Meet the ‘Top Chef’ contestant who made matzo balls famous in Kentucky

“I think the strongest part of my identity is Jewish,” Sara Bradley, 41, said.


Sara Bradley plating burgoo with beans and cornbread on the finale of Top Chef: World All-Stars. Photo by Fred Jagueneau/Bravo

By Jodi Rudoren, The Forward

I have never been one of those people who instinctively roots for the Jewish athlete, political candidate or celebrity. But I was completely charmed by Sara Bradley as she battled to the bitter end on the latest season of the reality show Top Chef, making everything-bagel-spiced rice, matzo-ball tamales, and, alas, the dish that doomed her on last night’s finale, liver and onions.

Bradley is a soulful cook who twins her Jewish heritage — her mother’s grandfather was an immigrant peddler — with her essential Southernness, having lived most of her 41 years in Paducah, Kentucky. She is also a young mother (her daughters are 4 and 1.5), who pumped breastmilk on the show and warned the boys she was up against not to run down an escalator.

She is unpretentious and unglamorous, someone I can imagine staying up all night schmoozing with at summer camp — yes, she went, to Camp Ben Frankel in Illinois.

“I think the strongest part of my identity is Jewish,” Bradley told me when we met via Zoom yesterday. “For a long time, it was a Jewish woman from the South, and now it’s become this Jewish mother from the South. Now that I have children, I want to take them to temple. I feel this urge, this need, to keep pushing, to make sure that there are Jews around in the future.”

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Jews — and matzo balls.

“Before Top Chef, we would serve matzo-ball soup in the restaurant, and we would call it bread dumplings,” Bradley said, referring to the Freight House, which she opened in Paducah eight years ago. “Now people are constantly like, ‘When is matzo-ball soup coming back?’ You have these goy people showing up to eat matzo-ball soup in a restaurant that serves massive amounts of pork, it’s really funny.”

I’ve been a devotee of Top Chef since its debut in 2006, and rewatched a dozen seasons of it with my kids during the pandemic. Excuse the braggin’, but I actually came *this* close to being a contestant myself on MasterChef, a home-cooks competition show, in 2019, and a decade earlier wrote a column proposing a home-cooks edition of Top Chef.

Talking to Bradley, I found myself dreaming up Top Chef: Jewish Holidays:

Quickfire Challenge (Passover): Make a green-vegetable appetizer suitable for karpas that people actually want to eat and can sustain them through two hours of Haggadah reading and discussion until it’s time for the full meal.

Elimination Challenge (Passover): Prepare and serve that full meal — including soup, sides, two proteins, two yeast-free desserts, while also leading the Seder. Oh, don’t forget that three of your guests are vegetarians, one vegan, one allergic to tree nuts and one to peanuts (yes, half eat kitniyot).

Quickfire Challenge (Rosh Hashanah): Create a savory dish using apples and honey.

Elimination Challenge (Rosh Hashanah): Serve a tapas-style smorgasbord featuring the eight simanim (symbols) of a traditional Sephardic Seder: dates, beans, leeks, beets, gourd, pomegranate, fish head, apple. The dishes should evoke what each symbol represents.

Quickfire Challenge (Hanukkah): Make an amuse-bouche trio of latkes topped to reflect three distinct elements of the holiday — light, games and gifts.

Elimination Challenge (Hanukkah): Play eight rounds (for eight nights!) of dreidel, using real shekels. Your winnings are your shopping budget to create a three-course meal for 30 composed exclusively of items fried in oil.

And, of course, instead of Restaurant Wars, there would be Sukkah Wars, in which each team of four would have to design, build and decorate a temporary hut with a ceiling you can see stars through, then host a dinner with 20 people crammed inside the hut — wearing sweaters and hats to brace for the cool fall weather.

Oh, I suppose there’d also need to be a brisket-off. Bradley’s mother, Bev, shared their family’s approach when I spoke to her this week. It could hardly be simpler: Brown the beef under the broiler with seasoned salt, pepper and garlic powder; top with raw onions; cover tightly with foil and, as Bev put it, “Cook the hell out of it.”

Bev, who is 70, herself appeared on Top Chef during Sara’s first go on the show, in Season 16, traveling to Macau for the semifinals. Superfans may recall that’s when Sara first made matzo balls — using water crackers and poaching them in piri piri sauce — and when Bev gave her the tip of adding some club soda to keep them fluffy.

“How did I go 36 years of my life without knowing that people put soda water in matzo balls?” Sara asks on the show, which taped in 2018.

Bev, a retired social worker, gave me the family’s Jewish backstory. Three of Bev’s grandparents were immigrants — from Poland, Latvia and Romania — who arrived around the turn of the 20th century, and ended up in Greenville, Kentucky. One of them, her father’s father, was a peddler with a wagon until 1909, when he opened a hardware/general store, eventually called E.A. Cohen & Son, which lasted 90 years.

“I grew up in a town of 5,000 people where everyone Jewish was related to me,” Bev said of Greenville. “Every Friday night was Shabbat dinner, with my grandfather leading the service because we didn’t have a congregation to go to.”

During Sara’s childhood, the big family meal was Sunday night, not Friday. “That’s when everyone was at home and we would always eat in our dining room,” Bev explained. “All three kids and me and my husband were all in the kitchen cooking together.”

They still do family dinners most Sundays — the restaurant is open for dinner only, Tuesday through Saturday, which Sara said is an important statement about work and family balance for herself and her 25 employees.

“I just grew up with that mentality of food as a special thing you do for someone you love,” Sara said of the Sunday dinners. “The Jewishness of, like, we will feed you. Food is a celebration, food is what you bring for mourning, food is — I mean, it’s life.

“If you come to my house the first thing I’m going to do is offer you a drink,” she continued. “And: Can I make you something to eat, are you hungry? Even if we’ve just been to lunch together, I’m still going to do that.”

Though Bev recalled Sara and her sister playing “cooking show” when they were little, pretending the mirrored backsplash in their kitchen was a camera, Sara did not decide to pursue food as a career until a couple of years after graduating from the University of Kentucky, where she majored in psychology.

Looking back, Sara said it all makes sense — she was good at math, which means the business-side of running restaurants is comfortable; she loves history, which fuels her food; she is creative.

“And I’m friendly, and I like to throw a party,” Bradley told me. “I think that’s why people like this restaurant, because when they come here, they feel like a family is actually hosting them for the night, as opposed to just kind of a restaurant.”

She said she decided to return to Top Chef for this year’s “World All Stars” rendition because of how good the first round was for business — and not just her own business.

“Let’s just take, for example, last night,” she said when we spoke Thursday. “We had a five-top from Baltimore that drove here to eat. We had so many people from Nashville, St. Louis, Northern Kentucky. Chattanooga. We had some people from Atlanta, just in the restaurant on a Wednesday night.

“They all drove to eat at this restaurant,” Bradley continued. “They’re gonna buy gas in Paducah. They’re gonna stay at a hotel in Paducah. They’re gonna go to the little shops in Paducah. And so I don’t know that I can quantify it. I mean, I could, you know, financially. But I think that what is hard to quantify is the impact that it has on everyone in this area, and it also gives everybody here something to rally around.”

Indeed, there were watch parties all over Paducah last night for the Season 20 finale in Paris, where Bradley faced off against Gabriel Rodriguez, who grew up poor on a farm in Mexico, and Buddha Lo, an Australian whose parents are from Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Bradley’s four-course meal included Bev’s famous Sweet Pea Cake, served with pistachios and buttermilk sorbet, and that liver and onions — something of a reprise of a Season 16 quickfire when she made sunny-side-up eggs and deep-fried chicken livers.

“Anytime liver’s brought up, it brings me back to my Jewish roots of standing with my mom in the kitchen and hand-grinding, you know, chicken livers for chopped liver,” Bradley said. “She’s always been the person, as long as I can remember, who took chopped liver for the entire temple. Then she would take chopped liver around to all the older people, who, like, couldn’t make it to temple. She would take chopped liver, tomato juice and Ritz crackers.”

Alas, the liver Bradley made on the finale was calf’s liver, and she knew as soon as she sliced into it that it was undercooked. But there was no time left to fix it, and the judges were unsparing. “I could not get through it,” one said.

Oh, well. She’s still got me pondering a pilgrimage to Paducah. Perhaps around Passover, when matzo-ball soup will be on the menu. Or in December, when sufganiyot will not be, at least not in so many words.

“We’ll call them Jewish beignets, or Israeli beignets,” Bradley said. “In restaurants, if people can’t say stuff, they won’t order it, because they don’t want to look silly. And so you change the words a little bit to give them the exact same experience, but make them feel comfortable.

“And then all of a sudden, when you go out to the table, they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, these are amazing.’ And you say, ‘Actually, these are like a traditional, you know, Jewish donut that is served on Hanukkah.  You just kind of sneak it in there.”

Kind of like slipping a little club soda into the matzo balls. Yum.