June 17, 2019

Sara Bradley on Growing up Jewish in Kentucky and Her ‘Top Chef’-Winning Matzo Ball Soup

In “Top Chef: Kentucky,” Season 16 of Bravo’s culinary competition, local restaurateur Sara Bradley impressed the judges with dishes influenced by her Southern and Jewish roots, most notably a matzo ball soup recipe that won the challenge and sent her to the final. She ultimately lost the title to Kelsey Clark, but Bradley’s Paducah, Ky., restaurant Freight House, is doing blockbuster business since her TV appearance. While juggling a busy schedule, preparing for Passover and awaiting the birth of her first child — a girl — with husband Austin Martin in May, Bradley took time out to speak with the Journal.

Jewish Journal: Did being from Kentucky give you a home turf advantage on “Top Chef” or increase the pressure? 

Sara Bradley: A bit of both. I might have had the inside scoop because I knew the area, but it was added pressure because you don’t want to disappoint your state, friends or family.

JJ: Did your love of cooking begin in your mother’s kitchen?

SB: Yes. She was a huge influence. She taught us to cook and she always made these extravagant desserts. We ate things that were a blend of Southern and Jewish. My father’s mother also had a lot to do with how I cook now. We made potato latkes and ate them with apple butter — applesauce cooked down with cinnamon and a bit of fat in it.

JJ: How did your culinary career begin?

SB: I always wanted to cook and had jobs in kitchens in high school and college. After college, I worked as a researcher in statistical psychology at a psychiatric hospital and at a restaurant. The restaurant was much more fun. My grandfather Julius Cohen gave me the money for culinary school. I worked in New York and Chicago before coming home to Paducah and opening Freight House in September 2015. 

JJ: What type of cuisine?

SB: It reflects my Southern, Jewish and frugal roots. We don’t waste anything here. We serve a lot of liver [and] beef tongue. We source as much as we can locally. We’re very seasonal and change the menu frequently. Right now through the end of April you can try the finale meal that I cooked in Macao. We’re listed as one of America’s great bourbon bars.

[At my restaurant in Kentucky] we used to call them cracker dumplings because matzo balls sounded so foreign. But since [“Top Chef”] aired, we call them matzo balls. People are so excited to try them.” 

JJ: Your mother works with you there.

SB: Yes. Today she’s making bourbon chocolate chess pies and key lime pistachio cheesecakes. It felt really good to have her there with me in Macaou and to win felt even better! I wasn’t worried about the flavor profile [of the matzo balls]. It was the technique that I was worried about screwing up and having them come out hard, like matzo rocks.

JJ: Is the matzo ball soup on the Freight House menu?

SB: Yes. We used to call them cracker dumplings because matzo balls sounded so foreign. But since the show aired we call them matzo balls. People are so excited to try them. 

JJ: What was it like growing up Jewish in the South? What’s your family background?

SB: My mother’s grandparents were from Poland and Prussia. My great-grandfather opened a hardware store in Paducah — E.A. Cohen & Son — later my grandfather’s. My parents met when they were both working in Lexington, Ky., and married 43 years ago. My father is not Jewish. He is spiritual but not a religious man. My brother, sister and I were raised Jewish. I went to Sunday school, had a bat mitzvah at 12, a confirmation at 16. I went to a Jewish summer camp every year. My mother had some very religious relatives, so I also went to black-hat weddings. Being Jewish was a major part of how I identified. There was only one other Jewish family with kids my age in Paducah and we were very close. As a child, I embraced being a minority, being different. Judaism is more than a religion. It’s your heritage, it’s your culture, it’s a whole mentality.

JJ: Your husband isn’t Jewish. Did you have a Jewish wedding?

SB: Yes, but not that traditional. We both stomped glasses. We had a ketubah, we danced the horah, we did all the things that were culturally significant and important to me. We had it at an old greenhouse and we had food trucks, an open bar, a vintage bourbon tasting, a great band. We had about 300 people there. 

JJ: How did you meet?

SB: Through a mutual friend. He’s an attorney and a cattle farmer. We met at a brewery and talked about farming for hours. We’ve been inseparable since. 

JJ: How will you celebrate Passover?

SB: Paducah has a small synagogue and no full-time rabbi. A rabbi comes from the rabbinical school in Cincinnati for the High Holy Days, and about once a month, so we’ll go to synagogue. My husband loves Passover and all the food I make: gefilte fish, matzo balls, red horseradish, matzo brei. 

JJ: You’re expecting your first child. Is it important to raise her with Jewish traditions?

SB: Yes. I want to give her the same choice that my parents gave me — they presented me with the information and let me make my own decision. I wanted to do that for my child too. I can’t imagine that she won’t go to the same Jewish summer camp I went to. It was such an important part of my life. 

JJ: Do you have any plans to open more restaurants?

SB: I have dreams of owning a meat-and-three, a traditional type of Southern restaurant: a meat and two or three sides. But with the baby, that’s down the line.

JJ: What did “Top Chef” teach you?

SB: If you have a dream, you should go for it. If I hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have improved my life and the lives of all of my employees. Don’t hold back.

For Sara Bradley’s matzo ball soup recipe, click here.