A decade ago, Top Chef alumnus Sara Hauman would spend her afternoons in high-powered restaurant kitchens, butchering whole animals and poring over menus. These days, however, she spends her time tearing apart squares of fried mac and cheese.
“Ooh, that was a good one,” she says, watching a ribbon of Monterey Jack stretch between her hands. The shade of the light around her changes, blue shifting to purple shifting to red as the cheese stretches. Hauman developed the menu for Portland’s new interactive gallery space, Hopscotch, home to caves made from 86,000 upcycled bags — how many are used every five seconds globally — and a color-changing ball pit visitors climb inside. The Southeast Portland gallery opened in the Goat Blocks on June 9, with 14 installations from Portland-based and international artists as well as strawberry-matcha sundaes.
In her current role, the chef is not doing much that’s house-made. Instead, she’s frying mac and cheese and topping Tillamook ice cream with potato chips. That’s exactly how she likes it. At Hopscotch, Hauman is trying to let go of those restaurant industry hangups and just have fun.
Hauman started her career — and excelled — early. She worked with celebrated San Francisco chef Brandon Jew in her 20s; she then staged at Asador Etxebarri in Spain’s Basque Country, currently ranked fourth on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. At age 28, she became an Eater Young Gun; the following year, she was a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards’ rising star chef of the year. But as the country’s food world discovered and celebrated her, she struggled to hold onto herself.
“I was really happy in my early 20s, as a cook going into the kitchen with my head down and learning all of these new things,” she says. “But as I moved up the ranks, something just started to get a little bit lost. ... I got accolades very early, and I felt very undeserving of them.”
She moved to Portland and was the executive chef at Pearl District restaurant Arden, but she left the restaurant world soon afterward, heading to Soter Vineyards and then Top Chef. “The reality show gave this snow globe I was in a shake,” she says. “I realized that I wasn’t paying attention to my real life.”
Instead of using the Top Chef buzz to open a restaurant, she hosted pop-ups, launched a tinned fish company, and took consulting gigs, like Hopscotch. Those jobs allowed her to celebrate the things she loves about cooking without the pressures of the restaurant world.
“I never really wanted to open a restaurant,” Hauman says. “I don’t need to be the creative genius behind anything. ... So this project is great, because it’s not about me — it’s just about creating a playful experience.”
Nicole Jensen and Hunter Inman began Hopscotch as an Austin pop-up, before opening the permanent gallery in San Antonio with rotating food trucks and a bar stocked with edible glitter and popping boba. At the Portland Hopscotch, cocktails are similarly elaborate, garnished with flaming limes and cerulean butterfly pea syrup. For Jensen and Inman, having a strong food and beverage presence at Hopscotch was non-negotiable.
“For a long time, I’ve felt like there has been maybe not as much dedication to the food or beverage side of art in the art world,” Jensen says. “I have a long history of hospitality experience, and I’m always surprised by how much people can leave out food and beverage.”
When Jensen and Inman started seeking a chef consultant for the project, Hauman seemed like a natural fit: Her creativity and sense of fun clicked with their premise for the Hopscotch menu — “adults going wild at the county fair,” in Hauman’s words.
When developing the menu, Hauman wanted to play with Portland’s overarching culinary themes, while also making the menu manageable for a team serving crowds every 15 minutes. That meant using shortcuts, but not ones that felt cheap. Instead, she used products from Portland businesses: Hot Mama’s guajillo-chile oil over popcorn with Albina City corn nuts and cotija, for instance. “I’m going to proudly tell you that 80 percent of what I’m doing is not house-made,” Hauman says. “We’re supporting local artists and makers and using some products that are already great.”
Other dishes are homages to what Portland does well. To honor the city’s Thai scene, popcorn comes topped with salt from fish sauce barrels and candied peanuts. Oregon albacore becomes something closer to sushi-style spicy tuna, served on a waffle with seaweed salad, and the city’s legendary totcho is reimagined as a tater tot waffle with tobiko. As a nod to the city’s vegans, Hauman designed a dairy-free mac and cheese with mapo tofu folded in. “It was sort of a chili mac variation from when I was a kid, you know?” she says. “Can of chili, box of mac.”
For dessert, ice cream plays a major role, in the form of sundaes. Tillamook ice cream gets upgraded with things like matcha milk drizzle or rose-lemon curd, or in the case of the Forager’s Dream sundae, porcini-dusted fudge and chocolate-covered truffle potato chips.
“Our mission is to make everything feel accessible to people, whether that’s a really high-tech art installation or environment in general,” Jensen says. “We want people to come in here and not be intimidated by the experience and kind of have it be really playful.”
That urge to create something nostalgic was a given at a place like Hopscotch, and some dishes are meant to be easy wins: banana-Nutella waffles, graham cracker sandwiches filled with marshmallows and chocolate, and those cheese-filled, jalapeño-popper-inspired fried mac and cheese squares.
“It’s just fun,” she says. “You can just eat things with your hands.”