Shannon Bard grew up in a small town in Oklahoma. Her path to running Zapoteca, a Mexican restaurant in Portland that has developed a national reputation, included stops in San Diego, San Antonio and New York City, where she cooked at the prestigious James Beard House.

She has also appeared on the Food Network, where she won $25,000 on “Kitchen Inferno.” She has published a new cookbook, “The Gourmet Mexican Kitchen,” and also owns a restaurant in New Hampshire. Right now, she’s trying to make the most of Maine Restaurant Week.

Q: How did you start?

A: I was a corporate recruiter, but after I had kids, I was a stay-at-home mom. Twenty years ago, being a chef wasn’t such a great option as it is now, but once my youngest son enrolled in kindergarten, I decided it was time to enroll in culinary school. I went to the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio.

Q: Why Mexican?

A: I was raised in Oklahoma and that had a huge Mexican influence. My grandmother had a restaurant and she would do Mexican cuisine sometimes. And I always had Mexican in my home, which is strange for a blonde, green-eyed woman. My husband also loved Mexican cuisine and we met in San Diego and I just knew I would focus on Mexican cuisine.


Q: But why in Maine?

A: I knew there was a need for traditional Mexican cuisine. I take traditional dishes and I modernize them and make them my own, using as many local ingredients as possible. People have their preconceived idea of what Mexican is, but they’ve had border Mexican (cuisine). A huge majority hasn’t had interior Mexican cuisine. That was the biggest challenge – people having ideas of what Mexican food should be. I could bring up traditional produce and fish from (Mexico), but it would cost a lot more money and I want to focus on local products as much as possible.

Q: Any surprises?

A: I think the surprising thing was how my cooking style has evolved. When we first opened the restaurant, we were more rustic, but I think we’re showing Mexican food can evolve and that has been the most surprising thing – that people realized they will come to my restaurant and they’re not going to get tacos and burritos, that’s not what we focus on.

Q: It’s currently Maine Restaurant Week. How important is it to have a time when Mainers are encouraged to go out to restaurants during what is a very slow tourist time – and it’s been such a hard winter.

A: It’s huge. We’re fortunate enough to be busy most of the time, but with this winter, there have been days when we’ve shut down, and most people aren’t going to drive – and we don’t want them to drive 30 or 45 minutes – in bad weather. We’ve had to shut down early and to close, and for our employees, we have to cut their hours, or send them home earlier. That’s the way of the restaurant industry as a whole. I really love the fact that this (Restaurant Weeks) is a time when my team is getting well over their allotted hours and they’re loving it. It’s also an opportunity for people to try out the restaurant. We have a pretty big menu and I wanted to pick some of the things that I love and am passionate about (to showcase). Because of our huge menu size, people might not try some things I want them to try, so I’m excited about it.


Q: There’s a lot of talk about increasing the minimum wage. Is that an issue in restaurants?

A: A minimum wage increase would not affect us. There’s no one making close to minimum wage in the restaurant. All the team makes good money.

Q: Maine has developed a reputation for its restaurants in the last few years. What’s it like working in such a foodie town?

A: I think it’s a great thing. I trained in Spain at one of the top restaurants in the world. They worked to develop a reputation for top dining. I think we’re working the same way, and I think that as a restaurant group, we do that. We’re always referring people to other restaurants and the other restaurants are referring people to us. We’ve had a lot of publicity on a national level. And it helps the economy in general.

Q: You were on – and won – “Kitchen Inferno.” Do shows like that satisfy your competitive urge?

A: It’s immediate gratification, but even when you’re cooking in the restaurant, it’s immediate gratification because you can look at people’s faces and see if they’re enjoying it or not. Chefs are competitive, but we just want to get better so we all can succeed. But I don’t seek out those (TV cooking competitions), they approached me. They sought me out after seeing my name. I’ve said “No” to more invitations than I’ve said “Yes” to. I’m very selective about what I do and I’ve worked hard to set myself apart. It’s fun, but every time you go (on a cooking competition show), you have to do your best and make sure that you don’t do something to wreck your restaurant and your career.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.