Chef Sara Hauman on Top Chef Portland.
Chef Sara Hauman on Top Chef Portland. David Moir/Bravo

If you’ve been watching the current Top Chef season, filmed in Portland, then you might feel like you already know Sara Hauman, one of the season’s current front-runners.

Hauman is head chef at the restaurant at Soter Vineyards, a winery in the Willamette Valley’s town of Carlton that serves ingredients grown at its on-site farm, and she calls Portland home. On Top Chef, she’s endeared fans and fellow competitors with a zany, slightly self-deprecating sense of humor, and a cooking style that centers beautiful ingredients with deceptively simple techniques and flavors.

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“I think [the show] showcased me as being exactly who I am, which is a little bit quirky, a little bit shy,” Hauman told the Mercury in a recent interview. “I have hilarious one-liners, I absolutely have had issues with self-confidence in the past, and I think that I gave the producers exactly what they’re giving back to me and to the audience. I couldn’t really hide myself.”

With Oregon’s summer bounty of produce almost upon us, we took the opportunity to ask Hauman for her thoughts on cooking a farmer's market haul, pairing dishes with Oregon wine, and what food experience she’s most looking forward to post-pandemic.

MERCURY: You made a splash on Top Chef and on social media recently for being a big proponent of cooking with tiny fish. Are there other ingredients you’ve been really excited about using lately?

HAUMAN: At Soter, because it’s been such incredible summer-like weather, all of our plants have been going bananas. They shoot up 10 inches overnight, almost.

Just this week, I was really excited about all the stuff put into my walk-in [fridge] that's from the farm here... I’ve been really loving the bok choy I’ve been getting, not only from Soter but also from farms out in the valley.

What dishes have you been making with bok choy?

Right now we have a really great dish, it’s been one of our favorites. I’m doing a lightly grilled and smoked albacore tuna, with a very simple seared bok choy, a little bit of lemon juice, and olive oil. What gives it a lot of flavor is a warm sauce with garlic, anchovies, olive oil, a little butter, and sherry vinegar. They're very simple flavors, but with the tiny bit of smokiness on the fish, and then the acidity from the lemon on the bok choy, along with the rich, salty anchovy, really puts it over the edge.

People have been very excited about that dish, and that makes me very happy.

Speaking of locally grown ingredients, we’re getting into farmers market and u-pick season here in Oregon. What advice do you have for people who want to get into cooking with all these local ingredients, but maybe don’t have a ton of experience or time?

Cooking vegetables is sometimes scary—I know after a long day of work, I find myself looking in the fridge, and the last thing you want to do is cook a bunch of vegetables. It’s just a lot of extra work.

But what I would say, first off, is to prep your veggies ahead of time. When you have a day off, don’t just prep your vegetables for the night, prep them for the whole week. For your vegetables, that might mean blanching them, or just making sure they’re trimmed up and clean—if you have asparagus, snap those ends off. That’s what I do; get everything ready and make it easy on yourself.

Another fun thing I’ve been doing a lot lately is kind of a donabe [a Japanese clay pot that has its own cooking style], but doing it really lazy. So I put my rice in the rice cooker, and then you can go to the store and get those nori seaweed snacks. I’ll put a layer of those on top of the uncooked rice. And then for instance, if you have bok choy, you can just halve or quarter those and put them on top, and then just steam everything. So you’re basically making a one-pot meal, and when you’re done you can season it with whatever you want—I usually have kimchi and kewpie and some shoyu lying around.

That’s usually what I do for cooking vegetables when I’m feeling super lazy. Just cook them in the rice cooker with your rice, which is really fun.

Grilling is also a fantastic way to use produce. It’s a little hard with some vegetables—you have to be cautious about the heat, so for grilling vegetables my trick would be, don’t go full heat. You gotta go low heat.

Hauman with fellow Top Chef competitors Chris Viaud, Dawn Burrell, and Gabe Erales.
Hauman with fellow Top Chef competitors Chris Viaud, Dawn Burrell, and Gabe Erales. David moir/Bravo

I love going to u-pick berries every summer, but then I have a hard time figuring out what to do with them that isn’t dessert or just eating them straight-up. Do you have any suggestions for cooking savory dishes with berries?

Berries go pretty well in salads, especially the tart berries—raspberries, or even marionberries can be pretty sour—they’ve got that acidity that's going to brighten the salad up. Sauces are also a really great thing for fruit, maybe if you’re making salsa.

I think fruit can go really well with ceviche too. That’s a big go-to for me in summer. When I make ceviche, sometimes I’ll do mango or pineapple, but you could use berries. I’ve used strawberries in ceviche before, and it’s surprisingly very delicious.

Since you’re a chef at a vineyard, a big part of your job is pairing food with wine. Any wisdom you can share about how to do that with Oregon wine and produce? All I know is that white wine is supposed to go with fish.

The key is to remember that food and wine pairing is very subjective. For example, I’m pairing albacore tunas with Pinot Noirs. Will it go great with a Chardonnay? Absolutely, but it will also go great with Pinot Noir, because I’m putting that smoke on the albacore and treating it like a piece of meat.

So the first piece of advice I have is to forget about the rules. And for me, I don’t taste the wine and think about what food would go really well with it, I do the opposite. I figure out what I want to make first, I taste the food, I taste the wine, and then I figure out how I can make the dish go with the wine. Do I need to put smoke on it? Do I need to put more acid into it? Do I need to make it richer? Food and wine pairings get very boring very fast... I try to make the food first, because that keeps it more creative.

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There are different ways to go about it, but I would say that practice makes perfect. Not every wine is going to go well. And the wine you open today, if you open it even two weeks from today, it’s going to taste different. It’s never going to be like “This wine goes exactly with that food, and that’s it,” because that wine is always changing.

We’re all looking forward to COVID-19 restrictions being eased soon in the Portland area. What’s something food-related you can’t wait to do once it’s safe?

Honestly, I really just want to go to a bar by myself when it’s busy. I want to sit at the bar, and I want to eat a burger by myself while music is blaring, and a funny movie is playing with captions. That’s all I want to do—and there’s no one else. There’s lots of people around me, but I’m by myself.