The Son Is Shining

Paula’s youngest, Bobby Deen, encourages healthy cooking with Not My Mama’s Meal

In families who own successful businesses, the children must give serious thought to the path they will take in their own careers. Will they emulate their parents’ choices, or dare to move in a completely new direction? Bobby Deen, the younger son of celebrity chef Paula Deen, found a way to do both. He honors the tradition of classic Southern cooking that helped make his mom a household name, but with a new twist—less fat and calories—and a new show, "Not My Mama’s Meals."

Bobby Deen was only eighteen years old when he went to work for his mother, who had recently been divorced from Bobby’s father and was just about broke. Looking back, Deen can still see those days in a positive light.

“You know, it was hard,” Deen says. “But I wouldn’t change a thing. Like a lot of other great businesses, ours was born out of necessity. We did what we had to do, and what we knew was food.”

Deen and his older brother, Jamie, actually had no hesitation in deciding to work for their mom, who had about $200 left to her name and was overcoming a long struggle with agoraphobia, the anxiety disorder that causes sufferers to avoid open or public places for fear of being helpless in an embarrassing or inescapable situation.

“We’ve always been an incredibly close family, so there was no way that Jamie and I were going to turn our backs on our mom,” Deen says.

The rest of Paula Deen’s story is well-known to most: starting with The Bag Lady, the home-based catering company for which Bobby Deen was the delivery boy, Paula used her skills at traditional Southern cooking to grow her business into the The Lady and Sons restaurant. The restaurant’s popularity with the public and food critics sparked a cookbook and a few television appearances, and the premier of “Paula’s Home Cooking” on the Food Network in 2002 certified Deen as a nationally-known star chef.

Along with running the famous restaurant, Bobby Deen and his brother Jamie began appearing on their mom’s show, and later worked together on their own show, “Road Tasted.” Deen was getting a taste of the ups and downs his mother had experienced being in front of a TV camera.

“It’s harder for me to get personal time with my mom, because as your fame grows so does the circle of people that constantly surround you,” Deen says. “It has affected me being in a small town. Savannah is very aware that we are in the public eye and I always want to make sure that I’m representing my family and the city of Savannah in a good light. That’s important to me, because this city has been very good to us and supported us so much over the years.”

In fact, despite growing comfortable in the spotlight, Deen never felt the urge to move to New York or L.A, where most of the entertainment industry is based.

“Leaving Savannah on a permanent basis has never crossed my mind,” Deen says. “I love the people here. The city’s charm and the aesthetic beauty of the low country can’t be denied. Most importantly, my family is here. I’m fortunate, because I live very near my mother and my brother.”

There is one project, however, through which Deen struck out on his own path. He developed a new television show called “Not My Mama’s Meals,” which is broadcast on the Cooking Channel. For each episode, Deen shares recipes that include the traditional foods he grew up on but which also contain less calories and fat. The show’s genesis came from a conscious decision Deen made in his early 30s to exercise and develop a healthy lifestyle.

“I wanted to do what my mother was doing and be true to who I am, and I think this is a very honest show,” Deen says. “It’s really how I eat, how I cook and how I live.”

Deen hopes that the recipes he shares will enlighten viewers to the idea that healthy food can be delicious, and that nutritious ingredients are not a constraint.

“There are no rules with cooking,” Deen says. “Mom taught me very early on that the first time you make a recipe, you go by the recipe. Any time after that, you have creative license to do whatever you want to do with it.”

Deen has found that the message about healthy cooking has been easier to send than the one about proper exercise.

“Portion size and paying attention to what you are putting into your body are so important, but the part that no one wants to talk about is that you have to exercise,” Deen says. “Your body is like an engine and your food is the fuel.”

Like the fame and success that has grown around the Deen family, healthy eating and exercise were not really part of the picture when Deen was delivering his mother’s homemade meals as a teenager. But today, all are very much a way of life.

“The relationship between food and exercise is something I’m passionate about,” Deen says. “So this is a natural thing for me to do.”

Photos courtesy of Paula Deen Enterprises. Learn more about Bobby Deen and his show at www.thedeenbros.com and www.cookingchanneltv.com.
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