After finishing high school in China at the age of 16, Cara Stadler had an itch to travel. She knew she didn’t want to go to college, so she spent time on the road, absorbing all she could about food. Eventually she found her way to Paris and culinary school at the esteemed Le Cordon Bleu. Working in the stratosphere of fine dining with chefs such as Guy Savoy and Gordon Ramsay, taught her the most valuable lessons of her career—“Never settle ever.” She explains to me. “Everything has to be right, every time.” But the experience also showed her something else—the incredible amount of waste that’s generated by top restaurants. “My vision changed,” Stadler explains. “I saw too much waste when I worked in fine dining. I’m interested in sustainability and using all the food from seed to compost.”
The young chef (she’s just 28) is thoroughly committed to local farms for the freshest produce and shops farmers’ markets four times a week. “All the best stuff shows up at farmers’ markets,” says Stadler. “A lot of the population is disconnected from the earth, but Maine does a good job of making a connection. It’s a little gem.” Restaurant waste gets fed to pigs at a nearby farm and she has a plan for a sustainable ecosystem that includes the construction of an aquaponics greenhouse just behind the restaurant. “We’ll grow whatever we can’t find,” says the chef, including citrus trees like yuzu and Thai lime, plus wasabi and more.
Stadler opened Tao Yuan in Brunswick in 2012 with her mother Cecile. The pair had previously worked together in China, running a supper club called Gourmet Underground. They served a tasting menu based on what was available in the markets. At Tao, Cecile “keep the wheels turning and does everything that’s not in the kitchen,” says Stadler. The chef has created a menu made up of small plates and each offers a combination of influences from Stadler’s experience—Chinese, Thai, Japanese, French and, of course, Maine. The best way to experience all the flavors—sour, spicy, salty, sweet—is to order the chef’s tasting menu, which is reminiscent of her old supper club days and can include anywhere from 12 to 20 small plates.
Stadler is known for her roasted pork buns, but today she presents a surprising variation. Instead of pork, there’s pastrami in the fresh, soft bun topped with white kimchi, spicy umeboshi mustard, and caraway seeds. It’s a clever take on a Reuben sandwich and indicative of her creativity. Sautéed broccolini sounds simple enough, but turns out to be a marvel of complex spicy and salty ingredients. Tuna poke is light and fresh, with lemongrass, coconut, and lime. Pastry chef Kate Hamm creates desserts that hit a variety of flavor profiles. A violet rhubarb panna cotta is elegantly presented, garnished carefully with rhubarb poached in strawberry syrup, candied ginger and violets.
On the last Thursday of each month, Tao Yuan presents a regional wine dinner with sommelier Chris Peterman. Wines are chosen by the beverage team first, then Stadler and the kitchen crew brainstorm a menu to complement them. The evenings are lively and fun, often departing from Stadler’s usual style with food from around the world that enhances the chosen wines.
Stadler has a growing pile of well-deserved accolades, the latest coming from Conde Nast Traveler just last month, naming her one of “Top Ten Best Young Chefs in the US.” Food & Wine magazine included her on their “Best New Chef” list in 2014 and she’s been nominated for a James Beard Award three times. “I’ve kind of given up on that one,” she says. “If I was doing it for the fame, I wouldn’t be doing it in Maine.”
Fortunately for us, she is.
Tao Yuan | 22 Pleasant St. | Brunswick | 207.725.9002 | tao-yuan.me