Top Chef

Sara Hauman Dishes on Her Time at 'Top Chef' Portland

One of our local cheftestants kissed a lucky fish, won over judges with eggplant yogurt, and shared her dreams of opening a boutique seafood cannery.

By Katherine Chew Hamilton May 21, 2021 Published in the Summer 2021 issue of Portland Monthly

Sara Hauman and her two tiny dogs

Chef Sara Hauman spent much of Top Chef season 18, filmed in Portland, wowing the judges while seemingly second-guessing herself at every turn. After an impressive performance throughout the season that culminated in a lackluster halibut dish in a “Restaurant Wars” challenge, Sara packed her knives in Episode 8—though she could make a dramatic return later this season via Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen. But she’s confident in what she wants to do next. Hauman, who was executive chef at Arden in the Pearl District before decamping for Soter Vineyards in Carlton in August 2019, is starting a tinned-fish line. Dubbing it Tiny Fish, she’ll use local, often underappreciated seafood like rockfish, black cod, and purple sea urchin, along with favorites like anchovies and sardines.

What was the story behind the lucky stuffed fish you kissed in the premiere? 

It was just all of the circumstances—feeling super anxious, and I didn’t really want to drink a whole lot when I was there, too, because I wasn’t eating properly because I was so nervous. I just gravitated towards good-luck charms, and the fish just happened to be one of my good-luck charms. I saw it, and I made it my thing.

Hauman makes a dish using roses in Episode 5

At the end of the first episode, you seemed really shocked when the judges chose your dish as their favorite. Did your confidence level change over the course of the show? 

Everyone has their own personal journey while filming the show, and mine was definitely about confidence. I would like to say that it gets better, but quite honestly, I don’t really know that that would be a true statement. I still struggle with confidence on a daily basis in my food. I’ll make a plate of food and I’ll eat it, and just nitpick everything that may be incorrect with it, and it’s hard for me to really step back and see it from someone else’s perspective.

I definitely feel like out of the other contestants, I probably have changed the most. The show was really a life-changing experience. I definitely had some clarity while I was away from all the technology, and just being able to kind of think about other areas in my life that maybe I wasn’t so confident in as well. So when I got back I absolutely changed that and kind of flipped everything upside down and started fresh, and I am much more confident in my food.

Sara Hauman at Cathedral Park

Did you adopt your dogs in Portland? 

My dogs are from the Oregon Humane Society. I'm definitely an “adopt, don't shop” lady. Stella was on discount because she was 5 years old. She's 8 now. Rambo's 5.

What are your favorite restaurants in Portland? 

If we’re going pizza—and you know me, I love melted cheese—Apizza Scholls. I love Langbaan and Paadee, those are amazing places. There’s a little cart that does amazing hand-pulled noodles called Stretch the Noodle, super delicious. If I’m going for date night, I think Coquine is pretty solid. Very cute inside. You feel like you’re the only person they’re cooking for at that time. Quaintrelle also falls in the date-night category. Going for pho, I love Mekha. Upscale, super date night, that’s gotta be Berlu.

Sara and her teammates celebrate a win in Episode 5.

How did tiny fish become your signature ingredient? 

The one thing that I’ve always made in restaurants where I’ve been the chef is pickled anchovies. People tell me that they hate anchovies, but they love these, and I should package them and sell them.

Hopefully within the next few months, I’ll be launching a Tiny Fish business that involves a lot more than anchovies, but that’s kind of where it started. I feel really close to the name Tiny Fish, because that’s how I felt for so long: like this tiny little fish in this big pond of really cool chefs that do all these cool things and they’re so confident, and I’m over here like, “I don’t know what’s going on!”

Any tips for people heading to Soter Vineyards to try your food?
We’re booking up left and right. I think it’s a combo of the Top Chef exposure and vaccines being doled out. During the week, we have a bit of availability, so if people come to Soter, I would say play hooky from work and come in on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, and you’re probably going to get in.