How the West Was Won
The mother-daughter duo pioneering a new restaurant frontier.
January 14, 2019 ● 8 min read
By Aralyn Beaumont | Photos courtesy Cara and Cecile Stadler
To Chef Cara Stadler, the industry is a Wild West in flux.
“What the fuck do you do? How do you grow?” she says. “That’s where I feel like a lot of chefs are now: We’re all talking about it, we’re all trying to figure [it] out.
"Either way," she adds, "we’re making good food up here and we love what we do. It’s more about community than anything else."
“Up here” is Maine, where Cara is chef and co-owner of Lio, a modern European spot; Tao Yuan, which is modern Asian; and BaoBao Dumpling House, a Chinese fast-casual concept. After leaving her small Massachusetts hometown to attend high school in Berkeley, California, Cara, now thirty, would eventually land in China, Philly, France, Singapore, and China again before returning to the East Coast to set up shop in Maine.
Within major restaurant cities, pockets of community spring up. In Paris, you’ll find cooks and servers from Septime hanging out at La Cave in the off-hours; go to Le Dauphin and you'll find cooks and servers from Le Chateaubriand. From LA to New York to Copenhagen and so on, the pattern continues, because people move from all over the world move to work in the Nomas and Septimes of the world. Teams become friends, families, and roommates. It's a life Cara has lived many times over, having moved every year or two since she was fourteen.
"I spent so many years moving from place to place. My closest friendships are with people who are scattered all over the world,” she says. "Part of deciding to open a restaurant means deciding where you choose to have your home; I wanted to find a place that would be stable."
The move to Maine was a family matter: Her parents, a business developer and an educational entrepreneur, had recently renovated an old waterfront family property that had, at one time, been where Cara's great-grandmother went to summer camp and had served as the family's summer home for four generations. Surrounded by giant old pine trees with a long staircase leading down to the water’s edge where kayaks await, it's very Parent Trap.
By this point, Cara was twenty-two and cooking in Shanghai for Australian chef and restaurateur David Laris. She’d spent the majority of the previous eight years away from her family. It was time to go home.
Opening a restaurant becomes a feasible option, regardless of age, when financial backing is on the table, and Cara soon remembered a deal her parents had made with her and her siblings when they were teenagers: If any of them didn't go to college, they'd invest the money they would have spent on tuition into a business, should they present a fully fleshed out business plan. Here one was, in fledgling form.
In the end, she ended up with much more than a financial investment: she got an unlikely business partner in her mom, Cecile.
If you'd asked them whether they'd ever go into business together just a few years earlier, they both would have told you—no. Emphatically no.
Last spring, the duo added Lio to their restaurant group, Eighty-Ate Hospitality. Along with chef Ryan Scott, Stadler pulls inspiration from all over Europe: some nights, they'll serve a French cassoulet with braised meats, others there’s spätzle and cabbage rolls stuffed with rice and minced farce. There's always a few house-made pastas, like a ricotta cavatelli they served in December with duck and rosemary.
Cara learned early on that cooking would allow her to work anywhere in the world. After she spent her last year of high school in China (“So much history, so much food, so much to learn and do,”) she returned to the now-shuttered Café Rouge in Berkeley for a few years, then left for France to attend Le Cordon Bleu and began to race her way through the kitchens of Paris. Hired as an apprentice in Gordon Ramsay's Versailles restaurant, Gordon Ramsay au Trianon, at age nineteen, Cara was moving from station to station as a chef de partie when her student visa ran out.
Neatly avoiding the French bureaucracy, Cara skipped over to Singapore, where she next found work at Emmanuel Stroobant's acclaimed French fine dining restaurant, Saint Pierre. But again: two years passed, and her visa ran out before she was old enough to officially take on a chef's role. So, she did what any self-respecting young cook would do, and packed her bags again. "I didn't have a choice, but also, an itch [had been] scratched,” she says. “Living in another country isn’t easy, but in my mind, it's one of the most rewarding experiences you can have in your life. It gives you a totally different perspective."
Cara’s parents were living in Beijing, having left Massachusetts so her father could pursue a teaching position. Cecile was hosting large, but casual, dinner parties for friends, and it wasn’t long before she began crashing her mom's parties. With her French culinary-trained daughter around, Cecile’s dinners grew into more elaborate affairs and expanded outside of their immediate circle of friends.
"It was just for fun, because our community of people asked us to do it," says Cecile, whose decades as a businesswoman shine through our conversation. She has one of those voices made for podcasting—articulate, crisp, and vaguely New Englandy—amplified by her encyclopedic knowledge of all matters related to the Stadler family. "Then we got a certain amount of interest from the expat community to cook Western food, and it became an invite-only, exclusive thing. You had to know somebody who had been to one of these, and it became fairly popular because the food was really delicious."
It was the first time they’d worked together. “We were working on top of each other," recalls Cara. "I was overseeing the kitchen and trying to be my mom's boss, which was a terrible idea. I wasn't old enough or mature enough. I hadn't been through enough in my life to even begin to grasp how messed up I was."
Cecile just laughs. (Hindsight is kinder.) "I was cooking, so she was my boss! And she was not very nice to her mother. She was nicer to the housekeeper than she was to me. We went to the market once, and we bought a case of ducks. There were ten or twenty ducks, and she told me how to break them down and then she criticized everything I did—there's too much waste on the duck, I didn't do this knife cut cleanly, the garnish isn’t fine enough. She goaded me! And I'm her mother!”
It was too much. Despite their success, Cecile swore she’d never work with her daughter in a restaurant again.
Maine was the place where hatchets could be buried and harmonies would be found. The kitchen at Laris was a wake-up call for Cara, who learned how to properly manage people. She took that lesson and put it in a business plan that strictly delineated her role in the kitchen from Cecile's role in managing the business. They've flourished in their own lanes: Eighty-Ate has grown to nearly one hundred employees in six years.
Cara speaks about their success with a healthy dose of self-deprecation. "My mom's incredibly good at the business side of things,” she says. “Since [my parents] were about to put this investment in me and they didn’t want it to go to shit, a good way for my mom to keep her eyes on her money was to pay attention. There was definitely the feeling of, This is her first business, and she might implode it."
Cecile, for her part, spent thirty-five years running successful tech companies before entering the belly of the restaurant industry beast. In Massachusetts, she served as Vice-President of Technology for an internet and gaming cafe company called Cyber Smith, and would eventually go on to start Traxit, which would provide the technology for those independent internet cafes, until home computers made those obsolete and she pivoted to schools. Despite their rocky Beijing partnership, she trusted her daughter's newfound confidence and threw herself into the chaos of the kitchen.
Some of the more shocking aspects of that world—crude language and drug abuse among them—took some getting used to, but the two have put a concerted effort into creating a new standard for professional kitchens. While restaurants have long-attracted strong personalities and fostered abusive behaviors, Cara wanted a clean break from the type of environment that functioned as a positive feedback loop for such maladaptive behavior. She came up in old-school French brigades, after all, where cursing and abusive reprimanding was historically acceptable behavior, but that wasn't how she was going to run her kitchen.
"I’m at this point in my career where I’m trying to figure out how to do all the things that I set out to do originally: make the most delicious food and maintain standards without the old-school way of making people miserable in the process,” she says. She wants to make sure her cooks love what they do even while they push themselves to work harder to achieve new goals.
That balance has meant five-day work weeks and wide-ranging employee benefits: healthcare, paid vacation, and growth opportunities; second-nature concepts to Cecile who has worked in corporate environments her entire life, but huge deviations from the norm in Cara's world.
"The idea of not trying to make my home a better place is sort of crazy to me," she says. In all the years she's spent cooking all over the world, only one restaurant stands out for taking care of their staff in a way she found worth emulating: Café Rouge in Berkeley, led by Chef Marsha McBride. "She gave a shit," she says. "She didn't go big, she did it right, and a lot of her staff has been with her for twenty years. All the ambitious restaurants, the ones that are internationally known and recognized—the places people strive to work at—don't do that."
Cara doesn't remember talking with her mother about needing to establish a healthy environment within their business—it was just understood. "What we're trying to do is create a community that can offer a diverse set of jobs and is sustainable from [an] employee point of view, energy point of view, a food production point of view. There's an opportunity to bridge some of these gaps, and it's possible for us to do it because of Maine. It's very supportive of local, small, and organically grown businesses. It's more affordable in terms of real estate, operating costs, the loyalty of employees."
Behind the scenes, Cara and Cecile have been working on a sustainable aquaponic greenhouse that they hope will start supplying the three restaurants later this year. Not only is the endeavor going to reduce the restaurants' carbon footprint and lower operation costs, but it will provide a space to grow the Asian greens that Cara struggles to source in Maine. She's excited to beef-up the range of ingredients for Tao and Bao Bao, where she already plays around with Chinese dishes, like pastrami steamed buns and kung pao sweetbreads.
Cara's animated about all things—traveling, culture, French marshmallows, the right and wrong ways to run a kitchen—but she becomes even more passionate when she talks about her mom. She's hard on herself when she talks about how things were in Beijing, when she was a "little shithead.” Her gratitude and respect for her mom are palpable.
"My relationship with my daughter has just become so close, and believe me, when she was thirteen years old, I never would have predicted [that.] She was a very difficult adolescent,” Cecile says. “It’s nice that we’ve grown into this very tight relationship that has value for the rest of our lives. That’s so important."
"You know, it's funny," Cara adds, "All these chefs, we get all this credit, [but] there’s all this shit that has nothing to do with food and nothing to do with service that has to happen, things that owners understand. It's hard work and it's taxing. It's a thankless job, and she doesn’t reap any of the benefits."
A profoundly un-shithead-like sentiment, if you ask me.