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Aquaponics, Pop-Ups, and Year One at Tao

Tao's Cara Stadler.
Tao's Cara Stadler.
Photo: Ted Axelrod

Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.

One year ago, just about the time Eater Maine was getting up and running, so was a little restaurant in Brunswick named Tao. In the 12 months since, Tao and its chef, Cara Stadler, have racked up some major accolades:

- Tao Received 4 1/2 stars from the Portland Press Herald's Nancy Heiser, who wrote in January "I find it remarkable that this well-traveled, 25-year-old chef is turning out such uncommon food after just six months in business."

- Stadler was Eater Maine's Chef of the Year, winning the prize can of custom-labeled San Marzano tomatoes to display with pride.

- Last month, Stadler was nominated for the prestigious Eater Young Guns class of 2013, which recognizes "50 of the brightest and most promising up-and-coming under-30 talent in the United States restaurant industry."

And oh yes, there was that small matter of the lawsuit alleging trademark infringement, brought by TAO Licensing LLC (because it's easy to confuse massive, loud, nightclubs in New York and Las Vegas with a serious, 40-seat restaurant in a small Maine town). But that's all settled and done, now, and the Brunswick Tao is moving on with a modified name, Tao Yuan (pronounced "U.N."). Recently, Eater chatted with Cara Stadler about the highlights of the year and what she and her parents/partners (her mother, Cecile works with her in the kitchen and her father, John, helps run the business behind the scenes) have in mind for the future.

What have been the high points for you this year?
We've been super fortunate with all the press we've been receiving. The Portland Press Herald review came out the first week of January and we had a very good winter, which is a thing few people get to say in Maine. Madeleine Albright (who gave Bowdoin's 2013 Baccalaureate speech and has a grandson at the college) came in for lunch last Friday and asked about the dumplings. That was really cool. I have never met so many naysayers: "Maine is hard ... your food is weird ... even though it's delicious people may not like it ... " but me and my mom have created a place where people can have stable, secure jobs. And now we're doing the greenhouse, which is going to be huge.

What's the deal with the greenhouse?
We're trying to do aquaponics and a greenhouse, a space that will allow us to have fresh greens all year. I want to have a yuzu tree, a kaffir lime tree, water chestnuts, water oat shoots, four sided beans – weird vegetables. We're looking to grow things I can't find or if I do they're not fresh. We're doubling the size of the building – the restaurant will be on the first floor, aquaponics on the second and a rooftop greenhouse.

In the downtime this winter we are going to do a dumpling pop-up in Portland – super-simple and delicious. There are no dumplings in Portland and this will keep our staff working while the greenhouse is under construction. We'll close in January or February and reopen in May or June. The idea is that we'll be back in full swing with a place that's twice as big with a greenhouse – an established establishment. The whole idea is that we can have all these green things in one spot and it's financially viable.

How is it working with your mother?
Mom and I have a very good set of complimentary skills and we stay out of each other's way. Her attention to detail with the dining room and bills is second to none – mine is obsessive with food – and it's a huge stress relief for me not to have to worry about it. We're very tight with our money; we don't miss anything. Every once in awhile we scream at each other because we've always screamed at each other and that's the family dynamic. Then we go away and do our thing for a little while and it's fine again. I really admire and respect my parents and it's great to work with people you respect and admire.

How has Brunswick treated you?
Having the college is huge. Bowdoin is Brunswick. We have a group of people here who have been all over the world. The (Bowdoin International) music festival every year shows the kind of people who visit and live here. And it is a year-round community, which is great for business. Brunswick is where you go when you live in a small midcoast town and you want to go to dinner or the movies but not all the way to Portland. For restaurants, the bar is being raised, which is really nice.

What's been the biggest surprise for you this year, good and bad?
People have been the most positive and negative thing. We just hired a cook who went to MECA for a year. He turned out to be this talented guy who really has a knack. And then there are people who blow my mind – they're married and they're over 30 and they're doing whippets in the back room. The drug use here is really frightening. It's terrifying to see the amount of it and the effects it has on people.

Being a good cook has nothing to do with being a good chef/owner. There are so many other factors. Right now we're concerned about maintaining quality ? and giving our staff a stable, sane place to work. We only do brunch one Sunday a month. We did six days in a row for Bowdoin graduation but it's not something we want to do long term. We all get two days off a week; I want a life as much as much as everyone else does.
—Susan Axelrod
All Coverage of Cara Stadler [~EMAINE~]

Tao Restaurant

22 Pleasant St., Brunswick, ME