When some Maine farmers had a bunch of turnips that had accidentally gone to flower, they thought they had screwed up big time. At best, the harvest would go straight into the compost. Chef Cara Stadler decided to intervene; she wanted to use the discarded greens for a culinary experiment.
"We turned it into a fermented green and it was the best flavor," she says. "It's the closest thing I could get to the pickled mustard greens from China."
Stadler, who is half-Chinese, is a reputable chef in the Maine food scene. In the past several years, she has been a semifinalist for a James Beard award for Rising New Chef and received a nod from Food and Wine as Best New Chef. Currently, she is the force behind Tao Yuan in Brunswick and Bao Bao Dumpling House in Portland. Both are Asian fusion concepts that source locally when possible.
At Tao Yuan, her menu is a mash-up of New American influences with Asian garnishes. Aged duck breast, for example, is paired with a gastrique inspired from the sauces of the Shanxi province of China. Lamb tartare is decorated with rice crackers and fish is pan-seared and flavored with black bean chili and pickled ginger. Bao Bao Dumpling House, on the other hand, is more traditionally Chinese. Dishes include zha jiang mian, or noodles with broad bean paste, and an impressive collection of dumplings – some typical (pork and cabbage), some quirky (shrimp and bacon).
Prior to launching her restaurants, Stadler had spent years in the kitchens of China working the line and learning about local techniques and ingredients. It wasn't without context though: the maternal side of her family hails from Shanghai and she grew up eating and cooking home-style Chinese cuisine. Red-cooked chicken was a staple of her childhood and her mom had taught her how to roll and fold dumplings from scratch.
"I absolutely love Chinese food. The first time I went to China, I thought I would never come back to the States," she says.
She did come back, eventually, but not without inspiration. Today at her restaurants, Stadler handcrafts her own sauces and ingredients. Notably, sambal sauce and miso paste is made from scratch. She's also experimented with homemade rice cakes, though she says hasn't been able to perfect the texture yet. Also, fermenting unwanted greens is a particular passion of hers.
"In Southeast Asia and China, they use everything," she says. "Here, the flowering herbs aren't sold. But those buds, when you ferment them, they are so amazing. Umami bombs."
Up next: an ambitious three-story, closed-loop aquaponic greenhouse next to her New Brunswick restaurant Tao Yuan that will raise fish like trout and grow plants like wasabi root, winged beans, Vietnamese coriander, makrut limes, and celtuce. She's especially excited about the wasabi—a plant that takes two to three years to cultivate to maturity.
"I want to put a yuzu tree in, too," she says.
The greenhouse plans will be open-sourced and unlike the mono-crop operations typical of most aquaponics farms, Stadler and her team are focusing on variety.
"It's about a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse space and our hope is to grow stuff that aren't readily available in the United States," Kate Holcomb, the farm coordinator for the company, says. "The more reliable stuff is bok choy, spicy greens, lettuce mixes, and some herbs."
Below the plants in the basement, the team will be raising trout. But while there are plans in place to cure and pickle the trout, the fish is much more than just another ingredient. They're a critical piece of the aquaponics system: The trout produces waste, bacteria converts the waste to nitrates for the plants, and the plants filter the water for the fish. It's a cycle that powers itself and hopefully will produce the food the restaurants need.
Holcomb and Stadler say that they will be heating the greenhouse with energy from the kitchen. "Greenhouses aren't effective in Maine because of the cold winters. The cost of the heating here becomes cost-prohibitive so the idea is to recycle energy and recycle heat," Stadler says. "So we're going to use the heat from the kitchen."
Currently, the entire project is completely experimental and set to be finished by spring or summer of 2017. The long-term goal is to be able to replicate the greenhouse at the company's future restaurants and allow others to duplicate their plans. "We want this to be a community hub for integrated agriculture," Holcomb says. "We're planning on operating as a non-profit down the line."
For Stadler, the greenhouse is a ultimately an experiment in sustainability and bringing what would otherwise be exotic ingredients closer to home.
"The first goal when you start a restaurant is that it's successful. We've already got a tremendous amount of recognition," she says. "My long-term goal is to create a sustainable business not just in a singular entity but in a bigger picture sense all the way from food sourcing to giving back to the community."