There is an echo when you walk into the dining room of Freight House restaurant that does not come from emptiness. Sound bounces off the soaring, century-old, exposed-pine rafters, off the bricks reclaimed from a building torn down in St. Louis, off the bar made from beams that once supported the big, bay doors. It is, rather, an echo of the past brought present, of the old made new, of a return home. This building that once served as an agricultural distribution center for the region, before laying fallow for 15 to 20 years, is flush again, with an abundance of gourmet food fashioned from produce and livestock all grown and raised within a day's drive of the restaurant.
The plates coming from the kitchen are robust and thoughtful, both in size and in presentation. Braised pork shoulder with black-eyed peas, sweet greens, fennel aioli and corn bread evokes a true, southern Sunday dinner. The Kentucky blue snapper with butternut squash, wheat berries and apple offers a fond farewell to winter. And the sweet tea-brined chicken thighs with white asparagus and fennel-rhubarb stuffing celebrate the first spring crop come to grace the table.
Chef Sara Bradley, who grew up in the Heath area about 20 minutes west of Paducah, is the genius behind this return to roots. Once upon a time, Sara had the intention of becoming a psychiatrist, but after getting a degree from the University of Kentucky and practicing for a year at a state-run psychiatric hospital, Sara knew she needed to do something different.
“I hated it,” she said. “So I started thinking about what might be a better fit for me. I had always cooked and always wanted to be a chef, but wasn’t sure it was something I could do. I believe sometimes you just have to take a chance, and so I took one, and went to study at Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts in North Carolina.”
While there, she met and worked for a great guy who moved her to Birmingham, Alabama to cook at the Country Club of Birmingham. After working in that kitchen for a while, Sara realized, at age 25, “that if I didn’t move to New York City and try my hand at the big time, that I would never forgive myself.”
Following this trajectory led her to work at Dovetail, John Frasier’s Michelin Star restaurant. “He taught me everything about the importance of vegetables in a meal. In my restaurant, I usually come up with the sides and the garnish for the plate first, and then come up with a meat that will compliment it. He also received his first Michelin Star when I was there. I am really proud of that.”
A few years later, Sara realized she was missing her family. When an opportunity opened up to work for chef Paul Kahan in Chicago, she leapt at the chance to return to the Midwest to be closer to her roots. After working in all four of Kahan’s restaurants at the same time, Sara ended up at his Michelin Star restaurant — the second of her career. Even with that success, she muses, something still felt disconnected. About that time, Sara came home to visit her mom and dad, and ended up in Paducah.
“There were all these great breweries and all this energy that wasn’t here when I left 15 years previously,” she said. And that energy motivated her to come home to be with her family and friends, and to open Freight House.
Sara said she was inspired to create a work environment that felt like family, and to cook food that felt like the kind of food you would like to eat when you sit down with your family. “My grandfather grew a garden so large it fed several families. My grandmother was one of the best cooks I have ever met. My mom baked pies with seasonal produce and served us home-cooked meals every night.” It was a no-brainer, she said, to look to her local community for her inspiration.
Eating is an ethical act
While Sara was working toward opening her restaurant, she did a couple of pop-up events at the Paducah farmer’s market to test the waters. The first time out, she served biscuits and gravy with strawberry-chamomile jam. The sausage came from Riverbend Family Farms in Burna, Kentucky, and the biscuits from her own recipe. She made 125 portions and sold out in one hour. The second time she did a pop-up, she sold grits with braised pork shoulder and blueberry cornbread. More than 400 people responded to the event on social media. She sold out then, as well.
So the community wanted something like this. “They wanted a place where they could go, where eating a plate of food was not just about the meal,” Sara said. “They wanted something where the food on the plate represented more. It represented jobs — for farmers, for cooks, for servers, for delivery drivers. We have a farmer who this year will plant almost five acres for us this season. I go out there and put my hands in the dirt. There’s no better way to learn about seasonal cooking than to put your hands in the dirt. We plant together.” She works with other farmers, as well, who plant just garlic or radishes or greens. By purchasing as much as she can from local farmers, she makes sure the local economy and community are supported. In that way, she said, eating is an ethical act.
Sara also believes that everything deserves serious attention in making the perfect meal. If you tour her kitchen, you will see she means it. Her walk-in cooler is cleaner than most operating rooms. The labels on her storage bins are exactly the same length and clearly marked. “Everything counts,” she said. “All the cooks and servers that work for me, we have a standing rule. If you can’t be nice, you can’t work here. We have lost people because of it, but we do not tolerate people who do not treat each other well. It comes across in the food if you are mean to each other.”
A plate of food is more than a plate of food
Beyond working with local farmers, Sara also supports local businesses with retail storefronts. Much of her bread comes from Kirchhoff's Bakery, a fifth-generation family bakery in downtown Paducah. The fish on her menu has its own microcosm of influence, as she serves Asian Carp, which she buys from Fin Gourmet on Bridge Street.
“Asian Carp is one of the most invasive species of fish in the Midwest, and we need to get it out of the water,” Sara said. “One of the best ways to do that is to eat it.” Eating carp is not only good for the ecosystem, but also great for your palate. “Because of what and where they eat, Asian Carp are an incredibly clean fish,” she said. “The ones we serve were in the water less than 12 hours before they get to your plate. The one I am working with tonight weighed in at about 70 pounds. This means that the fillets are big, have lots of fat, and have huge flakes, all of which make them very, very tasty.”
Additionally, the co-owners of Fin Gourmet, Dr. Lula Luu and Dr. John Crilly, hire local shrimpers in the off-season to do some of their fishing. They also create a ready-to-eat food product called Surimi (sometimes called the Spam of Asia) made from Kentucky wild-caught carp. And their storefront has kitchen staff of seven. “So this all circles back to the ethical act,” Sara said. ”I pay them for these beautiful carp fillets, which helps fund them while they are trying to get their business off the ground, helps employ local people, and benefits the rivers.”
I could never have done this in NY or Chicago
“I could never have done this in NY or Chicago,” Sara said, “and I’m not sure I would have wanted to. See Beverly, my mom over there? She’s making pies. It’s her dream, too. Years ago, I asked her — if she could do anything, what would it be? And she said open a pie shop. So, when I opened this place, mom retired from being a social worker after 40 years, and now she works for me making the most amazing desserts. My dad, who is a lawyer, always had a love of architecture, so both of them put in lots of hours in helping design this place. This was a family joint effort."
When the restaurant is closed, Sara offers Freight House to the local community to use for meetings. Entrepaducah, an organization founded to help entrepreneurs gain access to services they need, meets there. The Paducah Bourbon Society also meets there, which makes sense, since Freight House has over 140 bourbons, ryes and whiskeys. This collection, curated by Lindsay Corn, the beverage director, is on par with Galt House or The Brown Hotel in Louisville.
Sara’s farm-to-table philosophy also means that if she can’t support her community directly, she will support the communities of others. For instance, her hard cheese is produced locally by Lost River Creamery, but pasteurization rules in Kentucky demand that if Sara wants to serve a really good goat cheese, she had to buy from a goat farm in Michigan. She prefers to serve corn-fed beef and cannot find that locally, so she buys through a farmer’s co-op in North Carolina. “Hopefully we will eventually find beef in the region that we can work with,” Sara said, “but in the meantime, buying from a farmer’s co-op means I support the buying and selling power of other individuals — that the money goes into the pockets of those farmers and into their community directly.”
More than a plate of food
Circling back to benefiting the regional community, Sara said they really kept their potential guests in mind when pricing their menu. She said they didn’t want to create an environment that was so expensive you couldn’t enjoy yourself. “The portions are good, and it is not overpriced. If you are buying things in season, it is easy to keep the price down," Sara said. "Think about it. If you are buying asparagus in February, part of the cost you are paying is the freight from Chile, or wherever, and how old is it by the time it gets to you anyway? Eating well is not just about stuffing your face, which I love, but about realizing you feel so much better when you put something in your body that you know all about — who grew it, what the land is like, how they raise livestock. People eat fast food and, yeah, they survive, but there is a better way to live that is more beneficial to you and your surroundings."
From the farm, stream and local shop, to the season, plate and community, everything is interrelated.
“My father taught me that if you treat people right, they will work hard for you," Sara said. "If I treat people right, they will come back." Businesses like Freight House help people like Sara come back home and help others stay. So it all comes full circle. With the success of small, businesses, local employment rises, more money stays in the local economy and the community grows. Like Sara said, a plate of food is more than just a plate of food.