When former Chicago chef Sara Bradley heard “Top Chef” would be filming its new season in her native Kentucky, she wanted a piece of the action.
Bradley, a tireless champion of Kentucky cuisine, got what she wanted.
The 36-year-old chef was the sole contestant from the Bluegrass State, one of 15 competitors on Season 16 of television’s Emmy Award-winning cooking competition.
“I wanted to represent the energy and the culture that’s happening in the food scene in Kentucky right now,” said Bradley, who opened Freight House, her acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant, in Paducah, Ky., three years ago.
Before launching Freight House, Bradley honed her skills working for the likes of John Fraser at Dovetail in New York and Chicago’s prolific chef-restaurateur Paul Kahan at Avec, Blackbird, Nico Osteria and Publican Quality Meats. Like other so-called boomerangs, Bradley took what she learned toiling in the kitchens of big-city, Michelin-starred restaurants and poured that knowledge and experience into her own business back home, in the far western reaches of Kentucky.
The result was Freight House, a dinner-only eatery housed in an old vegetable depot. The pine rafters, brick walls and exposed ductwork make a lofty setting for the 140-seat restaurant, where the corner bar is stocked with more than 300 bourbons, whiskeys and ryes. The creative menu focuses on fresh, seasonal ingredients all sourced within a day’s drive of Paducah (pah-DOO-kah), an artsy, riverfront town of 25,000, just below the southern tip of Illinois.
“I really wanted to be on (“Top Chef”) to showcase my end of the state,” Bradley said, throwing a tiny bit of shade in the direction of Louisville and Lexington. “Western Kentucky sometimes doesn’t get the love that central Kentucky does.”
One of the most popular dishes at Freight House is Kentucky silver carp, a.k.a. Asian carp, an invasive species that Bradley is proud to serve, both from an environmental and a gastronomic standpoint. She gussies up the mild white fish with stewed sweet tomatoes, lima beans, cornbread croutons and fresh herbs ($21).
Five bucks will get you a bowl of addictively crunchy pork rinds begging to take a bath in the accompanying lemon-thyme aioli. Other starters include sinfully good deviled eggs ($5) and spicy beer cheese ($9), a Kentucky staple.
“My style of cooking is Southern but also has a lot of Midwest influence,” Bradley said. “That’s one of the amazing parts about Paducah. I could be in Illinois in five minutes. I can be in Missouri in 25. I’m close to Tennessee. I can draw from all over the place. Our farmers market isn’t just a Kentucky farmers market. We have four, sometimes five states represented.”
Freight House is all about sophisticated spins on comfort food, from country fried steak with “whooped” cauliflower, sawmill gravy, golden raisins and capers ($10) to braised pork shoulder with black-eyed peas, sweet greens, fennel aioli and cornbread ($28).
Bradley’s mom, Bebe, doubles as the pastry chef, “whooping” up maple sorghum walnut pie and vanilla-frosted Freight House birthday cake to celebrate three busy years in business.
Freight House is bound to get even busier, thanks to the “Top Chef” effect.
If you're planning a trip down to Paducah make a reservation in advance, either online at freighthousefood.com or by calling 270-908-0006.
The restaurant, 330 S. Third St., opens at 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
Inspired to check out Paducah? Here are Bradley’s recommendations for half a dozen other places to eat and drink in and around town:
533 Madison St.
Tucked away in one of Paducah’s oldest homes, the Greek Revival-style Smedley-Yeiser House, this cozy lounge gets creative with its craft cocktails. Sip on a smoked-sage mojito made with mezcal or one of several gin-based concoctions. Like a lot of the newer establishments in town, this one is a labor of love from a husband-and-wife team who salvaged an old, decaying property and reinvented it into a modern, exciting space — one that still pays homage to its past.
728 U.S. Highway 62, Grand Rivers, Ky.
“It’s just a few minutes drive from Paducah, and it’s some of the best barbecue around,” Bradley said about this friendly, no-frills joint that only takes cash and checks; no credit cards. Known for its pulled pork (Bradley also digs the brisket), Knoth’s has been around for more than half a century. The popular, family-run business was about to call it quits last year when, at the last minute, Paducahans Ed Musselman and Andy Wiggins hatched a plan to save it and carry on the culinary tradition. As in years past, Knoth’s will take the winter off. It won’t reopen again until March.
Pipers Tea and Coffee
3121 Broadway St.
This tea-blending and coffee-roasting operation is one of several businesses in an old Coca-Cola bottling facility known around town as the Coke Plant. Pipers was started in 2012 by a couple whose first signature tea blend, Pipers Earl Grey, led the way for a collection of more than 20 hand-blended teas and specialty coffees. The couple opened their shop in 2015 in the Coke Plant, where they more recently have opened a lab to blend tea and roast single-origin coffee beans on-site.
Dry Ground Brewing Co.
3121 Broadway St.
Another inhabitant of the Coke Plant, Paducah’s first craft brewery got off the ground in 2014. It has nearly 30 craft beers on tap, including 10 brewed in-house. Don’t miss the Preacher Pils, whose aroma is described as “fresh poured Kentucky lemonade with hints of fresh cut cantaloupe.”
2532 Jackson St.
This offshoot of the original, which opened in 1965 in Paxton, Ill., is known for its weekly specials, like the Guaking Dead, a double burger topped with pepper jack cheese, house-made guacamole, sour cream sauce and Tapatio hot sauce. “You go in, and there’s heavy metal music playing,” Bradley said. “It’s a bunch of young guys who make the best hamburgers. They’ve always got some burger-of-the-week that’s just to die for. And they’ve got great T-shirts.”
Kirchhoff’s Bakery and Deli
118 Market House Square
“They do a lot of our fresh breads,” Bradley said about this Freight House supplier. The bakery and deli is a beloved institution that dates to 1873. That’s when Franz Kirchhoff, a Prussian immigrant, put his family’s Old World recipes to work in a wood-fired oven, selling baked goods to residents and riverboat travelers alike. The business went dormant for a few decades but is back in the capable hands of the Kirchhoffs, who crank out a wide range of breads, pastries, sandwiches, soups and salads.
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