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Georgia Chef Cooks Up a Bags to Riches Story

Careers: Divorced woman uses meager assets and help of her two sons to become the toast of the Food Network and more.

January 20, 2002|RUSS BYNUM | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAVANNAH, Ga. — When Paula Deen went into the bag lunch business, she had $200 in the bank and two sons to support. She made sandwiches, soups and salads and then kept her fingers crossed while the boys hawked them at doctor's offices, beauty parlors and banks.

Nearly 13 years later, the 54-year-old Deen is cooking for a much larger extended family.

Her downtown restaurant, Lady & Sons, is packed with lunchtime crowds who line up for the fried chicken, sweet potatoes and collard greens. Two years ago, the restaurant won the "meal of the year" award from USA Today, edging out restaurants in New York, Paris and Chicago.

"The first two years I lived here, I went there at least two times a week," said Mike Tally of Hospitality Tours and Gifts, who often refers tourists to the Lady & Sons for a taste of true Southern cooking.

"I jokingly tell some of the customers, when you go there it's the kind of food that'll make you go home and slap your momma," he said. "Their mommas might not have been that good of a cook."

Deen recently taped the first two installments of her own show for the Food Network. A Southern cook who specializes in cheese biscuits and banana pudding may seem out of place alongside Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck, but Deen is betting there's a national cable audience hungry for simple fare that recalls your grandmother's Sunday lunch.

"I think the feeling is people are looking for that comfort, that feeling of being safe and having the food they grew up with," Deen said. "Not fancy food, but food that makes you feel good."

The show won't be Deen's first exposure beyond Savannah. She's been a guest on the Food Network and published two cookbooks that were popular on the QVC shopping network.

Deen's taste of success has been simmering since 1988, when she started the Bag Lady business from scratch. Recently divorced, all she had was $200, cooking skills learned from her grandmother, and two sons, Jamie and Bobby, willing to pitch in.

Deen cooked at home, often starting at 2 a.m. on grilled chicken salads, pimento cheese sandwiches, chopped barbecue, chicken pot pies and twice-baked potatoes stuffed with shrimp.

Her sons sold the food door-to-door, slowly building a loyal clientele.

"I'll never forget the first door we knocked on and said, 'Y'all want to buy lunch?' " said Jamie Deen, 34. "It was as hard as you can imagine--a total cold sale every day. But after a while, folks would expect us to come back every day."

The Deens did well enough by 1990 to open a small restaurant in a hotel, then moved to Savannah's historic district in 1995. Deen has already bought a larger space nearby, where she hopes to move by 2003.

Her national exposure happened largely by chance. A Random House editor who wandered in for lunch decided to publish Deen's self-published cookbook. A mutual friend introduced her to Gordon Elliott, a former talk-show host who is producing Deen's cable show.

The younger Deens still work at the restaurant, busing tables and refilling tea glasses while their mother signs copies of her books. She said she hopes the Food Network will give her a weekly show after the first episode airs, tentatively by March.

"It's just fun. But it's stressful," she said. "I've worked 20-hour days in this restaurant and with physical labor, and I couldn't have been a drop more tired than when I got done doing those cooking shows."

Her sons said they're not banking on stardom.

"We just wake up and work hard and these things seem to come," Jamie Deen said. "I don't have time to sit in the living room and smoke a cigar and say, 'Today the Food Network, tomorrow the world.' "

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