Editor’s note: The Oregon Health Authority strongly recommends that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear face coverings in public indoor spaces. It’s also wildfire season — plan ahead and do your part to prevent wildfires.
Sara Hauman has lived in Oregon for just three years, but she’s an Oregonian at heart. The dog-loving, tattoo-sleeved, award-winning chef is also a bona fide celebrity-chef ambassador for the state, as season 18 of Top Chef (filmed in Oregon in 2020 and aired on Bravo earlier in 2021) put her on the national map.
While she wasn’t crowned the winner, fans fell in love with her fresh approach to cooking, her infectious laugh and her quirky, self-deprecating personality. “I’m really bad at having hobbies,” the 34-year-old confessed during a phone call earlier this summer. “I’m basically a grandma when it comes to spending money. I avoid it at all costs.”
Hauman, who has worked as head chef at Soter Vineyards in Carlton, has also built a loyal following of fans through her engaging Instagram Live cooking demonstrations. She’s collaborated with local wineries like Evening Land Vineyards in Dundee for an outdoor dinner and partnered with Pacific Northwest-based Burgerville to promote their seasonal offerings. She’s met up with fellow Top Chef contestants for promotions and keeps a steady pace of private dinners.
Amidst it all, Hauman is embarking on a whirlwind tour of Oregon this summer and fall to meet with fishers, growers and fellow chefs as well as visit some of the natural wonders spotlighted during the Top Chef production, including locations in the Columbia River Gorge, the Coast region and the Willamette Valley.
Visitors can catch her tasty collaborations with local chefs in the Willamette Valley, Oregon Coast, Hood/Gorge and Portland regions. Each collaborative dish will be featured on the respective restaurant’s menu for a week: Aug. 10-15 at Xicha Brewing in Salem; Sept. 29-Oct. 3 at Redfish in Port Orford; Oct. 11-17 at Brigham Fish Market in Cascade Locks; dates and location in Portland to come.
The California native — who was executive chef at the wine-focused Arden restaurant in Portland’s Pearl District before joining Soter — is also planning her next venture, inspired by her time on the show: opening a tinned-fish business to celebrate and promote Oregon’s underutilized seafood. Here’s what Hauman had to share about her love of veggies and fish, her furry companions, her approach to seasonal cooking, and the delight she finds in Oregon’s places and culinary bounty.
Tell us about your two puppies, who are a big part of your life.
I got Stella and Rambo from the Oregon Humane Society. I picked them up separately, but they love each other and are very much bonded. Rambo [a chihuahua mix] is 5; Stella is 8. Stella [a rat terrier– chihuahua mix] loves snacks, especially cheese. If you leave something out that’s edible, she’s 100% going to figure out how to eat it. She’s gotten sassy in her old age. Rambo is the adventure boy. I take them all over. I did take them to the forest a couple weeks ago. I stick Stella in a backpack and Rambo trudges through the crazy bramble, and we forage for things.
What do you do for fun when you’re not working or cooking at home?
I’m really bad at having hobbies. I’m basically a grandma when it comes to spending money. I avoid it at all costs. I’ve definitely been getting lost in the forest, doing foraging these past couple of years. That’s all I really need. I’m up for anything. I love adventure. I might want to get into archery — I tried it long ago and I’m actually pretty good at it. When I’m foraging I go all over — it depends on the season. Obviously, the Gorge is beautiful, with lots of forest chanterelles and morels. There’s matsutake on the Coast. I think [foraging is] more just about not thinking — or just thinking about whatever you want while you’re not talking to anyone else.
It sounds like you like doing a lot of activities alone, yet you’re very much in the spotlight since the airing of Top Chef. How’s that been?
I definitely feel like I’m an introvert. I feel like I’m learning how to be a professional extrovert. I feel like I’ve spent 34 years sitting on the sidelines; maybe it’s my turn to speak up.
What Oregon ingredients are you inspired by this time of year?
You can get some pretty good stone fruit in Oregon. I like plums and pluots — nice and tangy. Peaches are also delicious — they’re tart and also sweet. You can also make them savory. I like to grill them — they’re really meaty and their sugars caramelize. I also love sweet peppers for marinating, and you can use them for dessert too. Cucumbers — I love — and they go great with yogurt. One favorite thing of mine is a simple baguette with flaky salt, cucumbers and butter.
Tell us about your obsession with tiny fish and your next business venture.
I’m doing lots of networking, exploring the many options and looking for investors for my Tiny Fish line of tinned fish. We’re trying to highlight the less mainstream fish — not tuna, salmon or oysters. There’s enough of that on the shelves. What I want to produce are different species in the ocean that are just as abundant that we should be eating to contribute to balance the ecosystem. Especially on the Oregon Coast, there’s a lot more fish to be played around with. They tin cod in Portugal and Spain — why can’t we do that here? I really want to be able to highlight different Oregon seafood, not just things that come from the ocean. What I get excited about is how I can make people want to eat this, because we have so much of it and it’s not easily accessible. My motto is “No fish left behind.”
What will the Tiny Fish model look like, exactly?
It will be a microcannery or boutique cannery that will focus on these less mainstream varieties of fish that you can eat out of a tin, ready to go. It’s great for a picnic, a party or camping. I have the first round of funding coming through this week and I’m continuing to look for investors. I’m working with some small-boat fishermen directly; I want to give back to small coastal communities that have suffered through the pandemic. Ideally it would be a walk-in shop as well as a processing facility in the back. It would be a little shop with a very tiny 6-foot bar top where you can sit down and have a glass of sherry and eat some fish too; a place to grab provisions for a weekend stay at the Coast.
Finally, tell us about your partnerships with chefs that are happening this summer. How will you come up with the featured dishes?
I did the first one today, at Xicha [in Salem]. I usually connect with the chef a few weeks beforehand, and they talk about the ingredients readily available to them. Because I have such an eclectic cooking style I can match their flavors pretty well. [Xicha chef] Ricky Antunez said let’s focus on fresh corn, so we made a fresh corn arepa with Dungeness crab meat, two salsas and an avocado garnish. We made sure it was super tasty.