As the son of Southern cooking’s grande dame Paula Deen — and now her partner in the iconic Savannah eatery The Lady & Sons — Jamie Deen knows all about good food. So when it came time to ask for his now-wife Brooke’s hand in marriage, Deen went to his kitchen and whipped up … egg salad.
“Egg salad is her favorite thing to eat on,” Deen — now dad to sons Matthew, 1, and Jack, 5 — laughs. “People know my family’s history — and I’ve been so fortunate to travel and eat everywhere — but I made egg salad for my wife on the night that she said she’d marry me. So if people don’t understand that we mean it when we say we’re plain folks, they only have to hear my engagement-night menu to know we appreciate the simpler things in life, too!”
It’s that family-wide philosophy that led Deen to create his new Food Network series Home for Dinner With Jamie Deen, which allows him to gather his clan and their friends to cook, commune and eat, while teaching over-scheduled families in the viewing audience to break out of what he calls the “nugget rut” and create quick, inexpensive and healthy meals that even the littlest members of the family will enjoy. “It’s a highlight on family and having fun,” Deen explains. “So we have tips and tricks for everybody to make dinnertime not only an easier part of their day, but also the most enjoyable.”
Filmed on Savannah’s Tybee Island, Home for Dinner features the entire Deen crew, including Brooke and the boys, Paula (a.k.a. Grandma Ginny), and Jamie’s brother Bobby lending a hand in the kitchen — and Jamie wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m really proud of our little family,” says Deen, who cites his mom’s traditional New Year’s Eve spread of pork chops, greens and black-eyed peas as his favorite family dinner. “We started with $200, 23 years ago — and to think that we each have an independent program on television is unbelievable. Just the excitement and the pride that I take from seeing all of our hard work paying off is a dream come true.”
Channel Guide Magazine: Food and family have always been at the heart of your career, and now you have young children of your own — is that combination what inspired you to do a show about family dinners?
Jamie Deen: What my life has turned into has really been dictated by the birth of my boys. It’s most important to me to be the best husband and father that I can be — and it really changed our routine when Jack and Matthew were born. Subsequently, it’s really changed my diet. I’m eating better and healthier now than I ever have in my life and I have both my boys to thank for that.
It’s a big transition to make when your first child goes from baby food to real food, and I think a lot of people might get stuck in a “nugget rut” and don’t realize how simple it is to prepare one dinner at night that the whole family can share. It’s really making good food taste good. It was a challenge for us and I really could have used some good advice.
CGM: When I was a kid, we were expected to be home for dinner right up until the time we moved out, unless we had a pretty compelling reason. We raised our kids that way, too — because we ended our day with everyone together, at least for a while. Is it important to you that the family dinner takes its rightful place on television?
JD: If the whole family has their feet under the table at night, it’s a way to connect and catch up and really appreciate the role everybody plays. It’s a time for us to catch up and talk. Of course right now Matthew just turned one, so he’s sort of like a variety show — we never know what we’re going to get from him. But Jack’s in school and he’s involved in different sports activities and things like that, and when kids are eating, the defenses are down. We find out things that during the day he’s too busy to even consider.
CGM: It’s also the one time that we could — mostly — count on our teenagers to speak kindly to one another.
JD: Even if it’s just, “Pass the bread, brother!”
My mom has always said that the kitchen is the heart of the home and I’m going to continue that tradition in my own family. Mealtime is dictated by what you experienced in your own home as a child, and my mom always had homemade dinners for us. It was very seldom that we went out to eat. And you don’t have to eat out very long to know that you can get better food at home — for me to know exactly what goes into the food that my boys are eating is a huge bonus for me.
CGM: Tell me a little bit about the format of Home For Dinner. What will viewers see when they tune in?
JD: We’re filming here on Tybee Island in beautiful Savannah, Georgia. We’ve got a great house on the beach, and my wife and Jack and Matthew are in and out of the episodes.
There are so many options on food television that you can watch, but there isn’t a whole lot of selections out there that really highlight the family — and just for people to see that, “Oh God, I’m not alone! There are other people out there whose days are jam-packed!”
“What’s for dinner” is such a challenging time of everybody’s day. So I want to show what can we make for dinner tonight and not make two dinners but make one dinner that everyone will eat. My son loves his fruit and he loves squash and he loves broccoli and he loves fish. You open up their palates when they’re young. We’ve never ordered off a kid’s menu for Jack because he likes his adult food. Which is huge relief for Brooke and I to see him eating healthier.
CGM: How critical do you think it is for kids to grow up participating in healthy meal preparation?
JD: That’s one of the tricks — that the more kids have their hands in the food, the more likely they are to eat it. The pride in “I made this!” But it’s also important for boys to know how to cook for themselves. My mom taught my brother and I how to cook and wash our own clothes when we were young men, which really came into play when I was off at college and had to take care of myself. As bare as it was, I always had something to eat and I always had clean clothes. So these are things we want to teach our boys as well.
Right now, decorating cakes and cookies is Jack’s No. 1 favorite.
CGM: How did you choose the dinner menus you feature on the show?
JD: We took a lot of the ideas from what I’ve been making Jack for dinner these past few years. He turns six this summer, so we just chose a lot of his favorites — and one the shows is actually “Jack’s Favorites.”
We do a lot of stuff outside. We had a Mexican fiesta night where we had some of Jacks kid friends come over where we did piñata, and we did a grill episode where it’s my brother and just friends of ours. It’s super-natural fit to invite family and friends over to just enjoy dinner with us, which we try to do as much as we can.
There’s also a show where Brooke and I celebrate the time we’ve been married together and I make special dinner for her with a beef tenderloin. So there’s a little bit of everything in there.
And I think of affordability is huge, because if you’re going to stay home and eat, affordability is important. And also being able to go to your local market and not have to go to any specialty markets. We cook with a lot of food that everybody can find and we try to keep it under 45 minutes.
CGM: Do you remember your favorite family dinner when you were a child?
JD: My favorite family dinner is, funny enough, still my favorite dinner and that is the New Years Day meal that my mom cooks. Down here in the South, we have to eat black-eyed peas for luck, and we eat turnip greens to represent money, and my mom has always done pork chops for me, and that’s always been my favorite. The good old traditional Southern Sunday meal that we have on New Years Eve always has been and always will be my favorite.
CGM: Do you remember the first meal you cooked for Brooke?
JD: Here’s what’s funny. I don’t remember the first meal that I cooked for her, but the night that I asked Brooke to be my wife, we had dinner in and I made egg salad with toast points and I did a fruit parfait with fresh whipped cream — and I had her ring stuck in the strawberry at the top of her fruit parfait!
But I didn’t have a blender, so I had to hand-whip the fresh cream, because I didn’t want to take anything out of a container for her. So I put the bowl in the refrigerator and I hand-whipped it until I had the perfect whipped cream. I remember standing there and sweating, literally sweating, over that dessert and then sticking her ring in the strawberry on top. It’s just a night I’ll never forget.
CGM: About the “Super F” on the chest of your Twitter background photo — F for food? Family? Something I haven’t thought of yet?
JD: A friend of mine did that! He lives in Washington D.C., but he worked down here at the restaurant with Bobby and I when he was going to the Savannah College of Art and Design. His nickname for Bobby and I was Fatman and Bobby — so it actually stands for Fatman. But feel free to substitute anything you thought of first!
Actually, his name is Little Joe, so I suppose if I can call him Little Joe, he has every right to call me Fatman. He and I together are both huge comic book fans, so I’ve always told him I would be Batman and he could be Superman, because Batman is our favorite, and he told me, “No, you’re more like a Fatman!” So I wear it proudly.
CGM: You are devoted to a wide range of “doing good things” via local and national charities. Is that sense of giving back something with which you were raised?
JD: That was instilled in us early. We were taught our manners and “ma’am” and “sir” and to appreciate what we had. Even though we didn’t have extra anything, it felt like we never went without, and that’s a credit to my mom and dad.
So now that we’re so blessed to find the success that we’ve had — I feel this way and so does my mom and my brother — we feel that if we can lend our name and our time to non-profits nationally or locally, it’s our responsibility. We’re so indebted to people here in Savannah for the success of our business and for keeping us going in the lean years. So now I proudly serve on America’s Second Harvest — to help feed children is really my No. 1 thing. I’ve been on the board for 8 years and I’m serving in the vice president role this year. I’ll be president next year. And I actually have meeting later because I’m trying to organize a marathon here to benefit our food kitchen.
I’m also involved with Lowcountry Down Syndrome Society, helping to place differently-abled adults into work environments and give them an opportunity. We employ four adults with mental disabilities and they’re a huge asset to our business, and for us to go out and show the benefit of that and the pride they take in what they do.
Also, Bethesda Academy here, which places young men at risk who don’t have a home life that’s super stable, and Savannah’s women’s shelter for women that are abused or have chemical or alcohol dependency.
It’s just kind of across the board. Like I said, if they can put my name on a letterhead and benefit from that, it’s my responsibility — and also an honor and a privilege to do it.
We have got some hectic lives going on here in little Savannah, GA, believe it or not!
CGM: But what a place to have a hectic life. Your city is incredibly beautiful.
JD: I think we had one day under 35 degrees last year. I asked Brooke just yesterday, “When did we get in our pool?” We got in the pool on Jan. 1 this year! We had no winter! We’ve got long summer seasons — and we’re an outside family that’s for sure.
CGM: I’m in Wisconsin, so I envy you your weather a thousand different ways, even though we didn’t have much winter to speak of this year, either.
JD: Wisconsin is very beautiful in its own right. Bobby and I did some shows up there. A friend of mine is from Green Bay and he had us to a Packer game, and we’ve been to Milwaukee, which is kind of a funky, fun city. I have seen dairy country that is beyond beautiful — and then you get some of the fresh cheeses. And a cheese curd! Please! I just about fell on the ground the first time I had a fried cheese curd!
CGM: If you really want to do those Wisconsin-style, dip them in sour cream and have yourself a dairy-product overdose …
JD: Nobody shared that with me!
Bobby and I left here on a Sunday morning — because our work schedules were so hectic at the time, we left on a Sunday morning, flew up, saw a 4 o’clock Packer game and flew home Monday morning at some ridiculous hour. We were barely gone 24 hours. And I got home so sick because all I did was drink Miller High Life and eat cheese [laughs].
I have never been as sick as when I got home on that Monday! I was like, “What just happened to me?!” Not to mention the fact that it was December and I had brought every article of clothing I owned and I was still freezing. So God bless ya! I don’t know how ya’ll live there in the winter!
CGM: I don’t either and I’ve been here for most of four decades.
JD: You know there’s real estate available here in Savannah …
CGM: I’m going to put you on the phone with Mr. Acken and you can tell him that Mrs. Acken would like to go investigate that as soon as the last two children leave home.
JD: How old are your kids?
CGM: We have 23, 21, 18 and 16. All great, creative, motivated people. We’re fortunate.
JD: So you’re in a whole different challenge zone than I am right now! But people that don’t have children don’t realize that that’s when life really begins. To see your child grow is just the most amazing thing.
I’ve read books to Jack every night of his life. Used to be five a night until they got longer, and now it’s three a night — and about halfway through the third book a few weeks ago, Jack put his little hand on me and said, “You’re the best, Dad!” and tears just welled up in my eyes. “You’re the best, Dad!” That’s what it’s all about!
My mom has always gone over the top whenever she has an opportunity to talk about Bobby and I, how proud she is of us, and on and on. And I can see where it’s such a huge responsibility and it’s such hard work, so if you can turn out people that do good things, you can change the world — just by how you raise your kids.
It’s something that I work at every single day. And that’s why I’m filming Home for Dinner here in Savannah. I’ve been given the opportunity before to take my act out on the road — you know there’s a huge onus on traveling and competition and stuff like that in television. But I’m most thankful to have the opportunity to focus on the family and kind of lead by example and say, “Look, I’ve turned down some opportunities, but none of them could match how fortunate I am to be home with the boys.”
Some things aren’t worth trading. And I think time with your kids is No. 1 on the list.
Home for Dinner with Jamie Deen premieres Saturday, July 16 at 10:30am/9:30 CT on Food Network.
Photos: © 2012, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved Credt: Paul Nurnberg