Bobby Deen knows how fortunate he is.
The Southern charmer – son of Food Network megastar Paula Deen, half of the popular Deen brothers duo, and a chef in his own right – said despite all of his family’s successes, they haven’t forgotten where they came from.
That’s no small feat considering the Deens’ fairy tale-like rise from the humblest of beginnings to one of the most recognized names in the world of food TV. A single mom, Paula Deen was nearly broke when she started The Bag Lady, a catering business she ran from her Savannah home. Bobby and his brother, Jamie, delivered the meals.
In 1996, Paula opened The Lady & Sons in downtown Savannah, still a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. The Deens are now fixtures on Food Network and Cooking Channel, between her popular show, “Paula’s Home Cooking,” Bobby’s “Not My Mama’s Meals” and Jamie’s new show, “Home for Dinner with Jamie Deen.”
“Our success came late enough in our lives that if we became something we’re not, you’d be able to see right through it,” Bobby told me. “My mom is very genuine. We just are who we are.”
I spoke to Bobby as the second season of “Not My Mama’s Meals” was about to get underway, and he’s understandably happy with the success of the show, during which he gives his mom’s recipes a healthy makeover.
I interviewed him the first time when the show was new, and from the premiere episode, I’ve been a huge fan. Actually, let’s just say I’ve been a fan. I won’t say “huge” because it’s the battle against hugeness that made me turn on his show in the first place. I was raised in the Midwest, which is not that much different from the South when it comes to big family meals, where anything that can’t be fried is at least covered in gravy or baked into a pie. And Bobby, like me, has seen how the metabolism changes past a certain age, let’s say 30… yeah, we’ll go with 30… and has developed an entire show around ways to eat healthy while still enjoying those back-home favorites. When he made bread pudding with doughnuts on his first episode, I immediately set my DVR for every subsequent show.
It also doesn’t hurt that Bobby, now 42, is buff as heck and has that kind of shiny-healthy look that you only get when you work at it.
I came right out and asked Bobby about the timing of his show’s premiere – just a few weeks before his mother announced she has Type 2 diabetes.
“That was purely a coincidence,” he said. “The show has been very organic in the way it started and the way it has grown. This is the way that I’ve been living and cooking and eating for the past 12 years. That’s as real as it gets. I actually feel a little exposed on this show, because people are seeing who I am and what I like to do. I’m putting myself out there, so if you don’t like it, you don’t like me.”
Paula has now lost about 35 pounds and is an active participant in Bobby’s show. At the beginning of each episode (except when she pops in to surprise him), he calls her from his New York apartment to tell her which of her recipes are about to get a makeover, and the show ends with her sitting in her Savannah home, about to dig in to the leaner dishes he’s sent to her – fork in one hand, phone in the other. You always get the feeling that Paula, in her outspoken, Southern-mama way, will tell “sonny boy” if she doesn’t like it. But she never does, and as someone who has tried some of Bobby’s recipes, I am pretty sure she never will.
The makeovers he gives his mom’s recipes are simple, easy to recreate at home and best of all, he uses regular food. He puts real doughnuts in the bread pudding I mentioned, but he gets the whole wheat kind. He makes a bagel and lox sandwich, a New York staple, by using light cream cheese, piling on the fresh vegetables, and slicing the crusty top and bottom off the bagel so it not only cuts the calories, but makes it toast up beautifully when he puts it in a skillet. Genius.
It’s all part of the healthy lifestyle that has taken Bobby from the round-faced 30-something who helped his mom make custard-topped fruit salad and Gooey Butter Cake to the lean and fit example of healthy living he is today.
I told him, with more sadness in my voice than I intended, that I’d miss watching Paula make deep fried lasagna. He just laughed.
“To a degree we’re always going to maintain who we are and where we came from,” he said. “It’s all about balance. I told somebody just this morning I’m living an 80/20 lifestyle. I’m healthy 80 percent of the time. But let me tell you… you don’t live but one time, and if my mama calls me on a Sunday and says she’s making fried chicken and mashed potatoes, guess what I’m having for dinner?”
His mother, famous for her butter-lovin’ ways, is also finding that balance, and in one promo for his show, Bobby teases her that his recipes are working.
“I was with her two days ago and she looks and feels fantastic,” he said. “I’m really proud of her. She’s the type of person who does what she needs to do to live with her diabetes. It’s not as if it’s a brain tumor. It’s not life and death. She gave up sweet tea which was really her only vice. She could have ignored it, but that’s not how she is. She’s managing it and controlling it. She’s living a glorious life. She’s got a lot to live for.”
He’s also happy for his brother’s success with his new show.
“One of the hardest things for me to do was to strike out on my own and do a TV show,” he said. “We’re such a close family. But we all have different lives and we have to live them. Jamie is married with a family, I’m single with no kids.”
The brothers still help run The Lady & Sons, and Bobby has told me before how grateful he was that his brother was willing to shoulder more of the responsibility for the restaurant so Bobby could do his show. Now that Jamie has the chance to do his own show, which is focused on the joys of staying home and having dinner with the family, Bobby couldn’t be more thrilled.
“We got together at Mom’s the day his show debuted, and we all sat and watched it together,” he said. “When it was over, she turned to us and said, ‘Do you realize how fortunate we are?’ I don’t know of any other family where the mother and two sons each have their own TV show. We are so far from where we started that we won’t ever forget how fortunate we are.”