As a child, Michael Bradley got the smell of barbecue in his lungs and it never seemed to leave his body.
Bradley, the owner of Amazing Gracie’s Food Truck based out of Frankfort, is now sharing his love of barbecue across the state.
“My barbecue is Tennessee-style,” Bradley said. “It’s sweet and spicy.”
It makes sense that his barbecue is Tennessee-style, as he grew up in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Bradley’s grandfather, A.L. Bradley, had a catering company in Huntsville, Alabama. He started working with him at age 13.
“Growing up, I was always seeing people working in the kitchen,” Bradley said. “We always had big gatherings of family and friends.
“My grandfather, mother and grandmother were always center of attention because our guests always liked their great food.”
Every fall on the family farm, there would be a hog killing, so that everyone’s family had meat for the winter.
“I was fascinated with it,” he said. “We stayed up all night cooking pig and talking. I really appreciated the process of making barbecue.”
After graduating high school, Bradley went on to college and continued to work at restaurants, mainly cooking and serving in managerial roles. He graduated from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s degree in recreation management with a concentration in private (hotel) administration.
In 2001, he decided to pursue his true passion, so he enrolled in culinary school at Johnson and Wales in Charleston, South Carolina. It was a two-year program.
At that point, he had already had more than 10 years of experience cooking professionally, but he was able to refine his skills at the school.
“I took classes from French classical cuisine, to Asian, baking and pastry, to butchering,” he said. “The great thing was if I wanted to work with a saddle of veal, they would order it and have it the next day for me to work with.”
In Charleston, he could get fresh seafood, which, outside of barbecue, is his second favorite food to work with.
“Sometimes we would get fish still flopping in the crates.”
During that time, Bradley said the Southern food movement was coming into it’s own. Chefs were taking traditional ingredients and refining them.
“I got to see and be a part of elevating Southern food,” he said.
After graduating in 2003, he married artist Toby Penney. They had met a few years prior working at a restaurant. Together, they moved all over.
“We lived in Asheville, North Carolina, and I worked at a place called Café on the Square.”
At one point, they moved to Chicago and Bradley worked as a sous chef at Gibson’s Steakhouse and Hugo’s Frog Bar.
In 2010, they moved back to Tullahoma, Tennessee, and Bradley and Penney opened their own restaurant called Okra in Fayetteville. That year, their daughter Gracie was born.
“It was a split-personality restaurant,” he said.
In the morning and for lunch, Bradley served traditional “blue plate food” — which is old diner slang for “whatever is cheap and good.” The restaurant shut down after lunch and was “flipped” for dinner.
“We turned it into fine dining at night,” Bradley said. “We had linens on the tables, candles and we had a menu.
“We featured fresh seafood, local beef, game, shrimp and grits and Cajun food.”
Bradley made everything from scratch and sourced his produce locally. He isn’t one to use canned food or heat up food from bags.
Things went so well that they opened up a barbecue restaurant and named it Amazing Gracie’s.
“We had a good following down there. It worked well until the economy of the town tanked.”
Bradley said he and his family had a home in Tullahoma, but they rarely made it back there. They worked sun up to sun down and lived in an apartment above Okra.
“One day in 2013, my cook quit, someone else quit, Toby had Gracie on her back, and the dining room was packed. I looked at Toby and said I was done with this. I wasn’t seeing Gracie grow up and we needed to simplify our life.”
So, they closed the restaurant and he started a catering business, keeping the name Amazing Gracie’s. In 2015, they moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he went to work at Shakespeare and Co. as well as continuing to operate his catering business.
Wanting to work for himself fulltime again, Bradley and Penney got the idea to start a food truck.
“It was something that fascinated us for awhile,” he said. “We watched the rise in food trucks nationwide. I saw it in Nashville and Atlanta.
“I wanted to do food I was passionate about. I think the product suffers if it’s not something I’m interested in.”
So, in 2017, he decided to make his passion for barbecue mobile and he purchased a 1986 Chevrolet P30 — an old UPS truck that had been converted to a mobile kitchen. There’s a grill in the back, sink, prep area and refrigerator. It’s painted black with hot pink trim and a pig on the nose of the truck. “Amazing Gracie’s” is painted in large block letters on the side and on the hood. On the hood, the words are painted backward so people can read it in their rearview mirrors.
“It reminds me of a B52 Bomber from WWII with the rivets on the side,” he said. “That’s why we painted the pig on the nose of the truck. It’s my nose art.”
Bradley considers the food truck his “pre-retirement” plan. The schedule is flexible and it was cost effective to get up and running. He’s not restricted to a brick and mortar restaurant and all of the overhead that comes along with it.
He travels all over the state. His permit is statewide. He does have to adhere to health department codes in each county. He goes regularly to Chestnut Street in Louisville (near Norton Children’s Hospital) and events in Frankfort and Lexington. He can also be booked for special events.
In Frankfort, he’s often at Sig Luscher, West Sixth Farm and the Summer Concert Series.
His menu is all barbecue-based. He has barbecue sandwiches, smoked mac and cheese with barbecue, barbecue stuffed baked potatoes, his famous barbecue nachos, barbecue burritos and more.
“The nachos are by far my best seller,” he said.
Bradley smokes the pork in one of his three smokers that he typically keeps at home. He’ll take one occasionally with him to special events. One of his smokers is big enough to smoke three whole pigs at once.
His sweet and spicy Tennessee-style barbecue is a favorite to many. Many say it’s the best they’ve ever had.
“That’s what I like to hear,” he said.
Follow Amazing Gracie’s Food Truck on Facebook to find out where they will pop up next.