It’s 9 a.m., and Cara Stadler has already been in the kitchen at Bao Bao, her dumpling house in Portland’s West End, for about a half-hour. Wearing just-out-of-bed hair, gray pants and a red shirt that says “Beijing ex-pats (heart) Obama,” she yawns as she chops 10 cloves of garlic that will go into a huge pan of pork on the stove.

Chef Stadler is showing one of her kitchen managers, Josh Fratoni, how to make zha jiang mian, the most common noodle dish in northern China, so she can add it to the Bao Bao menu. It’s a thick, super-salty pork sauce used sparingly on a pile of noodles, like an overseasoned Chinese ragu. Fresh, shredded vegetables complete the dish.

“It’s normally done with hand-pulled noodles, but I am not a master of hand-pulled noodles yet,” Stadler said. “I’ve been practicing each year, and I’m still not very good at it.”

Don’t bet against Stadler mastering those noodles. This is a woman who had a 10-year plan at age 16 and has been working 80 hours a week since she was 20. At age 27, she has just come off a whirlwind year in which she opened her second restaurant in Maine, was named one of the country’s 10 Best New Chefs by Food & Wine magazine, and – for the second year in a row – became a semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award. The Beard finalists will be announced Tuesday, but Stadler isn’t holding her breath.

“It would be a huge honor, but who knows,” she said. “Just the nomination means you’re on the right track. You’re making food that is delicious, and you’re putting the time and energy and care into the product you’re serving.”

In choosing Stadler as a Best New Chef, Food & Wine cited her skill in “using seasonal ingredients in unexpected ways. In spring, she serves calamari with local fiddlehead ferns pickled with Sichuan peppers.” The Best New Chef award recognized Stadler’s work at her first restaurant, Tao Yuan in Brunswick, which she opened in 2012 and runs with her mother, Cecile, and her life partner, Saskia Poulos.


Stadler’s euphoric year has also included cooking with two Michelin-starred chefs at the Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh and personal travel to Vietnam, Japan and Thailand to discover new flavors, ingredients and techniques. Along with a Burmese yellow curry, she brought back from Asia a new appreciation for rice paddy herb, a Vietnamese plant used in pho that tastes like cumin and citrus.

“Now I’m really into it,” she said. “It can be the completely wrong flavor to cook for a lot of dishes, but when it works it is really delicious.”

Stadler declined an invitation to audition for next season’s “Top Chef” because being on television would take too much time away from her kitchens, and she doesn’t feel she has the personality for it. She also turned down “Beat Bobby Flay” because “I just don’t have any interest in the Food Network.”

Dana Cowin, editor in chief of Food & Wine, said in an email that Stadler is a “wise” chef “who has translated her life’s varied and remarkable experiences – working with elite chefs in France as well as creating a pop-up in China – into a very personal style of cooking.”


Stadler grew up in Massachusetts, in a family that was “obsessed with food.” Her family has summered in Maine for four generations, and now lives here permanently. Stadler and her partner live above Bao Bao.


On weekends, her mother, who spent more than a decade living and working in China, cooked elaborate spreads of home-style Chinese food. Even as a child, Cecile Stadler recalls, her daughter was passionate about whatever she was doing and often fixated on things, including food: “She wrote her autobiography when she was 5 and said, ‘I like to win. I’m going to be a winner.’ ”

At 14, Stadler went to live with an aunt in Berkeley, California, “because I wanted to be in a bigger city with more people and experience more things.” She spent her senior year in Beijing, then graduated from Berkeley High School a year early, at age 16.

A two-week internship at Cafe Rouge in Berkeley turned into a job offer after just two days. She fell in love with “the insanity of the kitchen.”

“I come from a very competitive family,” Stadler said. “My brother and sister are extraordinarily smart people, and they both got perfect SAT scores. I was done with trying to be as perfect as both of them were. That’s part of the reason I went into food. I love the straightforwardness of cooking.”

Her parents offered to fund a college education but also offered an alternative: Come up with a credible business plan, they said, and we’ll invest in your first restaurant.

The 16-year-old chef-in-training developed a 10-year plan for her life and hit all her benchmarks. “I wanted to open a restaurant by the time I was 26 or 27,” she said, “and spend the first 10 years just studying – learning from great people.”


She spent time in top kitchens in France and China, including Gordon Ramsay’s two-Michelin-star restaurant in Versailles (“I met him for 10 seconds”). In these training grounds, where “either you step up or you step out,” she developed her work ethic and an intensity that sometimes intimidates her staff. Being “in the weeds,” Stadler believes, is no excuse for sending out a burned dumpling.

“She can have fun when it’s time to have fun,” Poulos said, “but she’s very intense. I think Cara demands a certain amount of excellence from everybody. She’s worked in really intense kitchens where there’s a certain normalcy to yelling and attention to detail.”

One of Stadler’s most important teachers has been her mother, with whom she founded an underground supper club in Beijing in 2009. But reverence for her mother didn’t stop Stadler from yelling at her “all the time,” Cecile Stadler said, laughing, as she recalled being scolded for things like not butchering a duck properly. “I said I would never, ever – ever – work with her again. Ever.”

But then came Tao Yuan and Bao Bao.


After the morning check-in at Bao Bao on Spring Street, Stadler and Poulos split the shopping at three Asian markets. (In the summer, they also go to local farmers markets four times a week.) Stadler likes to do the shopping herself so she doesn’t have to waste time sending back produce that doesn’t meet her standards. At Veranda Asian Market, the chef pokes around the store, weighing young coconuts in her hands, while her regular order waits at the counter: six pounds of lemongrass, 10 pounds of Thai eggplant, chilies, green papayas, shiso, rice paddy herb, fish mint, fermented soybean discs, champagne mangoes, cilantro and Thai basil.


The next stop is Upstream Trucking on the Portland waterfront, where Stadler buys seafood from wholesaler George Parr. He watches as she sorts through a bag of dayboat scallops out of Chatham, Massachusetts, picking out 5 pounds’ worth of smaller ones for her small plates. Parr has set aside 10 pounds of coveted Maine shrimp for Stadler, who will use it at Tao Yuan for Shanghai shrimp in shell, a dish her mother taught her. Her shopping list also includes a few pounds of tuna, 100 Johns River oysters and 50 clams.

The seafood, packed on ice, is loaded into her car, and Stadler heads for Tao Yuan. The name of the restaurant comes from an ancient Chinese legend about a fisherman who stumbles into a remote village in a grove of peach trees, where he is feted with the best foods and wines. It means “an unexpectedly fantastic place off the beaten path.”

The kitchen is already busy prepping lunch when Stadler arrives. Stadler works on the shrimp, thinly slices a big hunk of ginger and spends time folding dumplings filled with miso, parsnip, chicken, bamboo and chili.

Sam Hayward, chef/owner of Fore Street in Portland, said the dishes he’s had at Tao Yuan and Bao Bao “have been remarkable for delicacy, bright flavors, really fine fish and shellfish, the quality of ingredients generally, and absence of tired cliches.”

“Cara has brought us a fresh take on Chinese cooking based on personal style and a creative, playful spirit,” he said.

Stadler has brought an authenticity to Asian food in Maine that wasn’t here before, says Scott DeSimon, deputy editor of Bon Appetit magazine, who grew up in Cumberland and visits here regularly. He has visited Bao Bao Dumpling House, where he was impressed by everything from the black vinegar peanuts and other bar snacks to the range of homemade dumplings that were available.


“It had an authentic vibe to it that you didn’t get, at least with Chinese food, in Portland before,” he said. “She’s definitely adding to the breadth and range of what’s going on in Maine.”

One thing Stadler would like to serve at her restaurants but can’t, because of state regulations, is wild game. One of the benefits of her crazy year was an unexpected trip to Scotland for a weeklong internship at the Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh, courtesy of the Beard Foundation. The trip was an eye-opener for Stadler, who got to visit a game-hunting estate and a venison processing facility.

“I think maybe in 10 years when I have nothing else to do, I’m going to try to find a way to make (wild) venison legalized in this state,” she said. “Why can’t we use a product here that is delicious and that is overpopulated, and turn it into a means of income for people?”


Meanwhile, Stadler is working on her next 10-year plan. It includes starting a family, but first she wants to finish a long-planned aquaponic greenhouse where she can raise seafood and cultivate plants year-round. She’ll break ground on the facility in May, on land just behind Tao Yuan.

She’ll start by raising tilapia (because it’s easy) and lots of greens, including wasabi. “We’re going to grow a lot of weird things that we can’t get here locally,” she said.

Also on her 10-year agenda is expanding her business. She doesn’t want any more restaurants, but hopes to develop some food businesses that will give her employees a living wage, health care, and some growth opportunities so they’ll stay with her longer. She’d like, for example, to start some kind of fermentation company with Fratoni, who is an expert on the topic. She also wants to start making and selling the hot sauces that Poulos has been experimenting with the past few years.

But for now, she’s still enjoying the national spotlight and the boost it has given to her business. While loyal locals keep Tao Yuan busy in winter, summer traffic was “way more intense” last year.

“It’s definitely brought people here who have never been here before,” Stadler said. “We wouldn’t be doing the greenhouse without it. We wouldn’t be able to finance it, probably, without all the press that we’ve received from these things.”

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