Vista-raised ‘cheftestant’ and Del Mar’s Richard Blais featured on new season of ‘Top Chef’

Cheftestant Sara Hauman opens a can on Bravo's "Top Chef" Season 18, debuting April 1.
Cheftestant Sara Hauman, who grew up in Vista, is shown in the premiere episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef” Season 18, debuting April 1.
(Courtesy of Bravo TV )

The Bravo cooking competition series’ 18th season, filmed in a quarantine bubble last fall, debuts April 1


When the 18th season of Bravo’s “Top Chef” premieres on April 1, two chefs with local connections will be featured weekly.

Sara Hauman, a Portland, Ore.-based chef who grew up in Vista and trained in San Diego, is one of this season’s 15 “cheftestants.” And Del Mar resident Richard Blais, who won the first “Top Chef: All Stars” competition in 2011, returns to the series as a weekly guest judge.

In separate interviews last week, Blais and Hauman talked about the upcoming season, which was filmed in a quarantine “bubble” last fall at a resort in Portland.

Blais said he was delighted to be invited back to “Top Chef” because he’s proud to be associated with the program, and he said the contestants this year were extraordinarily talented. He was also deeply impressed by how well the show’s producers managed to adapt their filming environment to accommodate COVID-19 social-distancing rules.

Richard Blais on the set of "Top Chef" season 18, which premieres April 1.
(Courtesy of Bravo TV)

The contestants and production crew quarantined together at the hotel, where the season was filmed and they underwent daily testing. The studio kitchen and judges’ table were designed much larger than usual to allow 6 feet of separation between the cast and the camera and sound crews. In a typical season, the contestants usually run around a supermarket snapping up ingredients for their weekly dishes. But to keep their COVID bubble intact, Bravo stocked the studio kitchen with an abundance of fresh ingredients and chefs often ordered items for delivery. Whatever produce was left over after each episode was donated to Portland food pantries.

“When you see a production the size of ‘Top Chef,’ you see all the moving parts, but behind the moving parts you realize there are hundreds of people involved and how serious it is,” Blais said. “The proudest thing we accomplished is zero positive COVID tests for a number of months.”

The judging team for "Top Chef" season 18
The judging team for “Top Chef” season 18 includes Del Mar resident Richard Blais, far left, and head chef Tom Colicchio, far right.
(Courtesy of Bravo TV )

Many of the cheftestants this season worked at restaurants that were impacted by COVID-related shutdowns. Blais just opened a new restaurant March 18, Ember & Rye at the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort in Carlsbad. Its opening date had been contingent on the lifting of stay-at-home orders. Blais praised “Top Chef” head chef Tom Colicchio, who was a leader in the campaign for the recent stimulus deal that provided support to beleaguered restaurant owners nationwide.

“Tom is not just a famous person on TV, he’s the real deal,” Blais said. “He’s a real chef, and all of the things he’s done for our industry related to COVID is something we all appreciate. I’m blessed to stand on his shoulders. It’s my nature to be more fun-loving and campy, so we need people like Tom Colicchio to lead us and guide us.”

Sara Hauman, who grew up in Vista, is a season 18 contestant on Bravo's "Top Chef."
(Courtesy of Bravo TV)

Hauman, who is in her mid-30s, was born in La Jolla and raised in Vista, where she attended St. Francis Catholic School through fifth grade and then went to middle and high school at Guajome Park Academy. The charter school allowed her to create her own class projects, and one of her most memorable ones was launching an imaginary German restaurant. Hauman said she got into cooking in ninth grade after her parents separated. Whenever she stayed with her dad, cooking together became a bonding experience.

“What I cooked with my dad wasn’t great, but it was something we did together,” she said. “What I got out of being in the kitchen was it was a joy to prepare a meal and serve it to people and see them appreciate it.”

After graduating from high school in 2004, Hauman opted to go abroad rather than to college right away. She followed her father to southern Spain, where she developed a passion for food. After a year there, she returned to San Diego and attended culinary school. Meanwhile, she began working her way up the line at several local restaurant kitchens, including Paradise Grill in Del Mar, Jsix in East Village, the Golden Door and Cal-A-Vie resorts in the Vista area, and the WineSellar and Brasserie in Sorrento Mesa. Between school and work, she averaged 16-hour days and loved it.

“You’re just around food all the time. I loved those grinding days, getting there early and working super hard and at the end of the day being all sweaty and needing a shower,” she said. “There was this sense of hard work and accomplishment.”

At age 22, she moved to San Francisco, where she racked up a number of culinary honors at restaurants including Bar Agricole, Huxley, Octavia and Mister Jiu’s. Among her many accolades are being named a James Beard semifinalist Rising Star Chef in 2016 and 2017, and she was named to Zagat’s “30 Under 30” list. Hauman said she’s still astonished by the media attention she received in San Francisco, but she credits her adventurous palate and her tendency to follow her creative muse.

“I think about things a little differently than a lot of people in the kitchen,” she said. “Maybe I’m a little braver than I think I am. It was my ability to take those chances.”

Three years ago, Hauman said she got restless for some new scenery and seasonal weather and moved north to Portland, where she lives with her two Chihuahua mix rescue pups, Stella and Rambo. She commutes an hour into the countryside each day to serve as head chef at Soter Vineyards in Carlton, Ore. Hauman said winery chefs get a bad rap for not being serious about their work, but she is competitive and pushed herself during filming on “Top Chef” to speak up for herself and follow her heart.

“I tend to go against the grain, even though it’s the less traveled path. I would say there would be a challenge on the show and literally every other chef is doing one sort of technique of cooking, and I’m over here doing something completely off-the-rails different.”

“Top Chef” Season 18 will premiere at 8 p.m. April 1 on Bravo TV. For details, visit
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune