F&W talks to Paula Deen, host of the Food Network’s Paula’s Party and Paula’s Home Cooking.
What was your first big break on TV?
"There was a woman by the name of Carol Perkins who was a Victoria’s Secret model in New York, and she had friends who knew people in the business. After she retired from modeling, she settled down in Savannah, Georgia, and she used to come into my restaurant all the time. We became real good, chatty friends-she’d come in, I’d sit down, and we would talk. One day she said to me, ’Do you know Gordon Elliot? He’s one of my best friends, and he’s coming down to Charleston to do one of his shows, and I’d really like for him to meet you.’ I didn’t think a thing about it, but I said, ’Sure, I’d love to meet him,’ and I thought that would be the end of that. The next week, in comes a big strapping Australian guy with big old hands and big old feet and a big old voice, and he and I just fell in love at first sight. He invited me on his show, and the Food Network asked me to do a couple things for Ready, Set, Cook. Gordon said, ’I think you could have your own show.’ But it took almost two years to get the Food Network to agree. Here I was, this gray-headed, older Southern girl who wasn’t a size 2 and didn’t have a culinary degree. I think they had their doubts whether America had a need for anything like that. I’m happy to say that when they finally decided to order a show, they were pleasantly surprised that there are a trillion women out there in America just like me: a housewife. They battle real, everyday life problems. I think the network was amazed at the connection I had with people."
What finally convinced the food network to do the show?
"September 11. It was just so devastating all over the United States. Our hearts bled for our friends in New York City and elsewhere. It was just terrible. We really faced the fact that one moment we could be here, and the next we could be gone. I think a lot of people wanted comfort food. They wanted the comfort they felt when their feet were swinging under Mama’s dinner table. So Paula’s Home Cooking was born, and it was really well received."
And now you have your new show.
"I do. It’s called Paula’s Party, and we just have the best time. It airs at 10 on Friday nights, and let me tell you, we get down and dirty, honey. It’s filmed at my and my brother’s restaurant, Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House. It’s in front of a live audience, and it’s just so much fun. Having an audience is almost like plugging me into an electrical outlet. People feed me so much of their energy. We have a great time. It’s all about the fellowship."
What are the downsides to the live studio audience?
"I can’t think of any downsides. I love being with people. I love having someone to interact with and talk to. You never know what people will say."
What’s been the most thrilling recipe you’ve made on your new show?
"Oxtails. I just love oxtails. That was my favorite thing. I surprised some people who had never had them before, and they were delicious. I cook mine in the oven with very little water. You could cook them on the stovetop, almost like beef stew, but I like mine in the oven, tossed with soy sauce, Old Bay, garlic, onion and a little bit of water so they kind of get sticky—not drowning in water. The stock that it makes is just real strong, I could eat a bucket of it right now. I also love my shrimp-stuffed potatoes that are twice-baked, but it’s hard to beat a good old baked potato. I like to bake red potatoes because they cook up like mashed potatoes. It’s soft, it melts in your mouth. Oh my goodness, it’s so good. I love popping them open."
What disasters have you had while cooking on TV?
"One day I was making a ’Dreamsicle’ dessert, and I told the kitchen to take parchment paper and line the loaf pan. I told them to make sure the paper hung over the edges, so I could just pull it out. Well, they cut the paper to fit the bottom like you would in a cake pan, and I tell you, I struggled and struggled, and the cameras kept rolling. When I finally got it out, I said, ’Look how simple and easy that was.’ We had lots of laughs over that dish."