Interview: Chef Sara Bradley

Chef Sara Bradley is the chef/proprietor of freight house restaurant located in her hometown of Paducah, KY.  Opened in 2015, the restaurant serves meals with traditional southern flavors while utilizing fresh, in-season ingredients locally sourced from established farming partners.  Runner up on Bravo’s Top Chef Kentucky Season 16, Sara represented her home state beautifully throughout the entire competition.

The Kentucky Season was one of my all-time favorites because it showed the wonderful culinary riches that Kentucky has to offer including Sara’s restaurant freight house. I was so happy to catch up with Sara to discuss her hometown, family and how her business has transitioned during this time of crisis.

Editor’s Note: At the time that I spoke to Sara, John Prine had not passed away. I feel like her words are a wonderful tribute to an amazing man who also loved Kentucky so much.

How have you been able to transition to a carry out menu? What are you doing as a business at freight house?

As of right now, we have transitioned to curbside and delivery. We are usually open five days a week but are down to three days a week. We are taking lots of pre-orders. We have been selling out every day. Everything is pre-pay with credit cards so we don’t have contact for payment. We are just employing six staff members now. We have gone from where we traditionally have a menu you order from to family meals that we are doing in the kitchen. Every family meal feeds two people. It has sides, salads, protein, and desserts. You get the whole thing at a set price.

Right now, we are trying to figure out how to do best by our employees. It is really hard when people go from being employed every day to being unemployed and being asked to stay home and not look for another job and there are no other jobs. Right now, we are trying to find the best ways to serve our employees.

You talked previously about doing a traditional Sunday family meal at home. Can you tell me a little bit about what that is?

We grew up eating Sunday family meals. We’d go in, we wouldn’t sit at the regular kitchen table. We’d sit at the dining room table. We’d get out the nice plates and have these nice meals on Sunday taking more time for cooking the meal. We are trying to re-create that atmosphere. The whole thing of having this wholesome food that is comforting and you don’t just get a pizza or heat up something in the microwave. We are trying to create that whole meal. There is the salad, you can add appetizers on. That’s what we are going for and we have been pretty successful.

Is that something you do just at the restaurant or is that something you do at home as well?

Our restaurant is normally closed on Sunday and Monday. I have a young family. It is my husband and I and we have a ten-month old.  She has started eating solid food. It is fun to start cooking for a family as opposed to just me or my husband and I.

Has becoming a Mom changed your outlook at all?

I think becoming a mother has changed everything about me. Even the way I am at home or I am with my employees and my business. That maternal instinct is something you can’t deny. 

You always also speak about buying local and the importance of that. Why is that so important to you?

It is this new thing where people are cooking with really exotic ingredients, things that are out of season, things that are from far off places. For a long time, people used to only cook with things in season and not far from home. When people talk about this farm to table movement being this new thing, it is not a new thing. It is a re-kindling of how our grandparents did it. It is easier and from simpler times. It is great to see when you buy products where that money goes. I know exactly where my money goes when I buy black eyed peas or buy eggs. I know the farmer. I know his family. His children shell peas for me. It is a more community supported agriculture is what I like to call it.

I watched your season of Top Chef. I love Top Chef. I talked to Ouida yesterday and she had wonderful things to say about you. How has your life changed since your Top Chef Kentucky season?

We saw a direct impact on our revenue at the restaurant. It was great for us. People talk about the Top Chef effect and you hear about it, but until you are on the show you don’t get to see what happens. It has opened up a lot of things for me, be it travelling or going to festivals or cooking with other chefs. It has opened up this whole network of other chefs around the country, even around the world. It has been great for me, for my employees, for my town. That was a major reason I decided to do it. I hoped it would help not only me and the restaurant but my employees and the community.

What was your favorite memory of being on the show?

I think probably when my mother came over to China and making Matzo Ball Soup. Sitting down with my mom at the table, serving her food and I won that challenge. My mother is part of my business. It is a family owned restaurant, my father has taught me all about doing the books and paying taxes. Those are things you never learn. My mother helps. She did all the desserts the first four years we were open. She is down here every single day. My husband is down there all the time polishing glasses and doing what we need him to do. It really is a family owned place. It was nice for recognition for my folks from the show.

If you were going to advise people coming to Kentucky, what does a perfect day in Kentucky look like?

What is interesting about Kentucky is the geography of it. If you are in Western Kentucky, there are low-lying river areas. When you are in Eastern Kentucky, it is all about the mountains. Central Kentucky has these rolling hills. It is too much for one day to see all of it. If you were going to come to Western Kentucky, you definitely want to eat at the freight house. You want to try some Western Kentucky BBQ, mutton if you can get it. There is so much outdoor recreation in the area too which is a big part of the people that come to freight house. We see a lot of travelers, a lot of tourists. Paducah is a UNESCO Creative City. The National Quilt Museum is here. It is a huge deal. It is a really beautiful museum. 

What is your favorite bourbon and food pairing?

Probably bourbon and chocolate. But I will tell you a really interesting pairing, bourbon and aged cheese. Like a hard-aged cheese with parmesan. You know when you eat that really good cheese that has a nutty flavor to it, like a brown buttery flavor. Bourbon goes really well with that. Aged cheese and bourbon are delicious together.

You were at Bourbon and Beyond and Railbird Festivals last year. More and more music festivals are combining music and food. Who is your dream Rockstar cooking collaboration?

John Prine

I am praying right now for him and his family.

My husband and I have had John Prine on the last couple days. We have been dancing with our daughter around the room. That is who I grew up listening to. One of his song says, “One of my family used to travel down to Western Kentucky where paradise lay.” “Oh Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County.” That’s where my Mom is from. I grew up going to see shows with John Prine and the Everly Brothers. My parents took me to all the Dead shows, the last Dead shows in St. Louis. We grew up around music festivals and enjoying that. I would love to sit around with him and listen to the stories. I figure nobody could tell stories like John Prine could.

Do you have any quarantine recipes?

We have made a lot of jambalaya. It is really easy to make. You need rice. You need tomatoes. We have homemade andouille in the freezer, onions and peppers. For me jambalaya is whatever you have around, rice cooked with tomatoes and flavorful stuff. I like to put a little gumbo seasoning in there. I know it is not traditional but that is how I like it. You throw a can of beans in there. Those are things that are not expensive ingredients that are shelf stable. You don’t even have to have meat in it. Sometimes if I don’t have any meat that fits in there, we will fry an egg and throw it on top.

Do you have any items in quarantine you can’t live without?

I can’t live without onions. I couldn’t live without onions. I put onions in everything. Onions and white wine. Other than that, it has just been interesting to see how the community has pulled together to handle this epidemic. I will say the other thing nice about being a professional chef and not wanting to be in the grocery store much, you can take some onion and peppers and pull off a quart of milk from the fridge and grocery shop at the restaurant and take what you need in the evening. We haven’t had to do any grocery store visits.

That is good. It is going to get rough and people need to stay home.

I think it will be a second before everything gets back to normal. I hope, when we are able to get back to normal, people come back and support the local small businesses.

Do you have a dream vacation spot for when this is all over?

I want to go to Spain so badly. I have wanted to go to Spain for years. I want to go there and drink wine and eat seafood. I want to have peppers and sardines. I’ll go to Spain if I can do it. My husband and I, we took a honeymoon about a year after we got married. We are probably due for a good vacation.

Where did you go?

We never took a honeymoon right after we got married. I went right back to work. Got married on a Saturday and was back at work on Tuesday. After the show was over, they flew him over for the finale of Top Chef. After it was done, we delayed our flight and went to Vietnam for ten days. It was very nice.

Great food journey there too. 

Yes. It was so much fun.

Photo provided by Chef Bradley


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