Demand for Deen - in person, on the phone, by letter - is so great that her executive assistant Brandon Branch is often floored by the amount of requests to spend time with Deen.
"It's insane," he says. "Most of the contacts, I'd say, are people just asking to meet her, to come to her house, to cook with her. I'd say the contacts are 500 to 800 requests a week, from one line emails to six-page-long hand-written letters to phone calls."
Deen, the popular host of the Food Network's "Paula's Home Cooking" and owner of local landmark restaurant The Lady & Sons, stands little chance of fulfilling every request. However, the cooking school is giving a fair number of people the opportunity for some more intimate contact with a woman many see like a sister, mother or aunt.
"I think you make people feel very comfortable, like you're their best friend," says Branch.
Deen says,"It's like giving away a part of yourself to someone else. But my dad taught me how to treat people. He would not tolerate rudeness or unkindness. I could fail algebra or a course at school, but not those home lessons on personal relations."
The classes are the brainchild of Branch and The Lady & Sons head of catering, Theresa Lucky. The two knew that Deen's hectic schedule prevents many of her fans from seeing her at the restaurant and wanted to offer more people a guaranteed chance to spend several hours with her.
"Brandon saw a need for it, along with Theresa," says Deen. "I can't be creative anymore in my thoughts, because they're full, just full. These two are very creative and the more they talked about it, the more excited I got."
A key element in the mix is The Lady & Sons' November 2003 move to 102 West Congress, a three-story facility that allows over 300 diners to be served at a time. Deen says the multi-level dining experience is a challenge but "wonderful" on another level.
"It's just great having the space and we're able to serve two and a half times the people we did down the street. The class will be held in the banquet room, a feature that we did not have at the prior location," she says.
Branch adds, "We would have had to have done it in the street or the alley. Not what we had in mind."
Fans will meet Deen, sons Jamie and Bobby and Branch during the classes that start May 27. Branch, who has a degree in horticulture, is responsible for all floral and plant arrangements done at Deen's home for her own parties. He will be sharing some of his expertise with class participants during the party preparation section.
"Brandon could take a weed in the house and make it look gorgeous," says Deen. "He turns nothing into something."
Branch returns the compliment: "That's what you do with your cooking."
Deen demurs. "My style of cooking is so ordinary, to me."
Branch replies, "I think you take something ordinary and make it extraordinary. It evokes memories."
Deen relates a number of anecdotes where viewers of her show,
readers of her cookbooks and customers in the restaurant had shared memories. One woman told her the taste of the food brought tears to her eyes because when she closed them, she could see her grandmother's kitchen and all the faces of her family.
Another woman wrote about how Deen's teacake recipe allowed her father to reconnect with his mother, who had died and taken her teacake recipe to the grave with her.
The cooking classes focus on the time people spend with family and friends and the desire to connect with others over a wonderful meal. Deen says the two-hour course features a first hour on food preparation and actual cooking and a second hour on party preparation, food service and the actual dining experience with her fans. An autograph and photo opportunity will conclude the class.
She says, "What I want them to take away is memories of having a good time, because the kitchen should be fun. It's the perfect room in your home to make memories with your children and family. Through the class, we can teach them to throw one good party a year."
Deen's courses focus on cocktail and formal parties, a Southern country brunch and seafood. Jamie and Bobby will be teaching courses as well, aimed at some of the younger crowd that visits The Lady & Sons. Those include a "Sweets with Your Sweetie" class and courses on low country cooking and tailgating ""Deen Style."
The mother and sons will team up together for the final course in August, an extravaganza known as "Paula, Jamie and Bobby's Cooking Frenzy." The three-chef class costs $200 to attend, while courses with Paula are $150 and those with Jamie and Bobby charge $100. Branch said the cocktail party, country brunch, seafood and cooking frenzy courses are filling rapidly.
Courses will be taught a variety of dates from May 27 through August 12. Times for the courses are either at 2 p.m. or 7 p.m. at The Lady & Sons in the banquet room. Contact Branch to register for the classes at 233-2600.
Course space is limited to the first 50 requests for each class.
Some of the proceeds from the courses will be donated to one of Deen's favorite charities called Safe Shelter, a Savannah program that aids abused women and children. w