It's Friday morning and Sarabeth Levine is talking about the chocolate bread pudding she's preparing as a host chef for the annual James Beard Sunday Supper, a fund-raising event in New York.
Today she's making the chocolate anglaise at her bakery located at the Chelsea Market, and will wake at the crack of dawn on Sunday to finish those bread puddings off.
"I'm always working on something, I can't sit still," says Levine, who has had only one day off in the past month.
She keeps her early morning 'bakers' hours' despite having stayed up this week until close to midnight at her new restaurant on Park Avenue South, her largest to date, seating over 200 and serving up signature dishes such as chicken pot pie and seafood cobb salad.
The woman behind the $40 million Sarabeth's empire -- which includes several restaurants, global licensing and a 15,000 square foot jam factory in the Bronx -- is taking on new challenges weeks ahead of her 70th Birthday, at a time when many of her contemporaries are kicking back.
It's an astonishing career for a woman who had no intention of starting a business.
Feelings of failure
Levine remembers when she felt like a colossal failure; a 32-year-old divorced woman with two young daughters, unsure how to make ends meet.
It was 1975 and Levine was working as an insurance sales rep, a job she did not enjoy but put food on the table.
She turned to her mother, crying to her that she felt like a "nobody," ashamed that she did not achieve the same level of success as her four siblings.
Her mother would have none of it. "You are truly a somebody but you just haven't found her yet. You just wait and see. It's going to happen," Levine's mother told her.
It started to happen, quite by accident, after she made a secret family recipe for orange-apricot marmalade, handed down by her Aunt Ruth. She made the jam for her friends, who adored it and encouraged her to sell it locally.
She also met "an extraordinary man" Bill Levine, a contractor who was working on a job building a dessert cafe in Manhattan. Sarabeth made her jam for Bill -- who she would later marry -- and sold it at the cafe's grand opening, where it was an instant hit.
"I got the gift of the recipe and got the gift of my husband," Sarabeth says.
In 1981, Sarabeth and Bill Levine opened a tiny bakery-kitchen to make and sell her preserves and baked goods. Before long they added a few tables and chairs serving breakfast and lunch. Two years later they opened their first restaurant, Sarabeth's (East) and after its success Sarabeth's (West) followed.
Today, Sarabeth's Kitchen has hundreds of employees and a team of partners who help manage her retail line, new product development and the company's 11 restaurants, including one in Japan, and four locations at Lord & Taylor stores with Sarabeth's cafes.
Levine says her husband -- who is 81 -- has been essential to the success of Sarabeth's: "We are both great at different things. He is extraordinary on the business end, and I am the creator... It's like a perfect thing."
When asked how many jars of jam the company produces in a year, Levine picks up the phone and calls her husband. "Really Bill, that many?," she says. "One million, I had no idea it was that many."
While Bill runs the factory in the Bronx, oversees product licensing and handles exports, Levine is in the kitchen testing recipes for a new cookbook, working on new items such as her soon-to-launch Perfect Pancake and Waffle Mix, and collaborating with her "work son" Pastry Chef Marcello Gonzalez, who has worked for Levine for 32 years.
Levine says success is "doing what you love" and for her that means spending most of her time in the kitchen at her bakery. "I wake up in the morning, open my eyes and say 'I have so much I can do today.' I look forward to every day. You have to really want to go to that place of work and embrace it."
Passion and problem-solving
That passion has won her critical claim, along with the prestigious James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef of the Year award in 1996.
Levine's success in part is due to keeping a close eye on quality which means dining at her restaurants and working on menus with her chefs. She's also on the front lines of customer feedback, taking calls directly from the public whenever there is a problem.
"You have to watch every part of your business and consistency is key... I always say 'you're only as good as your last croissant,'" she says.
When there is a complaint, Levine adopts the "customer is always right" philosophy, examining the problem and working to make things right. It's the customers, in fact, who are the the most rewarding part of being in the business.
"To be able to create something new and special and put it out on the counter and see their face lights up... I've given them that momentary pleasure," she says.
That may be one of the reasons why she has no intentions of retiring. "When the time comes for me to leave my body. I'll probably be standing in this bakery and fall over doing what I love."
She might just take a cue from her mother, who worked in Sarabeth's for 25 years as the "best front of house person ever," until she was 86.
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