Even before she was cooking, Chef Cara Stadler, owner of Tao Yuan in Maine, always had a plan.
When Cara Stadler, chef/owner of Tao Yuan in Brunswick, Maine, and BaoBao Dumpling House in nearby Portland, was 16, she sat down and wrote a 10-year plan for herself. She had just graduated from high school in Berkeley, California, where she’d been living with her aunt, after a junior year spent abroad in China and craving more diversity than her small hometown in Massachusetts could offer. Younger than her peers, and not as interested in academic achievement as her siblings—who had both scored perfectly on their SAT exams—she had no desire to continue on the traditional collegiate path. Even at that young age, when most teenagers barely know themselves, Chef Stadler understood that she wasn’t a standardized, one-size-fits-all type of person.
Regardless, her father gave her an ultimatum: college or a job.
Stadler chose to get a job. She’d always enjoyed a positive relationship with food, coming from a family that had a genuine affection for culinary pleasures, so she landed at Café Rouge in Berkeley. That’s where, she says, the relationship grew more serious. Almost instantaneously, she “fell in love” with the industry. She’d expected to find something to occupy her time while she figured out what she wanted to do with her life; instead, she discovered her true vocation: chef. She immediately penned an outline for the next decade of her life, a not-unusual occurrence, says her Michigan-raised mother, Cecile, who told the Portland Press Herald that her daughter had already written an autobiography—when she was 5.
For the final year of Chef Stadler’s ambitious decade-long plan, which included a culinary education with top professionals from around the world, she set herself the ultimate goal of opening her own restaurant.
Of course, things didn’t go entirely as she had defined on paper. As luck—or rather, skill—would have it, Stadler wasn’t 26 when her Chinese-inflected establishment, Tao Yuan, debuted to national acclaim. Instead, she was only 24.
The road that led Stadler to the small coastal village of Brunswick, to a 2014 Best New Chef Award from Food & Wine Magazine, and to consecutive semifinalist nods for the James Beard: Rising Star Chef of the Year Award in 2014 and 2015, was a global one. After her stint at Café Rouge, Stadler headed east to the Striped Bass in Philadelphia, then continued across the pond to attend culinary school in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu. There, she staged at Guy Savoy and worked at Gordon Ramsay’s Au Trianon until her visa ran out. At that point it was 2008 and she took her skills to Singapore, honing them further at Saint Pierre, a French-Japanese restaurant, and then moved to Beijing, where her parents were living.
In 2009, Stadler and her mother, whose parents were both from Shanghai, decided to go into business together, debuting a supper club called Underground Beijing. It operated for about eight months, Chef Stadler says, and was “a tremendous amount of work. It’s not like a restaurant where you have employees to do different tasks. You have to do everything yourself.” After the experience, Stadler notes that both she and her mother—whom Stadler describes as “an incredible home cook,” but one who didn’t want to make it her profession—swore they would never work with each other again. “The problem was that our roles weren’t defined,” she says. “We were constantly stepping on each other’s toes.”
The mother-daughter pair split up after that. Stadler’s parents headed back to Maine, where the family had owned a home in Phippsburg for four generations, and Stadler moved to Shanghai. For the next couple of years, the chef continued to sharpen her worldly technique as a sous chef at Laris, one of the pre-eminent restaurants under restaurateur David Laris. Later, she opened Laris’ widely renowned private-dining restaurant, 12 Chairs.