Sara Bradley – On Top of the World

by | Oct 3, 2023 | People

Paducah Life | Chef Sara Bradley | On Top of the World

She’s the diva of deliciousness—the queen of cuisine—and most recently the last woman standing as a top three finalist on the 2023 edition of Top Chef World All Stars.

As all of us locals know, this wasn’t her first competitive cooking rodeo. Sara was the runner-up in Top Chef Season 16 in 2019. But this time around, EVERYONE in this culinary combat was already a winner; thus the term ALL STARS.

“It was definitely intimidating,” Sara says. “Almost everyone in this all-stars season was a winner in their former individual competitions. And ALSO, they were from all over the world. So, there’s that!”

But if you know Sara, you know that intimidation and fear do not deter this girl of grins and grits. She has fear and intimidation for breakfast (along with, we’re sure, a delectable breakfast bagel.)

“When I got the call from the casting director, I wasn’t sure I wanted to make that kind of commitment to be away from my family and the restaurant for that long again,” Sara recalls. The filming required Sara to be in Europe for three months. The production took place in 2022 from August to October. “But then there was this sense of the need for redemption,” she adds. “And when I talked to Austin {her husband} about it, he was quick to say that I should absolutely do it.” Facilitated by the firm support of her husband and family and the belief that her capable staff could keep the freight house flying, she packed her pump (she was still nursing her second daughter Hazel) AND her recipes and made plans to join 15 other international chefs from every part of the world for Bravo’s ultimate kitchen caper.

Unlike her previous experience, which was amazingly filmed here in her home state, upon her arrival in merry old England, Sara was introduced to her cheftestant compatriots who hailed from locales such as Thailand, Mexico, France, Italy, the Dominican Republic, Jordan, and other parts of the planet. It was most certainly time for small town girl to sharpen her knives and her skill set and prepare to battle the best. As it turns out, she bested almost all of them!

“One of the many things I learned from this experience was how valuable my freight house team is to me,” Sara says. “There was never a moment’s reluctance for me to leave them to it. I had no reservations that it would be in good hands. But how many times does a restaurant owner walk away from their operation for three months? Seeing them take charge and maintain our level of excellence for months was such a point of pride for me and I hope for them as well. I have such a heightened level of respect for them as my colleagues. I mean, I truly could not have done this if they weren’t of the caliber where I could walk away for that long with the assurance that the freight house would be fine.”

Paducah Life | Chef Sara Bradley | On Top of the WorldLeaving behind her baby daughter was a challenge of a different sort. But that, too, provided a range of new thoughts and experiences that Sara says has had life-changing implications for her AND for those who are following her on television and social media. “It goes without saying that I was the ONLY contestant pumping breast milk and shipping it across the ocean to my waiting daughter,” Sara laughs. “And not only that, it was being captured on camera!” The outpouring of comments on Sara’s social media has taken her a bit by surprise. “I have had thousands of comments and messages about my open attitude to breastfeeding and my commitment both to my career and my daughters. I did not see that coming. But the heartfelt emotional responses from all of these women all around the country was just icing on the cake of this moment in my life.” (We are assuming that is English pea cake.)


Sara has always been a popular personality in her appearances in the two seasons of Top Chef, bringing her unique southern style to the set. But in this case, she found a new audience that not only applauded her unbridled honesty as a nursing mother, but also publicly lauded her unmitigated representation of women as capable to sustain their careers while bringing up the baby.

“You know I think I had more confidence for this season because I was the mother of two children,” Sara admits. “I think I gained the perspective of seeing things differently as a mother. Motherhood has taught me more patience. And it has enabled me to see that sometimes things are just not that significant in the grand scheme. You really get a new outlook on life after you have children. I think I had more tolerance in this competition. Some of the people around me were just freaking out and, in most cases, they were sent home.”

At this juncture, we would be remiss not to honor the contribution that Sara’s husband, Austin, made to this incomparable instance. “Not only did he manage our family while I was away for three months,” she adds, “he did it while battling COVID and then a bout with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever! Again, my husband and my family were just vital to my success in every way.”

Top Chef LIFE in London

If there is one thing that Sara Bradley has shown the world (and a bunch of all stars) it’s that you do not have to live in New York or Paris or anywhere else around the globe to perform at the highest level of excellence. “I looked at the resumes of some of these people, and yeah they were impressive,” Sara recalls. “But in a Top Chef competition, it’s about the dish you prepare for the challenge you’re given. And even at that, it’s not about your cumulative performance, it’s about EACH dish you prepare for each episode. You are only as good as the last food you put in front of the judges.”

So, Sara developed a strategy of sorts. Based on her outstanding results in Season 16, she was fully aware that you don’t have to be at the top of the charts in every episode. So, Sara kept a journal of each chef’s accomplishments for every challenge. “I knew that you don’t always have to come out on top. You just have to stay away from the bottom,” Sara explains. Sara chose her ways to win wisely and consciously calculated her approach to every cooking case in order to stay in the running. It obviously worked. And, well, you also have to be a consummate chef, but a little strategic secret sauce didn’t hurt. “I really saw this as one of the ways to push through to the end,” she adds.

Although the end did indeed come when she was paired with Amar Santana for the triple threat of the Wellingtons. Not only do each of these highly skilled cheftestants have to conceive a plan, create a recipe, garner the ingredients, prep for every part of the process, cook every element to perfection, then plate an exquisite presentation, they have to do it on the clock. “This is where you get taken out of the ordinary and forced to work against time,” Sara says. And timing wasn’t their friend when the duo delivered an undercooked entrée.

“When Amar and I got the boot,” Sara remembers, “my first thought was to throw in the towel. I felt defeated, and I was ready to pack my bags. But Austin wouldn’t let me. He would not let me leave behind the chance that I could still be competitive. So, I went to the Last Chance Kitchen.”

And we all know how that turned out. After leaving us on the edge of our collective couches following her successful score when making meat pies against Amar and Charbel Hayek, we were all thrilled to see her proudly push open those double doors in the next episode. Sara from Paducah, Kentucky was back in the game! “Winning Last Chance Kitchen was definitely a high,” Sara claims.

Leaving London

In the 14 episodes of Top Chef World All Stars we witnessed Sara beat the pants off every man and woman with a knife as she took top honors in the Frenched lamb racks race to the finish line. We watched her indulge in cheeky pints and pub bites. “I had never been to London before and I really loved the fish and chips,” Sara says. She even created her own version during the specific challenge to cook one of the dishes she liked the most and one that she felt needed improvement.

She took rice to the next level in the second episode of Rice, Rice Baby and managed to stay out of a sticky situation. She joined with others as the numbers dwindled and teams were concocted to create such things as a picnic at Highclere Castle, site of the filming of Downton Abbey. There was a street food fight and she licked her plate clean when the chefs were charged with crafting a plate of delights which could be eaten “hands off.” There was a holiday meal fit for a queen . . . naturally. They were in England. And, of course, there was the requisite restaurant wars.

“I actually enjoy the restaurant wars,” Sara admits. Of course, being a part of the winning team was a plus. “The pressure is kind of taken off each individual and you get a chance to work as a team and that’s a nice change of pace from the pressure cooker we’re all in when we’re on our own.” This version of restaurant wars was judged by three-Michelin-star chef Clare Smuth at her renowned restaurant, Core, in London.

“Meeting all these amazing chefs is just another incredible perk of being invited to this shindig,” Sara comments. “Unfortunately, we really didn’t have that much time with any of them. They are, of course, busy and the show is on a tight timeframe in terms of production. The only one we actually got to hang with a bit was Gaggan Anand. He insisted on having a beer with us after that episode. He was so great, and it was such a crazy, amazing opportunity to meet him.”  And, of course, it was Gaggan that said Sara’s pecan pork with cocoa buttermilk was good enough to make a fast-food chain out of it!

Sara thinks she employed a slightly more defined “filter” for Season 20. “I was pretty unfiltered for Season 16,” she says with a laugh. “But I think I was SO much more aware that everyone was watching this time and that perhaps I should project a little less of my truest personality.” But . . . she couldn’t quite hold back when she was chosen last for restaurant wars quipping, “’Bring it on bitches. You picked me last!?’ I think people don’t know that I came up in Michelin-star kitchens. The only thing you can do when you’re the underdog is prove everybody wrong.” Mission accomplished.

“As a former soccer player, I really enjoyed our episode at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium,” Sara remembers. This was also the episode where Sara revealed she actually has a degree in statistics and psychology. Yeah, smart AND she can cook. She and her teammates showed their degrees in cheese by winning their task of utilizing Wensleydale cheese in their cauliflower Welsh rarebit.

Paducah Life | Chef Sara Bradley | On Top of the WorldBut it would be Paris where the final showdowns would be played out. As the unfiltered Sara would characterize her presence there in episode 14, “I am f’ing pumped to be back at this point again. I really want it. I’m going to do what I do best, staying true to myself and my food and cook my heart out. This time I’m fighting it out for all the moms and the women.” In the finale the three chefs earned the opportunity to cook whatever they wanted for a four-course progressive meal. They were aided by the last three chefs eliminated and Sara chose Amar as her helpmate once more. The partners designed and create a first course of couvillion with shellfish and trinity, a second course of liver and onions with cookie butter and figs, a third course of burgoo and cornbread, and a fourth course of English pea cake with buttermilk sorbet.

We apologize if you haven’t completed the season, but for those of you who did, it was the damned liver! The hard part for the fans to swallow was that it was quite apparent at the final judges’ table that sans the liver, Sara would have indeed taken the cake. By the way, they ALL LOVED the cake.

“It didn’t turn out the way I wanted,” Sara comments. “But it turned out that I learned a lot about myself and my professional life, and the way I want to run my restaurant. I think I’m more focused on the right priorities. I did this not just for me, but for my business, for my family, and as it turned out surprisingly, for many, many women like me. It was a journey of a lifetime. And my life is better for it.”

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