According to 28-year-old Sara Hauman, "everything was normal," during her childhood in a small town north of San Diego. She did well in high school, but rather than going to college right away, decided to take a year off to live in Spain with her father. And when she returned, culinary school seemed like the obvious choice— it was challenging, and she'd always liked cooking, making cakes from boxes during her summer breaks in grade school.
I was exhausted all the time — though that's probably why I'm good in the kitchen now
During culinary school Sara's work ethic began to shine, waking before 6 a.m. to get to work before class and ending her day after 11 p.m. most nights. "It wasn't necessarily the most awesome college experience, because I was exhausted the whole time" she says. "Although that's probably why I'm good in the kitchen now."
That's partially why Hauman launched her culinary career in the kitchens of several San Diego health spas. However, while the challenges of cooking with little or no butter and salt were a good exercise in creative problem solving, it was ultimately untenable for the chef. "I think at the time I was just happy to have good hours, but I had to quit when they were like "If the mashed potatoes taste too good, you used too much salt and Earth Balance.' I was just like, I can't do this. I'm leaving."
When she was 22, Hauman visited a friend in San Francisco and fell in love with the city. In less than six months, she had made the move north, eventually landing at Bar Agricole under executive chef Brandon Jew. But despite loving her job and rising to sous chef after a year and a half, Hauman wanted a change. So, she went through the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list and began to email chefs, asking to stage. When renowned Basque restaurant Asador Extebarri wrote back, she hit the road without hesitation, signing on for a six month stage.
I just want to make delicious, soulful food
The result was a love for the culture of Spain, and an emphasis on eating as a social experience. "There, everyone orders food for the table and shares—no one orders their own entree." said Hauman. "It was amazing how the chef [Victor Arguinzoniz] took the Basque food and presented it in a way that made people think it was fancy, but it was really so, so simple." And despite the distance between her own kitchen in San Francisco and the gorgeous local ingredients of Northern Spain, Hauman hopes to at least recreate the experience of dining at Asador Extebarri. "I just want it to be delicious, soulful food."
Ultimately, the quest to cook food with soul is what brought her to Huxley (or brought Huxley to her, depending on the perspective). Shortly after her return to the Bay Area, Hauman received a text from chef Brett Cooper (Outerlands, Aster)—a small restaurant from Kris Equeda (Saison, Sons & Daughters) was in the works, and Cooper, who was consulting on the project, thought Hauman's cooking would offer the perfect departure from the realm of fine dining.
Since it opened in fall of 2014, the tiny, 25-seat restaurant in a rough part of San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood has continued to mature under Hauman's steady hand. And in her own self-described "control freak" fashion, her hands have pretty much been the only ones involved, though there've been a few prep cooks along the way. Hauman currently has only one other person on the line with her during service, mostly because she says it's been hard to find the right person for the job. "Either they are totally overqualified and this style of food is boring to them, or they're completely under-qualified."
Even though she says people "get weird" about her pared-down staff (and her boss has had to convince her to hire help), Hauman says it's good to be a little stressed. "I like the good stress where you push yourself. But if it's too tight the food is going to suffer."
Hauman changes the menu often, and her simple but well-executed take on California cuisine is always at the center. Dishes like whole fish and roasted quail appear next to a selection of Spanish-influenced small plates. When looking for inspiration, she goes old-school. "It's really hard to do something that no one's ever done before," she says. "That's why I call my food 'Grandma food' because that's where I look for inspiration: old church cookbooks from my Grandma."