Trial and Error to the Top

Last week I randomly bumped into an old friend of mine from culinary school and we started catching up on the past few years. He told me he had quit the food industry after traveling around New England for a bit, but wouldn’t go into further detail. After interrogating him as if he were a suspect rather than a friend—and with the help of some cocktails— he finally told me. He loved the kitchen but he wasn’t expecting to start at a lower position and have to work his way to the top. Plus he didn’t like getting yelled at. He’s a talented kid, but he was expecting to go straight from a two year program (shout out to all the homies at SMCC culinary program in South Portland) to running a kitchen on his first day. Nice dream but it just isn’t happening.

His story to me has become sort of a trend in the past few years. Personally, I feel as though kids nowadays want to jump right into the captain’s chair without paying their dues and or going through the trenches. So, I want to throw a few things out there that I’ve learned over years (and am still learning every single day in the kitchen) and hopefully it will help.

Unless you’re a prodigy, you’re not going to start out at Sous Chef or Chef de Cuisine. You’re going to start out at garde manger. This is where you learn fundamentals, organization, some flavor profiles; and you keep your head down and do work. Take pride in every dish you put up. Show conviction. If you think you are fast at prep work, go faster. Always set a higher standard for yourself. Eventually you will move up the ladder.

You’re always going to make a mistake—mistakes happen. What’s important is how quickly you can react to that mistake and find the best logical solution to fix it. Never be afraid or too proud to ask for help. It took me a long time to realize that. In the kitchen you work as a team, and if you succeed, the whole team succeeds. Never take it personally when a chef yells at you—most of the time there’s a good reason. I love my team in the kitchen. They are my backbone all day, every day. They know that sometimes in the heat of the moment that things don’t go as planned and they hear it but they know it isn’t personal. Keep your head down, do work and get through it. You will continue to move up the ladder.

The people I’ve met and worked with who started at the bottom and steadily worked their way up have ultimately found success in their career as a cook or a chef. And it’s really rewarding to see and to hear about it. You work hard, you learn, and you apply it, and great things will happen. You will learn so much by just taking the time and putting in the effort and paying your dues—instead of quitting all because you want to jump into a position you’re not ready for. It’s such a waste of all the talent and time that you’ve given. I know I’m still learning. Whether I have a good day or a bad day, I learn new things every day at work. I’m still growing and can only continue to do so professionally and personally. Don’t quit and give up. Do work.

— Josh Amergian, Chef, Bao Bao Dumpling House

Young Josh getting his start in the kitchen

Just eat it already!

Me: Here. Try this: a yummy almond cake. I think it needs a sour glaze though…
Hannah: Mmmmm… yeah. How about tamarind?
Me: *scrunches face* Nah, sounds weird…
Hannah: How do you know? Have you tried it?
Me: Nah, I just don’t think so… it’d be weird.

It was a rare occasion when I would sit and have dessert just for the sake of having dessert.  This may sound funny coming from a pastry chef.  I mean, what kind of pastry chef doesn’t want to eat sweet things?  I dilute my orange juice until it mostly resembles water with an almost-imperceptible orange tinge! But, day after day of baking and tasting, freezing and tasting, seasoning and tasting, scraping and tasting, blending and tasting, tasting, tasting, tasting, and TASTING, I just cant find it in me to bring anther morsel into my mouth.

And yet, I will always order dessert.  Always. There are several reasons for this:  first and foremost, we pastry chefs have to support our own.  (Haven’t you heard we’re a dying breed?) Part of it is to satisfy a professional curiosity. (Fermented black bean mochi donut holes? Bring it!)  Mostly though, I will order dessert every time because it is my job to eat.

Invariably, on the occasions that a young cook or curious person asks for advice, I will give them this juicy bit: just eat it already!  I might get chuckles, I might get an expression filled with shock or dismay; I might get the occasional: “Hey, don’t you tell me what to do.” But then I explain and it makes perfect sense.

You see, the only way to develop a good palate is to taste things: eat them, swish them around in your mouth, pay attention to the details:  is it slimy?  Buttery?   Smooth? Fatty? Gritty? Tannic? Try to get beyond just the sweet, sour, bitter, salty and REALLY taste something.

Again and again and again.  Taste, taste, taste.  I say: try everything!  Eat great desserts, eat bad desserts, eat middle-of-the-road stuff.  Knowing what you don’t like and why is just as important as knowing what you do like and why.  Try local produce, try the stuff that traveled from halfway around the world, try fruit in season and then go and try the fruit not in season.  Try them in sauces, jams, pickled, roasted, and charred.  Taste things all day, every day.  Do it until you don’t have to think about it anymore; taste until it become second nature.  Green almonds? Yes, please.  Vietnamese coriander? Don’t mind if I do!  Blueberry umeboshi mustard? Umm, YES!

You see, only in this way do you start filling that circular Rolodex of flavor in your mind.  Each new combination is another card added.  And only through tasting a range of ingredients and experiencing new flavors and textures can you get to the point where tasting one thing might remind you of another thing: perhaps you start with that buttery almond cake that Hannah and I spoke of, only it makes you think of a tangy passion fruit glaze, before you remember the passion fruit curd you tried at that little shop in Boston with a faint whisper of orange blossom water and how they also served those super deliciously flaky pistachio croissants with black sesame seeds and how much they rocked your world even before you’d had your morning coffee, OH!, and then you think of that hot afternoon that Saskia made the. most. delicious. iced horchata lattés and how you would give your first born child for another tall glass of that heavenly ambrosia because, mmmmm, the ground almonds, and cinnamon with brown rice, and do I detect just the tiniest bit of clove?…  Mmmmm, clove!  THAT would pair splendidly with a vanilla and passion fruit braised pineapple and perhaps there we could even incorporate a little tamarind paste!  That would be delicious!

…But not with the almond cake cause that would just be weird.

You get my point.

Only through tasting anything and everything can your brain get to the point where it can start making those kinds of powerful connections.  It is those connections that will propel you forward with a broader range for creativity, that will allow you to approach your cooking, sweet or not, with a greater degree of nuance, that will ultimately make you a better cook and in turn, a better chef and teacher.

But, let’s be honest, sometimes tasting sucks.  So what do you do when you just cannot stick another bite in your mouth? Had one too many helpings at staff meal? Reached flavor overload and you. just. cannot?!  Well, to that, I say: trust the process and just eat it already!

— April Robinson, Pastry Chef, BaoBao Dumpling House


April’s first taste of durian. So yummy if you can get past the smell!

January Travels

Every January Tao shuts down for a month to give our weary bodies a chance to catch up on sleep, to give the staff an opportunity to travel and see friends and family, and to escape some epic snowstorms (especially important to those who plow out Tao’s parking lot).  Cara and I have taken advantage every year, and have had amazing adventures driving through Thailand and Italy, touring though Gaudi’s Barcelona, and stuffing our faces with Stilton at Borough Market in London.  We’ve eaten chicken grilled to rare in Japan, drunk Sauternes in Sauternes, France IN the field where the grapes were grown, and crushed Bahn Mi sandwiches every night we were in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Cara and Saskia in Emilia-Romagna amongst the wheels of Parm

Obviously our travels tend to be very food focused.  My dad has said that anyone who travels with us is guaranteed to eat well.  The other side to eating is the food production; seeing the incredible amount of energy that goes into the item that you chuck into your cart at the grocery store.  In Emilia-Romagna, we watched wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano created from hundreds of gallons of milk (160 gallons of milk yields two wheels of Parm).  The whey left over feeds the pigs that will become prosciutto.  The wheels follow Italy’s DOC guidelines and age at least 12 months.  They are rotated, cleaned and tapped with a hammer.  A trained ear listens to the sound of the cheese when tapped, and decides when the cheese is ready to be opened.  The Parmigiano must be perfect inside, and any holes will mean the cheese is sold under a different label and with a lower price.  As someone who cooks for a living, I would imagine it’s disappointing to find imperfections after all the time and energy that goes into each wheel (not to mention the financial hit—people, not machines, do the bulk of the work).  However, an imperfect cheese does not even touch the story that was a crucial part of our tour: the tragedy of Northern Italy’s 2012 earthquake, which shook the warehouses that stored thousands of wheels—approximately 300,000 fell to the ground and cracked.  Now remember that 80 gallons of milk goes into each wheel.  Standing in that room surrounded by all that cheese put that number into perspective.

Italy’s earthquake was not the only story we heard about nature disrupting the plan.  While we were trilling our Sauternes and reveling over the deep complexity of flavor in our glasses (and how much foie gras we were going to buy later that day) we learned why Sauternes is so expensive.  One vine will produce 1/5 the amount of wine of other varieties.  The grapes become infected with “noble rot,” which produces the distinct prized flavor.  However, the amount of rot has to be carefully monitored, and the grapes are picked by hand, and too much late rain or an early frost will devastate the whole crop. There have been whole years where nature has prevented a vintage. YEARS.  I appreciated my glass that much more after hearing that fact.

Our jobs are very rewarding, I think, partially because there is a beginning and an end.  You start with raw ingredients, prep all day, and turn out dinner for up to 90 people.  The kitchen is hot and sweaty, and when you sometimes cook dinner for that many people, it’s easy to think to yourself “this is totally crazy.”  And it is.  But then you remember all those people you met who work so diligently to make the Parmesean that we microplane on our tuna poke (don’t be too shocked at this sacrilege of cheese and fish—it’s an umami bomb of delicious).  And when your morning starts on a wharf looking at fat Maine scallops right off the boat, or combing through quince trees for the roundest most golden fruit, or picking up a thousand kinds of hot peppers from the Farmer’s Market that were grown with your restaurant in mind—it levels the crazy of the day.  At the end of the month of vacation, I think everybody is ready to get back to work. Not only are we eager for a little structure to our days, but after watching people creating beautiful product, we want to share what we’ve learned and follow suit with our own creative spirit.

— Saskia Poulos, Chef, Tao Yuan restaurant

Saskia and her mom stirring traditional English Christmas Cake– stir three times clockwise and make a wish for the new year!

Tuna Poke 
Serves four

Processing tuna at Upstream Trucking

8 oz  Sushi grade tuna, cubed
2 Tbs Scallion, chopped
1 Tbs Cilantro, chopped
1 Tbs Thai Basil, chopped
2 Tbs lime juice
A scant 1/4 c Macadamia nut pesto (recipe follows)

Mix everything together, adding more or less pesto and lime juice depending on your taste.  Adjust seasoning with salt and/ or fish sauce.  Microplane more Parm on top, and serve with shrimp chips.

Macadamia nut Pesto

3 ea red Thai bird chilis, blackened
1 clove garlic, smashed
225 g Macadamia nuts
50 g Parm, microplaned
50 g EVOO
Fish sauce to taste

In a blender, pulse nuts to a smaller size, then add the other ingredients and blend until pesto consistency.  Adjust to taste with fish sauce.


On the outskirts of Maine’s much-boasted food scene in the Greater Portland area is the small historic college town of Brunswick, Maine. I spent most of my adolescent years in, or passing directly through, this cozy Midcoast Maine destination– and over the years, I ate at many of the area’s restaurants. As a child, I never thought too much about the behind-the-scenes competition that thrived in the professional work environments of my favorite places for an evening milk shake, lobster roll, or bowl of soup. But as I’ve spent the last 14 years in the restaurant industry in this great state, that competition has become very real for me.

I find now, at the age of 28, that it is nearly impossible for me to stop an ever-revolving thought pattern of culinary critique wherever I eat; whether it’s a search for refinement, musings about price points, or simply the little adjustments I would make to the recipe if I made it. I notice this same instinct in my colleagues and especially in my chef and educator, Cara Stadler. When you dine with other restaurant professionals, sometimes the conversation is not as full of “ooo”s and “ahh”s, but more like a boardroom meeting (even if it can seem like a boardroom of misfits and quasi-pirates).

I feel that building an establishment like Tao Yuan  in Brunswick has helped to strengthen the ecosystem of this strong culinary mentality. The more restaurants and eateries that constantly challenge themselves and others to be innovative in the locales outside of famous foodie Portland, the better off my home state will be. Living in Midcoast Maine, seeing these important transformations has inspired and solidified my career in the industry. Maybe the outskirts of Portland won’t always be home, but it is surely where I learned the difference between a simple monetary transaction for a meal and what the story of a restaurant can really be– the staff and their countless hours and efforts to perfect every detail.

–Kyle Birkinbine, Sous Chef, Tao Yuan Restaurant

Kyle enjoying a Midcoast Maine sunset