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Q&A: Sarah Levy Wins Food Network Challenge

Last night, Chicago's own Sarah Levy, who owns Sarah's Pastries & Candies, competed on and won the Food Network Challenge. The show, hosted by Claire Robinson, saw four pastry chefs compete for $10,000 in an episode dedicated to extreme dinosaur cakes. Levy, who Robinson called "a newbie and a little bit of a rock star," came into the challenge as the only competitor who hadn't previously appeared on the show. She hit some snags, like having a tail that was supposed to mechanically move, fail on her, but she didn't let that slow her down.

In the end, Levy's "Fantastic Stegarasic" cake, which she built with assistant Sunny Lee, included moving parts, trees and other landscape visuals and won over the judges who awarded her the top prize. Eater Chicago spoke with Levy this morning about what it was like to prepare for the competition, what she'll do with the $10,000 and whether she'll ever do something like this again.

So you were the only pastry chef who hadn't appeared on the show before, right?
Going in, it was a little intimidating because we had that lack of experience, but I will say when we got there the other competitors were so nice. We all met in the hotel in Denver and they gave us inside tips.

I bet they wish they hadn't now! What was it like when Claire said your name?
I was nervous at that point, but it was exciting when we won. To be honest, after we finished and put everything down, I felt really good. Then you get psyched out. Up until that point, I felt really good. What they didn't show in the judging, was [judge] Keegan [Gerhard] said I didn't have anything to worry about. Honestly, anything could happen. I was genuinely nervous.

How much were you able to prep prior to the challenge starting?
We got there at 6 a.m. and were there until about midnight. The night before we loaded in and we were able to put together all of the mechanical stuff. We had timed it with that included in there. We stayed pretty late that first night and we organized the kitchen. They give you an hour before the actual show starts filming. We had an hour to melt the chocolate, heat the butter cream, etc. It was really like nine hours in making time. We had timed it in seven.

What sort of emotions did you feel during the eight hours?
Two hours in, when I saw Sunny had the dinosaur looking like an actual dinosaur, I looked around and saw the others still building and I felt really good. I was worried about getting complacent so I told myself to act like we were in last place. I didn't want to lose focus and wanted to keep working as fast as possible. I felt good when we were actually working on it. When the tail didn't move and I had seen everyone's sketches, we were the only ones who had moving parts. I felt like if we had the head moving, it didn't matter if the tail didn't move.

As the "newbie," did you look around the room and feel like you had it in the bag?
To be honest, we prepared so much for this. We talked to [the other competitors] and they said they didn't have much time to practice. We practiced so hard for the two weeks leading up to it. The hardest part was behind us; all the troubleshooting we did in Chicago. We made the whole cake twice. If you had a camera when we did it in Chicago, I was like, "Oh my god, how are we going to do this?" But the hard work really paid off.

Did the time fly by?
Oh my god, yes! It flew by and you have the clock counting down. We had an hour and a half left and we did all this extra stuff we didn't do in Chicago. That was good. I felt like because we had the extra hour ahead of time I didn't know we were going to get, it was an advantage of being a newcomer. We worked it out in our heads that we had seven hours but we had nine.

What are you going to do with the $10,000?
Cover costs! [laughs.] I paid Sunny and I paid my cousin Matt [Flynn] who helped us with the motor. I paid our friend Donna who helped us. I think we were lucky if we broke even. They give you a $500 stipend for the ingredients. I didn't really know the costs were going to be that much. The plan was always to pay back the people who helped us.

You hosted a charity benefit viewing party Sunday night at Mastro's. How did it go?
We had about 250 guests, but we haven't tallied up the exact number [for charity] yet. It was a really good turnout and it was nice to see the support. It was a successful event.

Would you compete again?
[Laughs.] Right afterward, I was like, "I don't think I could do it again." It was mentally, physically and emotionally draining. I haven't worked this hard since opening the store in 2005. The answer is yes, I would do it again. Maybe it would be easier the second time around knowing more. It took a lot out of me. But yeah I would do it.

· Sarah Levy to Compete on Food Network Challenge; Hosting Charity Viewing Party [~EChi~]

Sarah's Pastries & Candies

70 E. Oak Street, Chicago, IL