Like the alchemy of acid and fat, the balance of sweet and salty, and the classic pairing of peanut butter and jelly, two is so often better than one in the world of food. This is Culinary Duos, a series by senior culture editor Megan Zhang spotlighting dynamic pairs—from couples to siblings to friends—whose partnerships produce flavor-filled magic.
Beyond the secret to a perfectly crisp latke or tender brisket, one of the most burning cooking questions around Hanukkah and the holidays is how to navigate the kitchen with family in town. Seasoned in the art of culinary collaboration is Sara Bradley, Top Chef season 16 runner-up; alum of Chicago favorite Blackbird (among others); and owner of Freight House in her hometown of Paducah, Kentucky. The restaurant’s desserts are overseen by Bradley’s mom, Bev, a retired social worker who has been a fixture in the kitchen almost since day one. Here, the mother-daughter duo share their tips for stress-free meal prep, riffing on family food traditions, and getting creative with seasonal ingredients.
You both work at the restaurant—and Sara just had a baby. How do you approach entertaining and family gatherings during the holidays, when everything is already so busy?
Sara: Well, I think that my mother must have known the whole time that I was going to become a professional chef, because she is a devout list maker. She is great at having all the ingredients and the exact amounts. And that is so important to get every task done in a restaurant kitchen and at home when prepping for a bigger meal. If you're not writing a list, it's never gonna happen. So I have followed in her footsteps: Take a little bit of time to get yourself organized and it'll make your life so much easier.
Bev: When Sara was growing up, we always tried to make a big meal on Sunday nights and sit down in the dining room (not at the kitchen table) to eat something special. Even though we were a Jewish family in a small Kentucky town, we had our holiday celebrations at Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving. You learn how to cook, then you're not afraid to do it. But I had actually never been in a professional kitchen until Sara opened the restaurant. I retired from social work about six months before I started going in to help her for five days a week. I’d do something and Sara would say, “You know, you could do it this way.” And it'd be so much easier. Now, after six and a half years, when she hires somebody I'll show them things and they'll say, “Oh, that makes so much sense.”
Sara: It's not often that a professional chef could say to their mother, “I need to brunoise these carrots,” and they know what to do.
Bev: When both her kids were born, I felt comfortable saying, “You stay at home, and I'll go to the restaurant.” That's what's really nice.
Have any of those classic Bradley dishes made it onto the menu?
Sara: The cornbread is my grandmother's recipe and it's cooked in her three skillets, so we can only make three pans at a time. There's this huge white binder in the office with all my mother’s dessert recipes, too. We didn't change her pie crust. We didn't change her chocolate buttermilk pie. There are certain things that are so good you just can't mess with them. Her red velvet cake with cooked icing is the best!
Bev: We developed a recipe for sweet pea cake which came about because when we first opened, Sara said, “We have to be seasonal.” It was spring and we were getting all these fresh English peas, so I ground them into the batter. The cake comes out bright green and has a lot of lemon and zest in it. People have asked if I’d make it for their wedding.
What’s the story behind the Sufganiyot (Israelli donuts) recipe you shared with us for Hanukkah?
Sara: I've made them before for Hanukkah, but we didn't grow up eating them. As kids we got donuts from a place here in Paducah called Red’s. My mom would bring them to synagogue every Sunday—until we found out they were fried in lard. That’s why they tasted so good! Anyway, the reason I like this donut recipe is that they're not yeasted. You don't have to let them rise; they're not as finicky. We're going to cook it with my kids and my sister's kids. What makes Hanukkah an especially delightful holiday if you're a Southern Jew is that it’s all about fried food—but also anything cooked in oil, like oil-poached salmon or confit duck legs.
Bev: Yeah, actually, my father and all of my extended family were merchants in the South. The only day they got off was on Christmas Day, so that’s when they would celebrate Hanukkah and make all the traditional Hanukkah foods.
How has Jewish cooking influenced your offerings?
Sara: We play a lot on Middle Eastern/Mediterranean/Israeli food, but with Southern touches, like butter bean hummus served with citrus butternut squash, pomegranate, and molasses. For a long time we served matzo ball soup here but called it “bread dumplings.” Then after I was on Top Chef, everyone wanted to try matzo balls.
Bev: The first summer we opened, Sara was serving watermelon and pickled shrimp. I said, “Nobody's gonna order that.” But that's when we realized people do want to be more adventurous, even in this little town. Anything Sara puts on the menu, people will eat.
Sara: We're taking things that are very classic to this area and revamping them. There are all these dishes my father didn't eat when we were growing up. But now the tables have turned because he wants to try whatever his daughter cooks—and I've seen his palate explode! I'm also really excited to show my daughters a different style of cooking and eating.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.