on Stadler’s new 10-year plan is starting a family. She knows she’s missed out on a few years of being “reckless and silly” because of her career, but she is also a huge lover of family and family times. While she isn’t married, she is in a relationship. And after all, it is a 10-year-plan.
“Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday,” she says. “Being with family and feasting is the best part. We all love to stuff our faces and have a good time.”