We first met Chef Sara Bradley during a weekend visit to Paducah, KY. Having the opportunity to dine at her acclaimed restaurant Freight House was a highlight of the trip and offered a peek into how she runs a kitchen — controlled and efficient, by the way. Her farm-to-table restaurant, housed in a converted vegetable warehouse on the edge of town, is now three years old and continues to garner accolades from far and wide — and with good reason. One stroll through TripAdvisor or Yelp, and you’ll get a clear idea of what’s to love.
Though she’s garnered coverage everywhere from Food & Wine to Garden & Gun, Sara’s newest role is that of a TV personality. She enjoyed her television debut just last week as one of 15 competitors on season 16 of the Emmy Award-winning cooking show “Top Chef.” And while she’s mum on any details of the show at this moment (“I can’t answer this right now, but feel free to circle back. Sorry!”), she did offer up some insight into the path that led her to where she is today — representing her beloved home state on a top-ranking TV show doing what she loves to do and is so gifted at doing.
Get to know this 36-year-old rockstar chef, Sara Bradley, our newest FACE of the South!
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Paducah, KY. Born and raised.
Describe the path that led you to a career as a chef. (i.e. Did you go to culinary school? Did you work your way up the kitchen totem pole?)
I graduated from University of Kentucky with a degree in psychology but was unhappy at my job. I then decided to follow my heart and go to culinary school. I went to Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, NC. I’ve lived in Birmingham, New York City and Chicago working my way up the ranks before returning to Paducah to open Freight House.
Describe how you decided to embark on that journey — of opening Freight House.
Paducah has an energy that is infectious. Things are changing here, for the better, and I wanted to be part of it. It was really desirable because property is more affordable than it would be in big cities. Plus, it brought me back to my family and my roots.
Tell us about you landed a spot on the Emmy Award-winning “Top Chef Kentucky.”
They reached out and asked if I would like to apply, and I jumped at the chance. They were coming to my home state, and I wanted to represent.
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
I don’t drink caffeine at all. Well, maybe once or twice a year I will drink an Ale-8-One to cure a hangover.
What’s your favorite dish to create and why?
I love making soup and stew. There is nothing more rewarding than taking basic raw ingredients and turning them into something outrageously flavorful. No batch ever turns out the same, even if I try. It reminds me of my childhood. I usually end up cooking a big ol’ pot of something on Sunday afternoon. Then my husband and I enjoy it all week long — if it even lasts that long.
What’s the most versatile ingredient everyone should have on-hand in the kitchen?
Hands down, black garlic. To me, black garlic tastes like caramelized balsamic vinegar. It is mildly sweet, with a touch of acid, and pure umami. I make a black BBQ sauce with black garlic, black vinegar and blackstrap molasses. It is the perfect condiment for almost anything.
What is the best meal you’ve had in someone else’s restaurant?
The best dish I have had this year is from this izakaya in the SoHo neighborhood of Hong Kong. It is called FUKURO, and I had their “crispy caramel butter corn.” It was pieces of corn, still on the cob, tossed in the lightest, crispiest bread I have ever had. Then it was coated in caramel butter. I love when someone really highlights veggies. I have never had anything like it. I think I had two more orders.
Who inspired the work you do in the kitchen?
I have always felt more comfortable in the kitchen than anywhere else in my life. I love seeing a project through from start to finish. That means from the tomatoes my folks grew in our backyard to spaghetti sauce we ate at supper that my mother let me help with. I can’t really say I was inspired to work in a kitchen, but I can say nothing else ever felt so right.
What was the biggest teaching moment in your career so far?
One time I had four or five portions of ravioli left over from the day before, and they weren’t perfect or even close. I made fresh ones as soon as I got to work. I really wanted them to be perfect and got to work extra early to make sure they would be. For some reason, instead of serving my new ones, I used the old ones. As soon as I passed them up to the chef, he turned to the sous chef and said, “What the f*ck is this?” Later on, my sous chef told me, “You made everyone look like assholes.” I realized at that exact moment the kitchen is a collective, not just about one station or one ravioli. Every item should be created to the best of your ability. Everyone is working together to create a unique experience, and serving something that is knowingly sub-par could ruin all the hard work everyone has put in.
Oh, and put the bowl down and use two hands. You will go twice as fast.
When you’re not working, where can we find you?
You will find me hanging out with my husband on the cattle farms or relaxing in our pool with our puppy Winnie.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received, and who was it from?
“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you find, you get what you need.” My father, via Mick Jagger. It’s our family’s anthem. We would play it and dance around the kitchen while my mother cooked since I was young.
What is your best advice to young women looking to embark on a career as a chef?
Put your head down and work harder than anyone else. Be proud of your ideas and heritage. And use two hands. You will go twice as fast.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you cannot live without?
Dansko shoes, NPR and super stinky cheese
To see Sara on “Top Chef,” tune into Bravo on Thursdays at 9/8c. To see Sara in person, stop by Freight House, located at 330 S 3rd St #102, Paducah, KY 42003. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to close. Learn more at (270) 908-0006 or online at freighthousefood.com.
Meet more amazing Southern women in our FACES archives. Click HERE and prepare to be inspired.