TRAVERSE CITY — It was half a lifetime ago that Sarah Pouzar first stood behind the counter at Burger King in Traverse City.
She was 14, timid and a world away from competing on a Food Network reality TV cooking show. But 15 years is a long time. It’s long enough for that shy girl who worked her first job jockeying fryers at a fast food restaurant to grow into the professional chef who cooked her way to a win on “Chopped,” one of the network’s competitive cooking shows.
Pouzar, 29, and a graduate of Traverse City West Senior High School, won the competition and its $10,000 prize on Aug. 29, but had to keep her lips sealed until Jan. 5 when the episode aired.
“She’s just one of those kids who I never forgot,” said Angie Duvall, general manager of the Burger King restaurant on U.S. 31 South. “We were so excited, we all were. We were just screaming and yelling and going on.”
Duvall and friends knew to watch the show from a tip passed along by Pouzar’s dad, Tom.
Sarah always worked hard and hopped from the fast food depot to the culinary program at Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District. From there, she took a few other kitchen staff jobs before she was hired at Aerie Restaurant and Lounge.
There, she met Chef Ted Cizma.
“He’s the one that really saw she had the talent,” said Tom Pouzar. “He said ‘I hate to lose you, but you’re good enough.’”
Cizma encouraged the young chef to leave Traverse City for culinary school in Chicago. After graduating, Sarah climbed her way through the ranks of restaurant kitchen work in Chicago and eventually moved to Manhattan where she worked for celebrity chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio.
“She could have made more working at Burger King than she made at a lot of the places where she worked,” Tom Pouzar said. “She’s worked a lot of hours.”
Eventually, Sarah toiled her way to positions leading kitchens and now is the chef at Vida on Staten Island, N.Y.
Tom Pouzar recalls watching his daughter compete on the show Sunday. She’s always been quiet and respectful, he said, and managed not to fall into the drama that whips through the TV kitchens.
“There was a girl on there that had Sarah’s number from the start,” he said. “Sarah’s very kind, wouldn’t hurt a fly. We’re very proud of her.”
The hour-long show was whittled out of 16 hours of taping. It was a grueling day, but she wanted to take on the challenge, he said.
Since the show, Tom Pouzar has heard from dozens of people who spotted Sarah on the show Sunday night.
If you would like to watch the episode, it will replay in the coming days on the Food Network. For complete listings of show times, go to www.foodnetwork.com/chopped.