The sky was alight with sunbeams on a rare coatless, early spring day in Brunswick, Maine. Just off Maine St., tucked away from the bustle of cheerful dogwalkers and schoolchildren bursting with excitement and ice cream, the red and gold flag of ZaoZe Café & Market billowed in the passing breeze. Above the tanks full of rainbow trout and beneath the second-story greenhouse, chef-owner Cara Stadler and her team were finishing their morning meeting behind the pastry counter, sipping milk tea as they prepared to take their respective positions. I waited for Cara at a table beneath a window, the world outside partially obscured by the “Black Lives Matter” sign spread across its panes and by the row of beckoning cat figures perched on the windowsill. Soon, Maine and Asia would converge in the kitchen and at these waiting white tables, and all would be welcome to come celebrate their union.

Mackenzie Cooper

Cara Stadler had plans to open a restaurant of her own before she even had a high school diploma. Her aspirations led her around the country in her teen years as she sought out chef mentors and developed her technique, and later around the world as she endeavored to expand her culinary horizons. After years spent laboring in Michelin-starred kitchens in France and running two of Chef David Laris’s restaurants (and a pop-up of her own) in China, Stadler returned to the United States at the age of 24. She was “still a baby” when she began to set in motion her schemes for a restaurant, but she was eager to put the knowledge and skill she’d long cultivated in other kitchens to use in a kitchen of her own. Having settled in Maine, a place she’d grown familiar with through childhood visits, Stadler’s plans for her first establishment came together with the help of her business partner and longtime supporter, her mom Cecile. At last, in 2012, Brunswick became the home of their premier restaurant, Tao Yuan.

Pushing Maine Out of its Comfort (and Time) Zone

“I spent a lot of time in Asia,” Stadler explained on that sunny morning. Customers were beginning to trickle in as Fred Astaire gave way to The Cranberries over the speakers, and the cashier greeted each new arrival with a warm smile. “I missed the flavors. Not the bastardized versions we typically find [in the U.S.]. I missed the intensity of Asian flavors the public was serving to themselves in their home countries.” With a population that’s over 94% white  and less than 2% Asian, Maine can be limited in its offerings of non-Western cuisine. Stadler opened Tao Yuan with the goal of expanding the culinary assets of a state whose natural ingredients are “incredible at a baseline,” and capable of producing stunning food of any origin. The restaurant’s initial resounding success enabled her in 2014 to open Bao Bao Dumpling House, a staple of Portland’s burgeoning food scene, and later ZaoZe, located just behind the building that houses Tao Yuan. While Tao Yuan is working to reopen after a pandemic-era closure caused by staffing shortages, business at Bao Bao and ZaoZe continues to flourish. 

Mackenzie Cooper

Though she often has to compromise on spice level (“we’re in Maine still”), Stadler attempts at each of her locations to present plates that reflect and respect the cuisines she draws inspiration from. “Dishes come from places. There are roots of things… I think if you choose to take a name of something from another country and stamp it on your own shit, it should actually be related to it.”

She elaborated on her philosophy during our emphatic discussion of what distinguishes dolsot bibimbap, a Korean mixed rice dish, from any other combination of rice, kimchi, and toppings (if you’re wondering, it’s the hot stone bowl that creates a heavenly layer of crispy rice at the bottom of your meal, a textural treasure trove lying in wait for your searching spoon). Stadler expressed her frustration at attempts she’s witnessed in other local kitchens and in her own to pass off any seemingly “Asian” dish under a title that will sell. “It's like taking a ‘paella’ and making a risotto instead. You just would offend every Spanish person that existed. Egregiously! And so I wish that that level was given and observed by everyone else in putting names on dishes that are Asian.”

She didn’t claim to have always succeeded in doing so herself:“We called our Asian slaw 'Asian slaw' for years because it’s a mix of, like, three different techniques from different parts of Asia. But it's so generic that we can’t call it Asian slaw… It was an error on my part for years and we just acknowledged it, changed it, and moved on.” Now listed on menus as the Eighty Ate slaw, the accoutrement takes its name from Stadler’s Eighty Ate Hospitality Company, under which all her eateries are established. Its re-christening is emblematic of her ongoing commitment to taking responsibility as a both a chef and a representative for a group of lesser-heard voices in Maine’s communities.

As she addressed the tendency of restauranteurs to avoid recognizing a failure to pay homage to a food’s cultural heritage, Stadler sounded suddenly tired. “Most people are not willing to openly acknowledge their errors. It looks bad on their end. But that's life, you know? A lot of people don't want to do the right thing.” After all, she exclaimed, “some people believe in the Golden Rule and some people don’t give a fuck.” But Stadler doesn’t waste time trying to force positive change on people who don’t want it. Working from the inside out, her “care and hope that other people care” approach starts with ensuring that all the food she serves her own customers is deeply and accurately linked to its roots.

And so far, her Golden Rule philosophy has been paying off. The honesty Stadler brings to the dining table is received by guests hungry for both delicious experiences and deeper understandings. Steve Cerf, a self-identified “Brunswickian” and a regular at ZaoZe, has been a fan of Stadler’s food ever since he first discovered Tao Yuan in its early years. I chatted with him over his eclectic lunch of a chicken bánh mì, a Filipino empanada, and cucumber salad in the cozy café located just minutes from Bowdoin College, where he taught German for 43 years. “I love the whole pan-Asiatic food that you have: Filipino and Korean and Chinese and Vietnamese and Japanese, all blended, and it’s a treat to eat here.” In the middle of his meal, he called out to the cashier to ask about the contents of his empanada and sandwich. He nodded along as she explained the dishes to him, grinning proudly when she confirmed his suspicion that the bánh mì came from Vietnam because it had been served on French bread.

Staying Grounded in the Ground

Stadler puts the same the energy that drives her to share her favorite cuisines from abroad with Mainers into finding sustainable, locally minded means to facilitate that exchange. For Eight Ate Hospitality, good food starts with the highest-quality ingredients available in the area. “At the end of the day, if the product’s delicious, it’s delicious. Unless you fuck it up, it’s gonna be good.” Stadler works closely with local farmers, a support network she considers herself and the restaurants “very lucky” to have, to obtain the freshest produce each season. Whatever she’s given then guides her toward the intersection she seeks between Maine foodways and her Asian culinary focus. “It's not very Asian in terms of ingredients,” Stadler said of her current cooking style. “There's just so many things here that are not [found in Asia]- but there's a lot of overlap too, and a mushroom is still a mushroom.

Mackenzie Cooper

From a duck-filled take on sheng jian bao—­­a simultaneously crisp and fluffy pan-fried pork dumpling that oozes herbaceous, savory juices—to a steamed bunloaded with chocolate and custard, some of her favorite dishes have come from this product-first approach. One of her and her staff’s all-time favorites is a delicately poached sake-marinated chicken breast, served cold over a bed of matsutake mushroom duxelles. “It turned out to be one of the best dishes we've ever made. And it just happened to be that at the time we had the trim of matsutake mushrooms.” She later gestured behind her to the stocked shelves beneath the main counter, each lined with an array of ZaoZe’s house-made market items. Among them were clustered bottles of their new sambal, which featured local peppers they had purchased and fermented themselves. Ornamental white dragons snaked up their fronts, paralleling the line of English that described their contents to browsing clientele.

While she’s mostly reliant on the local providers she’s cultivated relationships with to stock her restaurants, Stadler hasn’t shied away from getting her own hands dirty. Situated above and below ZaoZe and marked by the white protective film that curves over the building’s arched top, the aptly named Canopy Farms became fully functional during the pandemic. Its aquaponic system furnishes Bao Bao and ZaoZe with fish that occupy tanks in the basement and plants that thrive off of their recycled nutrients on the upper floor. The climate-controlled environment allows Stadler to grow ingredients that aren’t suited for the typical farming conditions of Maine. But as an agricultural method that vastly reduces water and land usage  compared to what’s required by traditional techniques, Canopy Farms is just as valuable for advancing Stadler’s goal to develop “a more sustainable agricultural system for urban environments.”

Looking back on her first cooking gig as a teen in California, Stadler recalls that the restaurant that employed her “ran a very green kitchen instinctively.” Though environmental consciousness hadn’t factored into her early culinary aspirations, her proximity to cooks and businesspeople who incorporated it into every decision they made convinced her that it was both feasible and necessary. “I was very lucky to be at a place that cared a lot right from the get-go. We didn’t waste anything, and we recycled and composted, which was not typical when I started cooking but now is more common.”

Stadler continues to employ those practices in her own restaurants to ensure that they remain common, for the sake of the environment as well as the people that now accommodate and frequent her establishments. “The most relevant thing in my mind for small restaurants is to be part of this community and serve the community that they exist in. And this is a community that appreciates, in general, being a green business… and [growing] in an organic way that is also respectful and mindful of the people that are around us.”

Those people, from the farmers she works with to her employees at each of her locations, keep Stadler’s dreams grounded in reality. “You’re only as good as your food and you're only as good as your team,” she said of her staff’s influence on the continuing evolution of her business. “I'm a single human being, I can only do so much. And really, these places don't exist without all these people.” To honor their efforts, Stadler tries to foster conditions under which everyone around her can thrive. Her sustainable model of restaurant ownership is not only an eco-friendly one, but one that “allows people who stay in it to make a living. And not, like, a measly living, but a real living that you can have two days off a week and have a family with.”

And Stadler, who married her wife Laura just last year, knows the importance of making time and space for loved ones in your life, as well as for creating spaces where the people you care about feel loved. As soon as our conversation ended, she popped over to the table where Steve Cerf was digging into his Filipino empanada to catch up. They chatted about her recent honeymoon and about Cerf’s weekend; light bounced off of the pink-rimmed shades resting in Stadler’s hair whenever she threw back her head and laughed at Cerf’s jokes, which he cracked often and with ease.

Making a Place for Placemaking

When I spoke to Cerf later that day, he confirmed that the exchange was nothing unusual. “I know she’s high-powered and all that, but she’s always been incredibly welcoming. And if you spend time here, you see that all kinds of people drop in and are customers.” Cerf enjoys his conversations with Stadler, as well as the pleasant surprise of running into a neighbor or friend during a visit to ZaoZe for a weekday lunch. He also enjoys seeing other customers feeling as welcome in the space as he does. “Very often I come here and there are Bowdoin students, and maybe half are of Asian descent.” Watching as the students order dishes more confidently than he feels able to and interacting so comfortably within the café, Cerf feels that his beliefs about the distinct importance of Stadler’s institutions are reinforced.

Stadler, too, is grateful to be able to offer a slice of familiarity in an area that can at times feel isolating for individuals of Asian descent or for others with ties to the Asian continent. “It's nice when people who either have traveled to or are from those places come here, because they get excited about things that they don't see outside of this place that they’ve traveled. That’s something that I feel very proud of.” Stadler’s pride at the positive community response to her establishments gets at the core of her objectives as a chef and restaurant owner: setting the best example for small businesses that she can. While not everyone may give a fuck about the Golden Rule, Stadler steadfastly believes in returning everything she’s received from the inhabitants of Maine, the land that provides for her, and the people and cuisines that have molded her identity and food into what they’ve become today.

Mackenzie Cooper

I told Stadler how much of her ideology had been evident to me on my very first visit to ZaoZe months before, in the middle Bowdoin College’s Family Weekend. A friend and I, our own families unable to come up to the school to participate, wandered the streets of Brunswick in search of any spot not already swarming with visitors where we could catch our breaths. We at last stumbled upon the café, its tables still open by some stroke of inexplicable luck. It greeted us warmly with crisp, fragrant scallion pancakes and a pair of fluffy pork buns tinged with sweetness, which we gladly raised in a toast to our companionship. With jazzy tunes, gentle conversation, and the scent of spices blooming in the kitchen floating on the air, we settled in for a meal in what became a temporary home.

As my anecdote and our time together came to a close, Stadler smiled. “I mean, that is the goal. That’s makes you happy every day. That is the marker of doing well. It’s not the price, and it’s not just money, and it’s all of those things, for everybody.”