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Aug. 1, 2021

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‘Top Chef’ Portland’s Sara Hauman on self-confidence, yogurt and the importance of little fish

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PORTLAND — Sara Hauman didn’t set out to become “Top Chef’s” granola-crunching, yogurt-loving “weird girl from Portland.”

The 34-year-old, one of two chefs with local ties featured on the popular reality show’s first Portland season, says that yogurt just happened to be front-and-center in the “Top Chef” fridge whenever she needed dairy, which over the first six episodes was often. And, yes, in her day-to-day life, she does use yogurt as a replacement for sour cream or buttermilk, leaning on the ingredient to add some natural tang to a dish.

“It’s funny,” Hauman says, sitting near a leafy strawberry patch at the display garden at Soter Vineyards, the stunning wine country tasting room near Carlton. “After I came back from filming, I looked at the menu from my sous chef, and for dessert it had ‘yogurt pudding,’ and I was like, ‘How does she know?”

Other than providing montage material, the yogurt obsession hasn’t slowed Hauman down. Over “Top Chef” Portland’s first six episodes, she has notched two Elimination Challenge wins, more than any chef besides Seattle’s Shota Nakajima. (Nakajima and Austin chef Gabe Erales remain her closest friends from the show; even sending flowers for her birthday last month). Hauman has managed to establish herself as a front-runner despite a self-deprecating nature played up by the production.

“I was nervous,” Hauman says, speaking through an iris-patterned mask fashioned from an old curtain. “I said crazy things, I kept having these out of body experiences at the judges’ table, where I would be like, ‘Sara, shut up, you never talk this much,’ and words would keep falling out of my mouth. You do weird things in high stress situations.”

Filming wrapped last October. Since then, Hauman has spent her workdays commuting to Soter from her Southeast Portland home, driving down 99W through Newberg, out into open wine country before turning up a steep and winding gravel road and passing a small pond, a field of deep red amaranth off in the distance. From the top of the hill, Soter has some of the most beguiling vistas in Oregon, with handsome tasting rooms looking out over rolling vineyards, open valleys and mist-shrouded hills. (It’s also home to Bill, an orange tabby cat who swishes his crooked tail between our legs throughout the interview.)

By nature, Hauman seems like an open book. Ten minutes after we meet, a question about her pre-Oregon cooking career in San Francisco, where she racked up awards and positive reviews, leads to a frank discussion of her father’s death, and how, at age 26, she suddenly became responsible for his hospice care. At the time, Hauman was nearing the end of a six-month stint cooking in Spain.

“I didn’t really know how sick my dad was until I got a call from his hospice social worker, who said, ‘He has a week to live,’ “ Hauman says. “So I flew back to San Diego, fingers crossed, hoping to make it in time. My parents are divorced, my mom’s in a different state, so I just kind of had to deal with it on my own. I never wish that upon anyone. My dad did not want to be in a hospital. I got off a plane and was given 15 bottles of pills from a nurse who said, ‘See you later.’”

Some of her earliest memories involve traveling with her dad from their home north of San Diego down to Tijuana to bet on horse races or jai alai.

“I grew up at the Del Mar racetrack,” Hauman said. “My dad would let me put bets on, and explain what all the bets were and what they meant. And I’m over here like, “Dad, can I get a $2 quinella box?’”

With both parents working full-time, Hauman, a precocious student and youth soccer player, was often left at home with boxes of cake mix to bake by herself. But it was during a first trip to Spain, in a small village in the hills west of Málaga where her father moved after retiring, when Hauman decided she wanted to make cooking her career.

“It was the idea that eating was an event that got me really excited about food,” Hauman says. “We would go to eat lunch and it would be multiple courses eaten over hours, from 2 to 5 p.m., and then you sleep. And people seemed so happy and healthy, like they really enjoyed life.”

Hauman flirted with “Top Chef” several times over the years. But each time a casting agent reached out, a job offer would come in that she couldn’t refuse. The first call came just before an opportunity to work under Melissa Perello at San Francisco’s Octavia. Then, another inquiry came from the show just after she accepted the job at Arden, a wine bar and restaurant in Portland’s Pearl District. By the time she decided she was ready, she had to wait: “Top Chef” was gearing up to film its “All Star” season, featuring notable former contestants such as Portland’s Gregory Gourdet.

Though Hauman says she’s “never really done a cooking competition before,” her career has set her up well for “Top Chef.” Some of her first cooking jobs were at wellness centers in the San Diego area including The Golden Door, a “swanky hippie spa” best known for its psychedelic-fueled parties in the 1970s and for hosting the likes of Oprah and Barbra Streisand. At another spa nearby, Hauman was tasked with making food without sugar, butter and very little salt, like some kind of health-conscious Quickfire Challenge.

“I can still make you some sugar-free sorbet if you want it,” Hauman says (pass), accompanied by her trademark hair-trigger laugh. “But there was a moment where my sous chef told me if the mashed potatoes taste really good, then you put way too much salt and Earth Balance in there. And I was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t work here anymore.’ How are you going to work in a place where your job is to make food and you’re being told, ‘Don’t make it taste too good?’”

After working with rising-star chef Brandon Jew at San Francisco’s Bar Agricole, Hauman applied for a six-month stage, or unpaid internship, at Etxebarri, the Basque Country grill often ranked among the best restaurants in the world. While in Spain, she learned the art of treating phenomenal ingredients with extreme care, whether oily little anchovies on grilled toast, plump prawns kissed by fire or fresh fish descaled to order.

“I love ‘Top Chef,’ but we weren’t getting that kind of well-sourced food by any means,” Hauman says, contrasting the two experiences. “We were doing the online shopping thing. And that’s hard. To not be able to feel something, smell something, look at something? How are you going to know the quality of that food?”

Two weeks before the end of her stage, Hauman returned to the United States to see to her father’s final arrangements, then moved back to San Francisco, where she was offered a job running a new fine-dining restaurant. At The Huxley, Hauman would earn many of her accolades, including two Rising Star James Beard Award nominations and a strong review from the San Francisco Chronicle. The attention seemed a bit much to Hauman, who largely ran the 27-seat restaurant by herself, including one memorable brunch where she had to cook with the restaurant’s phone in her pocket because she was the only one there to answer it.

Hauman was approached about opening her own restaurant, including at least one with a multimillion-dollar budget, but the idea of starting a business in that city — any business — just didn’t seem feasible. And she didn’t want to take investors’ money with the knowledge it would likely never be paid back. At 30, she was starting to realize she preferred working with food to being a restaurateur.

“This is my rationale,” Hauman says. “If your restaurant makes it to five years, because that’s lucky, you will have worked 90 to 100 hours a week to maybe break even. If you’re not in it for the ego or the awards, what is the point?”

Just 30 years old and burned out by the San Francisco bubble, Hauman began hunting for jobs in other cities, including Portland, where a cousin lived, and where she had been impressed by the easy access to nature and the abundant sidewalk gardens.

“I realized I didn’t have any hobbies,” Hauman says. “I just worked. And then on my days off I would eat and sleep and do laundry. I didn’t have a whole lot of friends because I couldn’t keep up the friendships just from working too much.”

In 2018, Hauman helped open Arden, a Pearl District wine bar and restaurant that introduced Oregonians to the delicate cooking style she would soon deploy on “Top Chef.” In July, The Oregonian named the restaurant one of the best new restaurants of 2018, praising Hauman’s “creative snacks” including “house-cured anchovies with grilled bread brushed with a whisper of tomato jam.” But her time there was not to last.

“I came up here and very quickly realized that I’m in a different city, but it’s the same restaurant B.S.,” Hauman says. “It’s front of the house and back of the house tensions. It’s the owner seeing things in a different way than the chef. It’s me being pretty transparent about not wanting to be chained to the stove, and wanting to really learn more about the process of running a restaurant, and not getting that.”

In 2019, Hauman learned that Soter was looking for a head chef, and after a few “great conversations,” decided to give it a try. The chic vineyard reminded her of those early health spa days and, she hoped, might offer a break from traditional restaurant stress, and the time to pursue some of those missing hobbies. Lately, that has meant caring for house plants, making fish sauce at home and escaping to the forest with Stella and Rambo, her two chihuahua mixes picked up from the Oregon Humane Society.

At work, Hauman cooks what she wants, typically using ingredients from the vineyard and its farms. She doesn’t worry too much about specific pairings, working under the maxim that “delicious food just goes well with delicious wine.” These days, as Hauman waits for some chickens and two cows from the ranch to be slaughtered this summer, guests are eating lots of seafood, an ingredient Hauman could become better known for than yogurt.

“My job’s easy,” Hauman says. “After people drive out here and come up to the top of the hill, I have to really try to mess something up in order for them to not have a great time.”

Near the end of our interview, as Hauman is showing me around the little outdoor market she set up at Soter during the pandemic, with its nuts and granola and silvery little anchovies swimming in orange oil, a delivery van pulls up, and Hauman signs for a bag of unshucked oysters. That afternoon, she plans to drive to Seattle, where Nakajima recently reopened his Japanese restaurant, Taku. Together, they will watch the most-recent episode of “Top Chef,” then shoot some fundraising videos for The Wave, a nonprofit that works with Indigenous fishers and small boat communities.

In Episode 6, the most recent to air as of this writing, Hauman wins an Elimination Challenge by partnering up with Nakajima to cook a dish with rabbit and smelt, then admits that her “dream of a lifetime” was to own a “boutique cannery.” It’s said with a laugh, but Hauman says she is actually “super serious” about the pursuit. (That fish sauce project starts to sound less like a hobby, and more like recipe testing for a new business.)

For Hauman, who remembers eating canned smoked oysters with cream cheese on bread as a kid, the burgeoning concept is as much about the environment as it is about the food.

“The fact that the coastline is so large, and there are hundreds of rivers in Oregon, and yet it’s still a very meat-centric place, seems so backwards. And when people eat fish, it’s albacore and salmon. At the store, it’s albacore and salmon. If you eat out a lot, you might think black cod is pretty mainstream, but for the average consumer, it’s not. But black cod is incredibly abundant in Oregon waters. Black cod, rockfish, Petrale sole, these are all fishes we should be eating to be a little nicer to our salmon and tuna populations.”

Before joining “Top Chef,” Hauman assumed she wouldn’t make it far, and would end up “going to go back to work and deleting all my social media.” She was raised in a kitchen culture that saw appearing on food shows as “selling out.”

“I still have that feeling,” Hauman says. “I didn’t really go into it thinking that I would make friends, or anything like that. I just did it because my life was boring.”

But lately, she has worked to get over her self doubt and embrace the fun, posting selfies and “Top Chef” stills to an Instagram account that has nearly doubled in followers over the past few months. And she even started filming Instagram Live cooking demonstrations for her new fans.

The most recent tutorial? How to make yogurt.

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