Food for Thought: The Story of Sara Bradley
Sara Bradley believes that she's a good storyteller, especially with her food.
“I noticed that when my dishes or I didn’t do well it was whenever I tried to come up with some story as opposed to having something that really did mean a lot to me,” Bradley said.
It was her ability to put her story in her food and vocalize it to the other chefs, judges and audience that made her excel in the Bravo cooking competition show “Top Chef.” Bradley is the proprietor and chef of “freight house” in Paducah, Kentucky that opened in 2015. Three short years later, Bradley left her general manager and team in charge to compete on the show.
Bradley was runner-up on Season 16 of “Top Chef,” which was set in Kentucky. She was the only chef from Kentucky chosen to compete. Towards the second half of the season, Bradley explained how she either won a lot of challenges or was in the top chefs of that challenge, but it took some time for her to be in that position of the competition.
“In the beginning when there were a lot of people there, I was kind of trying to find my voice and trying to figure out what I need to do, what I need to say but once I stopped worrying about all that stuff and how I would be portrayed and I just became myself,” Bradley said.
“If you’re honest and truthful then you really don’t have much to worry about,” Bradley added.
Bradley was born and raised in Paducah but spent time with her family in the eastern and western parts of the state. On her dad’s side she learned about Appalachia, food preservation and growing fruits and vegetables. On her mother's side, they were Jewish immigrants who owned an old hardware store.
“Both sides of my family had really strong work ethics, so I spent a lot of summers working. I had a pretty good solid upbringing I think because I got exposed to so many different cultures as a child,” Bradley said.
In high school, Bradley did what she needed to do to graduate with good grades but didn’t grasp the concept of how important education was.
“Once I moved off to UK and there were no longer any folks there pushing me to go to school and people telling me I have to do my homework, my first semester I think what happened, happens to a lot of kids, is they all of the sudden have this newfound independence and so my first semester was not that great,” Bradley said. “But with the threat of having to move home and pay back the money my folks have spent, I changed my ideals about education pretty quickly.”
At UK, Bradley thought about going into education or even business, and at one point she was undeclared. Once she discovered the psychology major and enjoyed the required courses, that's where her interest remained.
“I think the best part about [UK] was getting to find out who you are as a person. So you have a little bit of time to switch around classes and have time to figure out who you are outside of the realm of your folks and everyone you have grown up with, so I think that it just really developed me into the person I am today.”
In 2004 Bradley graduated with a degree in Psychology. Weeks after graduating, she realized she didn’t want to have to work in an office and do the same exact job every single day in that career field.
Within the next year Bradley was able to go to culinary school at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina with the financial help of her Grandpa Julius. He supported her in North Carolina but remained a UK fan as he had season basketball tickets ever since Rupp Arena was built.
This career choice was not out of the ordinary as Bradley had worked in restaurants since she was 15 years old and throughout her time at UK. Going to culinary school was the best thing for Bradley as she was able to apply the things she was actively learning while working at restaurants.
“I had these two different styles of cooking; one was very technique-driven. So, all of the cooking was super fine dining Michelin star, very follow-by-the-book, this is how it’s done. The other style was a little more cook-from-the-hip, so they were open to interpretation,” Bradley said.
It was because of her experience at Johnson and Wales that led Bradley to start up a high school externship program at freight house, but not until she picked up and moved across the country first.
“I was getting farther and farther away from Kentucky as I could.” Bradley went on to live and work in restaurants in Birmingham, Charlotte, New York and Chicago for extended periods. She moved without knowing anyone or having a set job and just figuring it out along the way.
“Once I finally got to New York, it wasn’t Kentucky that I missed but it was my family. My siblings were starting to get married and it was hard for me to come back, so Chicago put me in a position that made it much easier to see my family,” she said.
Bradley never thought she would move back to Paducah again as she had job offers and opportunities in various cities, but what she found interesting was that in larger cities, “You’re just one person. You’re just a needle in a haystack, you’re just another little person, but if I moved home to Paducah, I thought I could really make an impact on the culinary scene here, on my community, and I could be more involved with community projects,” she said.
“There’s a really cool thing happening in small towns, not just in Paducah but all over the country. People are growing up in small areas, they’re leaving, they’re gaining all kinds of knowledge and then they're coming back. There’s that boomerang,” Bradley said.
“The standard of living here [Paducah] is pretty high and the cost of living is pretty low. So I can do some stuff in Paducah that would have cost significantly more in Lexington and Louisville. I just felt like the market was open for the style of food and style of restaurant that I wanted to have,” Bradley said.
During a snowstorm in January of 2015, Bradley spent time writing mock menus, schedules and making lists of everything that she thought she needed to open a restaurant. That was what she focused on in terms of her business plan rather than writing a typical mission statement.
“When you’re opening a restaurant, there are all kinds of different taxes; unemployment, sales tax, use tax, your quarterly taxes, and you have to pay off all of these taxes on your employees. That to me was the unknown. All of the little things that dealt with the government, secretary of state, getting an official name, filing for a DBA, all these little things. But I was really lucky I had a father who ran his own business for 40 years, and so he was able to guide me through that process,” Bradley said.
Both of Bradley’s parents have been supportive, and with their help, she was able to secure a loan so that she could open freight house.
“I didn’t have a job because I moved home to start this restaurant, I had never owned a home, bought a new car; I mean, I had good credit, but I just didn’t have a ton of it. I have worked diligently and really hard to pay that loan back - which has happened now - to make sure my parents are no longer financially liable. I borrowed the money from a bank, which is what you have to do, so I was all in. I didn’t have any investors, it’s a family-owned restaurant, and I like to keep it that way,” Bradley said.
Bradley is all about being a team when it comes to her management style. One thing that she thinks affects the way that she manages is the fact that she is a woman, so she inherently has a maternal instinct.
“I worked in restaurants that never had a first aid kit. We have the biggest first aid kit you could possibly have because if you have a belly ache or if you have a cut finger, you know we’re gonna take care of you,” Bradley said.
She also wants to make sure she provides her 23-member staff the best benefits. At freight house, they have good wages, retirement plans and paid time off. They're doing things differently than other restaurants, Bradley said.
“When I worked in New York City, I worked six days a week for four years and never took a vacation,” Bradley said.
At freight house, when staff want time off to go on vacation or time with family, Bradley works with them to make that happen.
“I think that the balance of family and work is something that gets forgotten a lot in this industry. I don’t even know if it’s just this industry or maybe it’s this whole entire country, but we don’t have a work-life balance. It’s something that I really want my staff to have,” Bradley said.
Bradley was 37 years old when she had her first child. Five weeks after Bradley gave birth, she went on the road and traveled with her daughter and mother to concerts, festivals and food shows.
“Leaving and going on Top Chef made me realize that I didn’t have to be here constantly and that there are things outside of the realm of just the restaurant,” Bradley said.