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Deen Of Cooking 

Living it up with noted cuisine author

Paula Deen has one of those hearty laughs that instantly draws people to her. She generally follows her laugh with a Southern maxim spoken in a languid south Georgia drawl, an accent which is at once both charming and reassuring to those from the South. Deen will be in Charlotte for a signing of her fourth cookbook, Paula Deen & Friends: Living It Up, Southern Style (with Martha Nesbit; Simon & Schuster; $25), at Sur La Table on Tuesday, April 19. She has an inspirational "bags" to riches story, but she's the first to tell you that good things didn't start coming her way until she took control of her destiny. Although she was born in Albany, GA, in 1947, her life started in 1989 when her marriage ended and she was left in Savannah with two boys and few skills except cooking.

"I had no talents," she confessed during a recent interview with CL. "I had been battling agoraphobia, so I had a lot of opportunity to become a pretty good cook. We (her family) love to eat and I love to cook."

To capitalize on her cooking, she took $200 and started The Bag Lady, a catering company. She cooked, her sons delivered.

Catering was hard but steady, and after a few years, she saw the opportunity to open a restaurant. "My first, The Lady & Sons, was in the Best Western. 45 South (the previous tenant) had a good reputation, but they were expensive. When I opened, I didn't paint the plate with sauces."

Instead, Deen continued serving her Savannah customers with the food she had catered, the food they liked: "Plantation Southern-styled cooking with chickens and pigs and that sort of thing and a lot of vegetables raised on the farm."

She has been greatly influenced by her grandmother, who cooked in Deen's grandparents' sandwich shop in Hapeville, GA, and she credits her grandmother as her best cooking teacher and inspiration.

Even though Deen may disarm you and try to excuse away her business acumen, it's clear that she took an arduous path to make opportunities happen for her. As a restaurant owner in a motel, Deen was responsible for breakfast, lunch and dinner, a rigorous routine for a single mom. "There's no harder business than the food business, and early on it damaged my relationship with my kids," she admitted. "I was crazed. Nothing was going to stand in my way and I was going to survive no matter what. I was cooking 20 hours a day. I was 45 and out of options... though I had a great deal of passion and desire. My children reminded me that this was my dream, not theirs, and that I literally drug them into it." She paused and laughed. "I don't have to do that anymore."

Deen wanted to move her restaurant into downtown Savannah. "That was where I belonged — in the Historic District. When visitors come to Savannah, they want to get the food that we eat — that is indicative of the South."

In 1996, she and her sons opened The Lady and Sons in the downtown area. The next year, she self-published her first cookbook, The Lady and Sons Savannah Country Cookbook, at just about the same time Savannah was overrun with folks filming Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

One day, a woman ducked into Deen's restaurant to get out of the rain. "She didn't tell me who she was. She had my biscuits and hoecakes — which she thoroughly enjoyed. She went back to New York and then she called me and asked, 'Didn't I see a cookbook at your restaurant?' I had not even sold 25 copies yet. She asked me to send her some copies and I told her I would be delighted to." But Deen had to ask her son Jamie what Random House was. "I didn't know they were one of the top three publishers," she confessed.

Within three days, Random House called back and offered to publish the book. Deen then went on QVC to sell her cookbook. She wrote more cookbooks, appeared on Oprah, and now stars on her own cooking show on the Food Network. Her televised wedding in 2004 was the highest-rated show ever on the Food Network.

How does Deen follow this success? A few months ago, she and her younger brother Bubba opened a new restaurant concept, Uncle Bubba's Oyster House, on Wilmington Island near Savannah. And this October, she'll appear in the movie Elizabethtown, starring Orlando Bloom, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst and Alec Baldwin. How did she get cast? A producer was flipping around the channels and caught her on the Food Network.

Is it luck? "It's scary. I thought (early in life) that if I had luck, it was no luck. But as soon as I started taking responsibility for myself, God hasn't missed a day blessing me."

Any advice to hopeful restaurateurs? She laughed. "I tell them to open up a restaurant and pray for rain."

Paula Deen will be in Charlotte on Tuesday, April 19, from noon until 2pm at the Sur La Table store in SouthPark Mall, 4400 Sharon Road. During the event, Deen will sign copies of her new book, Paula Deen & Friends: Living It Up, Southern Style. Customers interested in attending the book signing must reserve a book by calling the store at 704-362-2360. To guarantee a signed book during the event, pre-purchasing is recommended; contact the store to make arrangements. All books must be purchased at Sur La Table and accompanied by a valid receipt.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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