On her recent trip to Los Angeles, Paula Deen taped a number of television shows (Fox and Friends, etc.) and holed up in the Montage Beverly Hills, where she did a few more interviews, including one with us. Thus on a weekday morning, we chatted with the white-haired queen of Southern cooking in her hotel room, as Steve Harvey (“I just love him”) pointedly played on her television and her husband (who does indeed bear a striking resemblance to Ernest Hemingway) lounged in the next room. Her sons showed up eventually, but while we talked it was just us and her and her publicist.
Deen, who looks less garish and more petite in real life, wore less makeup than you'd think and no shoes at all — and yes, her hair was perfect — as she answered our pre-approved questions. (Nothing about racism or the recent media firestorm that cost her her Food Network show and most of her endorsements.) It was a very friendly chat, maybe because of those pre-screened questions. But while Deen talked, predictably, about her new show, she also managed to throw in a few bits about Rachael Ray, new trends in Southern cooking, and where she likes to eat in L.A.
Squid Ink: Tell us about your new site. What are you doing with this that you didn't do in your Food Network shows?
Paula Deen: Oh my gosh, it's really so different because we don't have to stop and start. You know, it is what it is. The fire alarm goes off, it goes off. We set it off the other day — and you don't stop for all of that. I love the interaction. Of course, now I have a little audience. And we're using our home, that we built for us to live in, so we're certainly limited by the size of that audience.
SI: How many people can you fit in there?
PD: 15 to 30. I'm in the kitchen. We've got a portable kitchen down where my dining room table normally sits, and then we've got my kitchen that the main cooking is done in, so the audience has to sit in the living room. Which is an open room. I love the interaction, and they can give me, when I'm so tired, they give me that extra energy that I need and appreciate so much. And then, digitally, we have the ability to interact with them too. We're working on live cooking shows, and while I'm cooking, I can immediately converse with people out there — if they've got questions or anything. To me that's very exciting. That's the next best thing to having people stand beside me in the kitchen.
SI: A dinner party on TV, if you will. How do you pick who gets to be in your living room?
PD: Well, it's funny because when we first started filming, it was a secret. So we had to start with our close friends that we knew we could trust, you know, like my assistant's close friends and my hairdresser's close friends. So we started that way: People that would sign a confidentiality agreement and not go tell everybody what we were doing, because we just didn't want it to leak out. And it was so nice, it was like taking a cork out of a bottle of something rancid to let off the pressure when I could go tell everybody!
SI: So how long were you working on it before you could tell them?
PD: Almost a year. [The publicist interrupts: “Then you took the trolley to Lady & Sons —”] And announced it! With a megaphone! Then we would get an audience by getting people out of line at the restaurant.
SI: Tell me about the Fry Cam. [The Fry Cam is a feature of Deen's new site, in which a small camera is attached to a deep fryer.]
PD: [Laughs.] As far as I know, it's the only one in existence. One day it came undone, and fell into the fryer. It sits right over my fryer, so people really and truly have as good a view as I have as to what's going in and out of the fryer.
SI: And you fried one of them.
PD: Yes, I fried one of them. After that, they permanently attached it.
SI: It didn't survive, did it? Because some of them, James Cameron's, say, can go under water.
PD: I doubt it. 350 degrees of peanut oil. And regardless of what people say, we don't fry everything.
But let me tell you what we had to do the other day. I was doing “Paula In A Pinch” and I went to the refrigerator and I was with my son and I chose a pork tenderloin. As far as I knew, they'd turned my oven on hot and I opened the door and it was stone cold.
SI: This is your home oven.
PD: Yes. I knew it had acted up one time when I put a cake in there and it said 350 and it was on broil at 500 and I burned my pound cake up. We thought we'd had it repaired. And then I opened the oven again and it was stone cold. It is what it is. So I had already seasoned my tenderloin and I'd wrapped it in bacon, so I had to do what I had to do — so I dropped it in the deep fryer. In my whole life I've never fried a pork tenderloin. It was fabulous.
The hardest part of doing a show is you have to do everything twice [for the television cameras]. You do it once with your hands, once with your face.
SI: One of the components of your network is that it has not only cooking shows and recipes, but food game shows. Why game shows?
PD: I'm a game addict. I love playing games, and it's fun, and sometimes I think it's good for us to go back and act like children. It's another pressure valve release.
SI: Does your audience play?
PD: Yes. Yes. We'll just ask maybe four of them, depending on what game we're playing. I love Sketch Your Supper. The most fun of the whole thing is my youngest son, Bobby, who's probably the more reserved of my children, and we told him he's going to be a game show host and we brought him in a sports coat from the '80s and a wig and a mustache and told him to put it on.
SI: You got him a porn star mustache?
PD: Yes! He looks just like a dysfunctional porn star. I mean, this personality came out of him; I didn't know where the hell it came from.
SI: He needed the mustache.
PD: It freed him. And I mean, I literally wet my pants the first game show we did when he came out. It's just fun.
SI: Speaking of game shows, you were on Fox & Friends recently. Did you cook for them?
Well, they don't have an elaborate kitchen. So since it's football season, we chose something very easy, very doable for everybody. A snack for game-watching. We made a cheese ball, in the shape of an acorn.
SI: Not a football?
PD: Well, you could. Whatever you want to do. The food stylists had already done it up for me, and they did it in the shape of an acorn. It's delicious. Who doesn't like cream cheese.
SI: Not pimento cheese?
PD: No. It was just cream cheese, onions, maybe some garlic, salt and pepper. Bacon. Just delicious with a cracker. And I had not seen Elisabeth [Hasselbeck] since I was on The View. So I was really happy to see her thriving in her new environment.
SI: Was it hard for you to get the rights to all your Food Network shows?
PD: You know, I've been so fortunate. I have now managed to surround myself with some very intelligent team members. I cook, they do things like that. And you know, I didn't really ask them. I'm very excited to have all those vintage shows, and for people to get to see all the different faces of Paula, over 13 years. A lot of great holiday specials.
SI: Lots has changed in thirteen years. Among other things, Southern food has gotten really popular. What do you think about that?
PD: I think it's great. There's some nouvelle Southern restaurants in Savannah.
SI: Hugh Acheson opened a restaurant not too long ago.
PD: Yes. I think Bobby has been there. I have not. No, by the time I get through at night, we kind of just stay out there on my island. But you know, he'll be out of style by the time Michael and I get around to see him — that's how quick we are on the draw.
SI: How different is this new Southern cuisine from the food you grew up with?
PD: Well, my grandmother was amazing. She was self-taught. And I never asked my grandmother who influenced her, but I'm sure it had to be her own grandmother, who raised her. My grandmother could bake a sea turtle. I remember her doing that, and making turtle soup. There was nothing that she couldn't do. And I didn't realize until I was way in my '50s, that my grandmother was more of a gourmet cook than I gave her credit for.
SI: And she taught you to cook?
PD: Yes. My grandmother lived to be 91. Her daughter, my mother, was gone at 44. So I didn't have much time with my mother, but I did have a long time with my grandmother. And I'll never forget, I was 42 years old, and we'd moved to Savannah, and I called my grandmother and said, 'Grandmother, I've decided what I'm going to do. I'm going to change my life. I'm gonna take charge. I've dreamt of this little business called the Bag Lady.' I thought my grandmother and I'd been disconnected — she didn't say anything. So I asked, 'Are you still there?' And she said, 'Have you lost your damn mind?' Because she was in the restaurant business.
SI: What kind of restaurants do you like to go out to when you're traveling?
PD: Very simple. I'm not much of a foodie-toodie. I can't stand long dinners. I don't drink, so it's hard to enjoy a three-hour dinner with people who like their different wines with different courses. I'm sitting there, really filling up on this diet soda. I like more, I don't want to use the word “honest,” but less pretentious places. I have a very simple palate.
SI: Where do you like to eat when you're in Los Angeles?
PD: We usually have room service.
SI: Because you have three incredibly good restaurants within spitting distance of where we're sitting.
PD: What are they?
SI: Spago, Bouchon and Scarpetta: Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Keller and Scott Conant's restaurants.
PD: Really? Well, tonight we're going to a restaurant that Rachael Ray says she always eats at. It's Wa Sushi. We made reservations for there tonight. Michael was showing me some of the weirdest combinations — like eel with cupcake or something. That's kind of unlike us. But once in a while.
SI: So that was Rachael Ray's recommendation?
Yes. I think she says she enjoys the lobster roll. So we'll see. I'm not crazy about everything that Rachael cooks. We come from totally different backgrounds. But that's what makes the world go round; that's what makes it interesting.
SI: Who would you say influenced you the most?
PD: Well, my grandmother. And Julia Child. You know, I never got to meet her. Her love of the richness of food and the butters and the sauces; she appreciated that. And it's always amazing how it was so accepted and so in vogue, yet people tend to — well, my love of butter —
SI: They give you a harder time for loving butter.
PD: Yes. And I don't understand that. But that's just the way it is. She was classically French trained.
SI: Maybe that's it. Take Joël Robuchon's famous mashed potatoes, which are about half butter.
PD: Have you ever eaten his mashed potatoes?
PD: And what did they taste like?
PD: I don't see how you could even get them to mix up. Because if I make a pot of potatoes, I may put half a stick in it. I'll have to try that one day.
SI: You can put it in your Fry Cam.
PD: I wonder if he does it by hand or electric.
SI: He probably has a bunch of French apprentices to do that.
PD: If you find out, let us know. You know, we have to have a fruity-tooty French chef come on the show. And just see how far apart we are. Let's do it. Who would you recommend?
SI: Ludo Lefebvre.
PD: Would he hit me or anything like that?
SI: No, he's pretty house-broken.
PD: [Laughs.] Good! Where does he stay?
SI: He's here. He's got two wonderful restaurants here in L.A.
PD: It would be interesting. Because I've never been trained — never even been exposed to it. I'd love that. Let's do it.