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Florist celebrates sister's TV food contest showing
The final episode of the seventh season of the Food Network Star series aired on Aug. 14.

Leticia Casillas, co-owner of Hand Creations Floral & Balloons in Ceres, was among the 40-plus people who attended a viewing party at Los Gallos Restaurant in Turlock.

"We're just so proud of her," said Leticia, 39. "We want to get together and do something for her."

Susie Jimenez, Casillas' younger sister and a Turlock native, advanced to the finals of the cooking show. She placed second behind self-designated "Sandwich King" Jeff Mauro (Elmwood Park, Ill.). Mauro will have his own show on Food Network, be featured in a magazine and headline a book tour.

"After they announced the winner, there was silence for a while," Leticia said. "We were in shock. We thought she had it."

Susie, 31, and Jeff both shot a pilot episode that was directed by past-winner Guy Fieri and screened by a selection committee and focus group of Food Network viewers during the final challenge. Susie made sopes (fried masa cakes) with chorizo, refried beans and tangy cabbage slaw. Her show was titled, "Spice It Up."

"She introduced Mexican food in a different way," Leticia said. "When we were growing up, our mom cooked on a daily basis. That's how it started. She just fell in love with cooking."

Susie's talent in the kitchen, radiant personality and background proved to be an alluring combination during the 11-week competition.

Francisco and Sofia Jimenez, Leticia's and Susie's parents, immigrated from Mexico to California. They raised five children, including four girls and one boy, while living in French Camp, Modesto, Ceres and Turlock. Francisco passed away 10 years ago.

"Susie has a story to tell as far as where she came from," Leticia said. "Our family followed the seasons. We worked the fields together picking cherries, apricots and peaches while everyone was taking vacations. The next generation is trying to break the tradition. A lot of her (Susie's) success has to do with our father having faith in her."

Susie went to Turlock High School. She attended California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. She worked as manager, line cook, sous chef and executive chef at several restaurants. Jimenez owns her own personal catering business in Carbondale, Col.

"We're strong women," Leticia said. "We love to work. We're living an American dream."

With assistance from her husband Roy, Leticia opened Hand Creations Floral & Balloons nine years ago. Leticia's focus is parties, weddings and funerals. She's a florist and event decorator. She does it all.

"It was hard, especially when the economy dropped," said Leticia, who was employed at flower shops in Hughson and Modesto before becoming her own boss. "I'm blessed that I still have my business. I have ambition. I want to succeed."

Susie enjoyed a successful run on the Food Network Star show.

Jimenez thought about her parents and their backyard cookouts while preparing her second-to-last meal. Susie's presentation included carnitas and grilled cactus salad.

"Our family got together every Sunday to watch her," Leticia said. "We wanted to be a part of it. We wanted to share every moment."

Leticia and mom Sofia attended the taping of the final episode in New York last June. Food Network paid for travel, hotel and meal expenses.

"It was pretty crazy," said Leticia, who spent three hours touring the city. "My neck hurt because I was trying to look at all the buildings."

Susie plans to visit family and friends in California this October.

"The fame hasn't got to her," Leticia said. "She's still the Susie I know. Family comes first. She has a lot of younger cousins that are studying to be a chef in the future. She's inspired a lot of people. God has a purpose for her."