'Top Chef' sets table in Portland
Time was, the chef stayed in the kitchen out of sight, which would be an ideal situation for Portland's Sara Hauman, a self-described "shy person."
Cooking shows have made celebrities out of chefs in recent years, and Hauman now gets her shot at fame with the airing of "Top Chef," starting Thursday, April 1, on Bravo. The show was taped in Portland and emphasizes Oregon cuisine.
Hauman laughs nervously when talking about her "Top Chef" appearance, because it's outside her comfort zone.
"That's a big part of my love for being in the kitchen. I don't want to say I'm hiding, but I can keep my head down, I don't have to put makeup on, I can throw myself together and go to work and focus on a task," said Hauman, who serves as chef at Sotero Vineyards in Carlton.
"In fact, I never even wanted to be a chef, I was happy being a sous-chef, being the one who got to work at 7 a.m., busted out the prep and went home, and didn't get any glory."
Perhaps on the opposite end of the chef spectrum, Portland native Gabriel Pascuzzi has welcomed the notoriety that comes with shows like "Top Chef," of which he'll also be a part.
A few years ago, Pascuzzi appeared on "Beat Bobby Flay," a cooking competition against the New York-based barbecue artist and chef. He didn't beat Flay, but Pascuzzi said it was a fun experience. He owns two Portland restaurants (Stacked Sandwich Shop, Mama Bird) and has developed a third.
"I've grown up playing sports and I feel like, even with fine dining, you have to have a competitive nature," Pascuzzi said. "You better perform or they'll find somebody else. It's part of why I want to go on the show, it's competition."
Hauman, Pascuzzi and several other chefs are part of Season 18 of "Top Chef." Producers won't allow contestants to reveal any results or what they cooked on the show or even where it was filmed. It's once again hosted by Padma Lakshmi, and this year it'll feature a slew of former winners, finalists and favorites as judges, including Portland chef Gregory Gourdet.
With Oregon food as the emphasis, chefs compete in a variety of challenges that include celebrating Portland's pan-African cuisine to feeding hundreds of frontline workers to crabbing on the Oregon Coast in tribute to culinary icon James Beard.
Filming took place last fall.
Hauman, a Vista, California, native who moved from San Francisco to Portland about three years ago, enjoyed her experience.
"Doing something like this is so not normal for me," she said. "But we were just in a year of anything but normal. It seemed like the right timing for me.
"I was pretty surprised of my ability to come out of my shell. I made the great decision after the show, that I'm feeling comfortable to progress myself as a human and go a little further in my career," she said.
"I've been nervous to network and talk to people, but I put myself in the most uncomfortable position I can think of. It changed me as a person. No one likes to be judged, and criticism is really hard to take. … Putting myself in that super uncomfortable position almost broke the chains for me, but it made me accept feedback and to not be afraid to accept feedback. I was nervous and scared during the duration of the show, now I'm not scared anymore."
In her work at Soter, Hauman realizes she makes food to pair with wine, for the most part. They grow vegetables on the Soter property, and "a lot of my job during the summer is taking a ton of tomatoes and peppers and preserving them."
She added: "I take a pretty casual approach to food, I don't like to manipulate it. I try to be playful, and take a classic and put a spin on it."
Hauman said it's been fun exploring the variety of Portland foods, and "seafood is kind of my thing," especially anchovies. She's also delving into private chef gigs.
Pascuzzi, a 2004 graduate of Wilson High School (now Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School), said he tried "not to cook to one judge" on "Top Chef," but rather, "like I run my restaurants, I like to make the food I like to make."
Pascuzzi has been competitive in his profession, since the days of foraging in his grandfather's garden, helping his uncle with his Big Fork, Montana, restaurant in the summer and watching "Emeril" with chef Emeril Lagasse.
He said he remembers his mother not being the best of cooks, and being motivated to cook well after eating a pasta dish — salsa poured over egg noodles and topped with chunks of cream cheese. "That was eighth grade, freshman year, and, 'OK, I'm going to cook from now on,'" he said.
He developed a love of the culinary arts, which carried him to Johnson & Wales University and then to New York City, where he worked for current "Top Chef" judge Tom Colicchio at Colicchio & Sons.
He also worked at Noma in Copenhagen before returning home and opening acclaimed Stacked Sandwich Shop, 1643 S.E. Third Ave., in 2017. He opened Mama Bird, 2145 N.W. Raleigh St., in 2019, six months before the COVID-19 pandemic forced restaurants to close their dining rooms and offer mostly takeout for the next year.
"Probably the most stressful year of my life," said Pascuzzi, who also has opened Feel Good as a mini-restaurant.
Pascuzzi said it's about time "Top Chef" visited Portland and emphasized Oregon foods on the show.
"There are a lot of talented chefs making the products shine," he said. And the products — ranging from berries and fruit to mushrooms to crab and fish to beef, lamb and wild game — are all available in the state.
So, Pascuzzi, like Hauman, said he hopes viewers enjoy "Top Chef" and its Oregon-centric appeal.
Again, they can't talk about what they made, but …
"I kind of had a list, and thought about what challenges 'Top Chef' would throw my way," Pascuzzi said. "I was pretty darn close on them all."
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