'Top Chef' Runner-Up Sara Bradley on the Pressure of Being the Hometown Favorite and Coming In Second
"If I went back and changed anything I may not have ended up where I am. It may have been the ripple in time that changed the entire outcome."
On Season 16 of Top Chef, Sara Bradley was the hometown favorite, repping Paducah, Kentucky. The chef and owner of Freight House did her home state proud winning challenge after challenge because of her creativity and technique in dishes that seamlessly combined her Jewish heritage with the flavors and dishes of her hometown along the Appalachian mountain trail.
In the finale, Sara was the runner up, creating a four-course menu that represented her life story using the flavors of Macau. Although she came in second place, Sara is happy with her time on the show and how she performed. Below, the mom to be(!) shares a bit about her time on Top Chef, how she would change her finale meal and what’s next.
Food & Wine: What inspired you to compete on Top Chef?
Sara Bradley: The major motivator for going on Top Chef was my community and employees. We have all heard of the effect Top Chef can have on a business, and I was hopeful that it would improve the livelihood of my staff. Extra seatings mean more hours for the cooks, more tips for the servers. I was also hoping it would have a direct impact on the tourism of my hometown. Plus, it sounded like a ton of fun.
FW: What was the biggest lesson during your time on Top Chef? Did you learn something new about yourself or your cooking that you'll take with you?
SB: Top Chef taught me patience, a virtue that I usually don’t possess. I think I am more patient with my staff and myself now. I am hoping it will carry over when I have my first child. It also validated my choices to move home and open a restaurant, start a family, and invest in the future of my community. And let’s address the elephant in the room: if you happen to be on a national cooking competition, don’t buy premixed dry ingredients for waffles. The haters will eat you alive.
FW: What did you think when you first met your competitors and saw them in action?
SB: When I first met everyone, I had a sense of nervous excitement. I love meeting new people and I had never had the opportunity to surround myself with so many like-minded people, that were sharing such a specific experience. I was ready to see what was in store for everyone.
FW: Was there a lot of pressure being the hometown chef?
SB: The pressure of being the hometown chef was extreme. I was always worried I wouldn’t perform and would let my entire state down but it also pushed me to work hard. I felt like a tour guide for the amazing state of Kentucky.
FW: What did you learn about Macanese cuisine that surprised you? Will you be incorporating the flavors of Macau into your dishes back in Kentucky?
SB: I loved the food of Macau. I was super surprised to hear that the Portuguese part of Macanese cuisine was getting harder and harder to find. I work very hard to keep the traditions and recipes of my region alive and it instilled in me a need to continue with my mission of preserving heritage and keeping Kentucky cuisine relevant.
Surprisingly, I use a ton of the flavors of Macau at freight house already: fermented black beans, black garlic, salt cod (but we make ours with local Asian carp). My head was so full of information after returning from Macau it will take a lifetime to use it all.
FW: What do you wish you had done differently in your finale meal? Would you add a dessert?
SB: I would have totally reworked the second course. Looking back, I realized all the other courses came from memories of my childhood. It felt like a hiccup in the meal progression. I wouldn’t add a dessert at all. I would rather have savory instead of sweet anyway.
FW: Do you have any specific dishes or techniques that you wish you'd had the opportunity to show the judges?
SB: I like to learn from my mistakes. I made some on the show, but if I went back and changed anything I may not have ended up where I am. It may have been the ripple in time that changed the entire outcome. I wouldn’t add or take away from the experience. I am satisfied with my performance.
FW: What was your favorite challenge?
SB: I am torn. I loved making matzo balls for my mom. I loved cooking soup beans for David Posey and Ouita Michael. I loved serving Padma super strong jello shots on Lake Cumberland.
FW: This season’s chefs seem to be really close. Do you still keep in touch with your fellow cheftestants?
SB: We have all stayed in touch and we’re all doing events all over the country with each other. This cast was amazing. We always helped each other and supported one another. It is easier and more rewarding to be nice.
FW: What’s next for you?
SB: I am going to have this baby pretty soon. I have no clue what to expect, almost like walking onto Top Chef for the first time. We are kicking off an educational program at freight house this summer. I plan on enjoying the ride and seeing where it takes me.
For more Top Chef insights, check out our interview with all three Top Chef finalists, our list of what the Season 16 cheftestants are up to now, and our Top Chef-themed tour guides to Kentucky and Macau.