PADUCAH – Paducah native Sara Bradley survived Thursday’s season premiere of the cooking competition TV show “Top Chef,” though there’s still plenty of show to go before a winner is announced.
Bradley, who is the head chef and owner of Freight House in Paducah, is the only native Kentuckian in this season of “Top Chef,” which pits 15 chefs from all over the United States in a series of culinary challenges.
She said she couldn’t believe it when the show’s producers reached out to her about competing.
“I got really excited when I found out it was in Kentucky,” she said. “I jumped on the opportunity to audition because I thought I represented well what is going on in Kentucky and the food scene here.”
Now in its 16th season, the new episodes take place mostly in Kentucky. Bradley said the commonwealth and Paducah in particular has a unique culinary history that goes beyond what you’d expect.
“It’s a river town, so we have more traditional stuff like mussels, fish and frog legs and all of those things,” Bradley said. “You also have hot browns and burgoo, and there’s always the argument of whether you put cornbread in your sugar or not.”
This is Bradley’s first time cooking on TV, having participated in some smaller competitions in her culinary school days. She said her cooking style largely reflects agriculture in Kentucky, as her restaurant uses locally-sourced goods that are in season.
The Paducah chef has worked in restaurants across several states, including New York, Illinois and Alabama. Eventually, she wanted to return to her roots in western Kentucky.
Now, her home is the farm-to-table restaurant Freight House, where she spends evenings carefully crafting quality cuisine that represents the finest Kentucky has to offer. From Southern favorites like steamed mussels, pork chops and roasted chicken thighs to Kentucky silver carp, an invasive fish species turned delicacy with the help of oyster mushrooms, golden raisins and sage.
She said competing on “Top Chef” was unlike anything she’s done before.
“The hardest part is relinquishing control,” Bradley said. “I own the restaurant, and I’m really involved in the bar program, I talk to the farmers every day, I write the schedule for everything; I say ‘Order this, order that,’” Bradley said. “And all of a sudden, you don’t know what your products are going to be and your first time to shine on the quickfire (one of the competitions), you’re working on a team and you had to work with that.”
Thankfully, Bradley said she recognized one friendly face when the competition began: fellow contestant Kelsey Clark, an executive chef from Alabama. The pair had worked together at restaurants in New York.
“None of us had any clue,” Bradley said. “Seeing her was kind of like, ‘Huh, OK. I know at least one person that I can trust.’ I knew right away we’d be bouncing ideas off each other the whole time.”
“Top Chef” airs Thursdays on Bravo at 8 p.m.