Before she made it to Top Chef, Sara Hauman had already accrued a collection of accolades. She was an Eater Young Gun, one of Zagat’s 30 under 30, a James Beard Award semi-finalist. But despite all the fanfare, Hauman sees herself as, essentially, a decent chef. “I am good at what I do,” she says. “Maybe not the best, but people enjoy what I do.”
Hauman had started her culinary career early, working in Spain and San Francisco for years before moving to Oregon. After opening Arden as the executive chef, lightly smoking olives and curling trout crudo and slivers of apple into roses over a swipe of horseradish cream, she moved to wine country, taking on a job as a chef at Soter Vineyards. But Hauman says that going on Top Chef’s 18th season, which premieres tonight, April 1, on Bravo, forced her to reckon with her own self-doubt. “I really took a lot away from the experience, not just confidence in cooking, but in my whole life,” Hauman says. “There were a lot of things I saw more clearly. So when I left, I didn’t lose that momentum.”
In the show’s 18th season, competitors travel throughout Oregon and Portland proper to compete in challenges, learn about the region, and discuss the weight of working in the industry amid a pandemic. Eater Portland spoke with Sara Hauman to discuss her time on the show and how she found herself in the process. Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So the last time I spoke with you, you were working at Arden in Northwest Portland. These days, you’re out in wine country. What is the main difference between those two experiences? Do you think wine country work or traditional restaurant work prepared you more for Top Chef?
Working in the winery is different. It’s not necessarily the restaurant experience; I don’t work restaurant hours. I have a lot more duties that basically involve me preserving the farm — a lot of canning, because we don’t do a lot of production in the winter. It’s really hard to be prepared for any experience. It’s a culmination of a lot of my years cooking abroad, cooking in a big city, cooking in a rural environment — all of that, the culmination of that, really prepared me.
Obviously this was a particularly strange time to be competing on a restaurant-centric cooking show, especially in Portland which was grappling with the wildfires; how did it feel to be participating in a show like this during such a challenging year for the industry and this part of the country?
I think there was definitely a part of me that felt a little guilty. I felt guilty at the beginning of the pandemic. I had gotten out of restaurants and went into wine country. I did it at the right time, and I had a lot of guilt. I had been working in restaurants for 15 years, and seeing my friends struggling or completely out of work was really, really hard. So I did things like the cooking classes for ChefsFeed and donating the proceeds to Family Meal. It was right after that that the casting person from Top Chef reached out. I wanted the potential to have a platform to do this kind of… not charity work, but to give back. Especially to work with food in a different capacity that gives back to the environment and the world in general.
I know that Top Chef filmed in the Willamette Valley and in Portland proper; you’re familiar with both. Did that feel like an advantage to you?
Honestly, I don’t really think it was an advantage. I’ve only been in Oregon for three years, and I had a year and a half in Portland proper, a year and a half in the Willamette Valley. I didn’t grow up here, so a lot of the things we did and saw in the show were new to me too. It was like, “Wow this is so cool!” It was so new to me, and for a very long time I kept my head down. Being able to see a lot of more of not just Portland but Oregon was spectacular.
In a competition like Top Chef, a lot of the competition is just yourself. I didn’t have an advantage because I’m incredibly self-deprecating. That was one of my takeaways: I am so hard on myself, I beat myself up on a daily basis, and I’m working so hard now not to do that. It was ever-present to me, this larger-than-life experience that provided a little clarity. I realized, “Man, I’ve been mean to myself for such a long time.”
What really surprised you about appearing on a show like this? What caught you off-guard?
When I thought about going on Top Chef, my biggest worry was, “I just don’t want to put out a dish that’s so terrible that it’s embarrassing.” I didn’t really think about the friendships I would make, and I was 100 percent that person who ended up going “I’m going to miss all my friends.” I kept my head down for so long, I don’t have a huge friend circle, but I’m definitely less shy now. I didn’t realize i was going to have a huge friend circle now — Not just other competitors, but the crew. We text, we talk on the phone, it’s a crazy thing for me.
What was your main takeaway from your time on the show?
I am extremely competitive, much more competitive than I thought that I was. I was just so proud of myself toward the end, just doing it and not thinking about it. What you see is me. I’d never done TV before, I was just authentically me, that’s the only person I know how to be. I just love myself a lot more because of that.
Top Chef Portland airs April 1 at 8 p.m. on Bravo.