Jamie and Bobby Deen, sons of perpetually perky Southern-fried celebrity chef Paula Deen, move easily among strangers.
They greet people with a disarming Southern charm as if they’ve known them all their lives.
Last week the brothers came to Kansas City to promote their new cookbook, "The Deen Bros. Take It Easy," featuring 125 Southern-style recipes. They visited stores and restaurants and greeted fans at Rainy Day Books in Fairway, where signed copies of the book are available.
Back in Savannah, Ga., the boys help their mother run their popular family restaurant, the Lady & Sons. They also appear on their mother’s Food Network shows and starred for several years on their own show, "Road Tasted."
Recently we caught up with them at the kitchen store Pryde’s Old Westport to talk about food, their famous mom and more.
Q. So you’re … Bobby?
A. I’m Bobby, the youngest of the two sons. I’m 39 years old.
And that would make you …
Jamie Deen. Yes, sir.
How old are you, Jamie?
I’m, uhh … I’m 21. It’s unbelievable, I know, that I could be so worldly and intelligent in only 21 years (laughter). I’m 42. The elder statesman of the Deen brothers.
The idea of this cookbook is good meals in a hurry, right?
Jamie: The majority of things in our book are from the refrigerator to the plate in 45 minutes or less.
Talk about some of your favorites in this book.
Jamie: Meat loaf has always been a favorite. We do it in little muffin tins, with baked sweet potatoes.
There’s a French-cut pork chop in there that is … if you like a pork chop, dude, I’m talkin’ an inch and a half thick!
Do you offer lighter fare in the book?
Jamie: We do a lot of baked stuff. It’s certainly not for vegans. But there’s some pasta dishes, we grill and do fish, there’s a chapter on salads. So there’s something for everybody.
How is your cooking different from your mom’s?
Bobby: Growing up in the South we did a lot of fish fries with hush puppies. We still eat lots and lots of fish. We just don’t put it in the deep fryer anymore. See what I mean? We’re becoming more educated as people, food is changing a little bit and tastes are changing. But we’re definitely not going to lose sight of the fact that we are from southwest Georgia, and fried chicken and collard greens and blackberry cobbler are what brought us to where we are today.
Hey, that’s what made Paula Deen Paula Deen.
Bobby: Darn right.
What was it like growing up with your mom, and how did it influence your cooking?
Jamie: We grew up in Albany, Ga., (and) Mom cooked Sunday meals every night of the week. So we’ve experienced everything the South has to offer. If I had grown up here, you know, I’d be the rib king. But as it is I can make a mean sour cream pound cake.
Bobby: One way we are influenced for sure is that we grew up middle class — the fact that there weren’t a lot of extras and money meant we ate at home every night.
You started a home business with your mom when you were in your early 20s.
Bobby: It was called the Bag Lady, a little catering and delivery business.
At the time your mother had to stay at home, right?
Bobby: Our mother was agoraphobic. Total panic attacks when she walked out the door. So this setup was brilliant. Our mother was in the kitchen 17 hours a day cooking food. She sent Jamie and me out on delivery. That was 1989.
How bad was her fear?
Bobby: When you see your mom breathing into a paper bag, you know something’s not right. Hyperventilating … a complete fear of open spaces, and of people, and probably everything at that time.
How did your mom overcome agoraphobia and then become such a confident public star?
Bobby: She came out of that shell on her own. Never got any sort of professional help. In the late ’80s she just saw some people talking about it on "Donahue" and said, "That’s what I’ve got!" I think (her recovery) came out of necessity. She had no choice. And with the restaurant she had something to look forward to.
Agoraphobia wasn’t the only challenge she had to deal with in her life, right?
Bobby: Our mother had a traumatic childhood. She lost both of her parents (very young). She had a younger brother she had to take care of. She was married with two kids at a young age. It was tough on her. I can understand where some of these issues came from.
I’m sure that endears her to her fans.
Bobby: You know, there are way more people out there who have anxiety than we’re probably aware of. And there are plenty of 40-year-old women out there who are broke and divorced and have two children and probably feel fairly hopeless. And when people look at our mom and say, "Wow! In 20 years that lady went from exactly where I am" to … well, we’re talkin’ about Paula Deen! Now that’s an inspiration!
OK. So what happened with the Bag Lady?
Bobby: We got a little turnkey operation in a motel. Then, Jan. 8, 1996, we opened the Lady & Sons downtown. That was at the very same time that a man named John Berendt wrote "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." That book boomed, and people started coming to Savannah like never before. Now we feed a half a million people a year.
When did your mom morph into Paula Deen, media superstar?
Jamie: We self-published our first cookbook in ’97. It was picked up by Random House in ’98. She had the opportunity to do a little television. But the Paula Deen you’re talking about has probably only been the last five or six years.
Is what you see what you get from her? The cackling? Is all that real?
Bobby: She’s even more fun when there’s no cameras around. It is not an act.
Everybody knows your mom. What about your dad?
Bobby: He’s not a public guy. He’s remarried and in our hometown of Albany. He is a super guy, (but) he and my mom were just oil and water.
Where can people see you now on TV?
Jamie: We’re back under contract with the Food Network now. We’re on 20 of Mom’s next 36 shows, and we have a show in development that we’re shooting a pilot for in December.
You had a show called "Road Tasted." What happened to that?
Jamie: We shot 13 shows, and it was doing very well, but we were on the road about six months out of the year, and I had my first child and I’ve got a successful business. I didn’t have to do it to support my son, so I didn’t want to excuse myself from his life to be "famous."
Do you have other chefs that you respect?
Bobby: Tyler Florence … Mario Batali and John Besh in New Orleans.
Jamie: There’s a restaurant at home that’s my favorite place to eat. It’s a sushi fusion place. And he does the best sauces. But every cook has got something in their bag.
Jamie, do you want your son, Jack, to cook for a living?
After he wins four consecutive national championships as the quarterback of the University of Georgia, and then moves on to the presidency of the United States. … I don’t want him to have to be in a restaurant. It’s high stress. I want him to do whatever he wants to do.
Bobby, you were once named one of the most eligible bachelors by People magazine. Tell us about that.
It was a surreal experience, because you’re talking about guys with household names like Matthew McConaughey!
Pretty good company.
I know, right?
But now you’ve met someone?
I met a girl that has knocked my socks off!
What’s her name?
Katy Mixon. She’s an actress. She’s got a couple of movies out now. And she’s on an HBO series called "Eastbound and Down." She was also in a movie called "Four Christmases" with Vince Vaughn. She’s a sweet Southern girl. And obviously I’m very happy.