At Home With Paula Deen

The Food Network star gives us a glimpse into her life outside the kitchen.

Long before Paula Deen became a Food Network star, the queen of Southern cooking opened a business out of her home called The Bag Lady, which sold lunches desk to desk in Savannah office buildings. After that came the establishment of The Lady & Sons, a 330-seat Savannah restaurant that caters to tourists and locals alike (owned by Paula and her sons Bobby and Jamie), and Uncle Bubba's Oyster House, a seafood restaurant owned by Paula and her brother Bubba. On April 4-5, Paula will open her fourth casino restaurant in association with Harrah's in Joliet, Ill. We caught up with the restaurateur, cookbook author and two-time Emmy Award-winner to chat about her latest project and life outside the kitchen.

You've got restaurants in Harrah's Tunica (Miss.), Harrah's Cherokee (N.C.) and the Horseshoe Southern Indiana (in Elizabeth, Ind.). Tell us about Paula Deen's Kitchen at Harrah's Joliet, and what it's going to offer.

It'll be our first restaurant above the Mason-Dixon Line. I'm looking forward to bringing our Southern cooking to Illinois. Over the years, we've opened up restaurants in other Harrah's casinos, and have taken pieces of my house and worked them into the decor. One of them, for example, has a front porch because so many of our houses in Savannah have porches. Harrah's Joliet is a smaller casino, attached to a good-sized hotel. I walked the space with my architectural and design team, and it's going to be beautiful. I can't say what it looks like until the opening. But the restaurant is on the same floor as the casino so you won't miss any of the action. I am a slot slut myself — I love playing those games.

I understand food and restaurants are a big part of your family history.

My grandfather set my grandmother up with a sandwich shop in Hapeville, Ga. She'd walk to this little restaurant before daylight, and as she became known, she expanded into country-fried steak and gravy and other Southern lunch specials. I didn't appreciate until years later what a gourmet cook she was. She cooked rabbit, squirrel and fish roe, a lot of things you only see in uppity restaurants. They stayed in the restaurant business until I was a teenager. My mother died when I was 23, but Grandma Paul lived to be 91 years old, so I had many years in the kitchen with her teaching me.

What made you decide to go into the food business?

I barely got out of high school. I majored in the social graces, so the only working experience I had was as a bank teller. I brought home $369.17 twice a month and, being divorced, I knew I couldn't support my children on that. So I came up with a business called The Bag Lady. I told my two sweet sons, "I'm going to make lunches, and I want you to sell these lunches in offices where people are stuck." The boys were so embarrassed to go out and peddle their mother's food. I knew it would be hard, but I didn't have any other skills, and I love cooking .

Clearly, it led to great culinary success. Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood home like?

I was born and raised in Albany, Ga. The house we lived in is for sale now, and the city's trying to buy it to make it into a Paula Deen museum. It may never happen, but we're in conversations about it now. The house was a three-bedroom, one-bathroom brick house. My mother was a stay-at-home mom who cooked three meals a day. My daddy owned a used-car business, and would come home for lunch every day. The house had a wonderful backyard, and I'd climb this chinaberry tree all the way to the top. It had a two-car detached garage that Daddy turned into a playroom for Bubba and me when we were in high school. One night, I had 17 friends spend the night with me in it. I had no idea we were poor. It was a wonderful childhood.

What was the first house you bought?

I got married at 18, and my husband and I bought a little house one block away from my mother. The house had asbestos siding, and was a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house with a big fenced-in backyard. We paid $11,000 or so for it. My daddy died when I was 19, and my mother had to go to work. I was trying to help her with my 12-year-old brother, and just wanted to be near her.

Where do you live now, and what does your home look like?

Savannah has beautiful antebellum homes downtown to neighborhoods that could be Anywhere, U.S.A. When my TV show was just getting started, my (second) husband, Michael, and I built a home on Turner's Creek, where he had lived all his life. Two years ago, we moved into this house on Wilmington Island. There are few big pieces of land left here, and our lot is between four and five acres. Every time I drive up to this house, I think, "Who lives here, and am I coming to cook a meal for them, or clean the house?" I'm still in a dream world over living here. The house is a French Caribbean-style home with stucco exterior walls that have shells in them. It's one story, with nine rooms. We built two bedrooms, a master and a nursery for our grandchildren. I had cottages designed in front of the house for guests. We live on the river, so at the end of the dock, there's a dockhouse that we redid, and I put a lot of my mother's things there.

What is your favorite room in the house?

I wanted my bathroom to be my hideaway and sanctuary. It's bigger than the average bedroom and is like a living room. The designer put a tub in the center of the room, and I don't like tubs. I like to shower, so we took the tub out and put a sofa, chairs and a fireplace in there instead. It serves as my office, with beautiful doors that open onto a garden. It's my little safe area. Another room that I love is the dish pantry. It's the size of a bedroom, and it's something women would love because it's a room that makes everything you need accessible. Instead of getting down on your hands and knees to get that dish at the back of the cupboard you only use twice a year, I have this incredible Swedish antique piece from the 1400s in the center of the room. It's held together by wooden pegs, and was used to let your bread rise or your cheese ripen. I put a lot of my favorite things in it, and it's so easy to get them when needed.

Your kitchen must be fabulous.

I love the unexpected. In my kitchen, when you walk in, there's a custom-made copper hood that's huge because it has to cover all of my equipment, including my deep fryer. Custom-made copper sinks face each other with a drain board in the center. We still own the house that we film in for the show, but I think I finally got things right when we built this house because the kitchen here is ideal. It allows three to four people to work in there along with me, and we don't trip over each other. I still can't believe I live here. God has really gifted me, and I'm willing to work hard for what I get.

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