Story by Hilary Brady
Photography By Ronnie Holden

Known as the queen of comfort food, Paula Deen has graced the television screens, bookshelves and radio waves of millions. People have opened their hearts and their homes to the woman who believes everything is better with butter. Or cheese. Or bacon grease. She finds comfort in cooking, and her fans find comfort in her.

The Food Network star may live in the lights of big cities today, but the Georgia native has proven to America that she will never lose touch with her small-town Southern roots. And so when Deen announced her plans to visit Brunswick County on October 15, locals knew they would be able to make the domestic diva feel right at home.

Susan Lawing of Brunswick Community College (BCC), the host to Deen this fall, explains how the dream was realized.

“We tried to get her last year but it didn’t work out for us because she was in Myrtle for the Uncorked event and it was just too close,” says Lawing. “We really wanted her so badly though and her publisher remembered that.”

In early 2011 Deen was planning a tour to promote her new book, Paula Deen’s Southern Cooking Bible, when the publisher reached out to Lawing with a proposal that she couldn’t refuse.

“She was coming this way so they said ‘How would you like to have her visit while she is on her book tour?’” explains Lawing. “She {the publisher} said we could have two hours with her. And you see what we did with those hours!”

An Event to Remember

Lawing went to work on creating an event for the local community to remember, while also supporting the college in a way that would go down in history. A multi-faceted party was planned, including a press conference, a VIP luncheon, a taste testing and a fan meet-and-greet. Tickets sold out quickly, with all proceeds going to benefit the Brunswick Community College Foundation.

When October 15 arrived, fans filled the parking lot of BCC to welcome Deen’s tour bus. Before being whisked away to meet with local media for a press conference, Deen hollered a Southern “Hey y’all!” to the fans “as if she loved them as much as they loved her,” says Lawing.

Eighty VIPs filed in the auditorium to await Deen’s entrance. To no one’s surprise, when her wide smile and another warm “Hey y’all!” graced the stage, fans erupted in cheers and applause. In that moment, a crowd that spanned all demographics had one thing in common: a love for this sweet Southern lady.

“We had all ages — little ones, teens, adults, you name it,” explains Lawing. “We had a ten-year old girl who came with a group of her girlfriends. Her father had bought their tickets as her birthday gift; she said she wants to be a chef when she grows up. I thought that was precious. And Paula knew it was her birthday so she took time with her. It was a wonderful day for that little girl.”

Guests not only spanned age groups but also distances.

“We had people flying in from Alabama and Connecticut,” says Lawing. “They came from all over, several people driving for hours.”

Deen-approved Deliciousness

Once the crowd calmed, Joe Caldropoli, chef of Coastal Catering and Events, served a gourmet lunch to all luncheon guests. Deen and her husband, Michael, raved that it was the best meal that they had eaten in days. After lunch, each VIP guest posed for a picture with Deen and her husband and was presented with an autographed copy of Paula Deen’s Southern Cooking Bible.

At 1 pm, the remaining fans across the campus were getting restless. The crowded auditorium was brimming with excitement as the meet-and-greet grew closer. The anticipation peaked as the music began to play and Deen entered the stage to the tune of her favorite song, “Hey Good Looking, What You Got Cooking?” In true Paula Deen fashion, she greeted the fans with her casual and comforting charm. After answering questions from the crowd, it was time to move on to the chef cook-off.

Three of the area’s best chefs were welcomed to the stage: Chef Eric Masson, executive chef and owner of The Brentwood in Little River, S.C.; Chef Matt Kahr, executive chef of Port City Chop House in Wilmington; and Chef Jonathan Yuricek, executive chef of Twin Lakes Seafood in Sunset Beach. BCC’s president, Dr. Susanne Adams, and Clarice Holden of Island Breeze served as assistants to the chefs.

“Because Paula had been on the road, we wanted to treat her to something different: a good homemade meal,” explains Lawing. “So we decided to incorporate a cooking segment into the event. And we invited the area’s most celebrated chefs. Matt has accolades for winning Iron Chef, Jonathan has great experience cooking in Switzerland, and Eric won the Uncorked event in Myrtle Beach.”

Each chef was challenged with preparing a dish for Deen. All were delicious, according to Deen, but only one could be crowned the winner. With an elaborate presentation of cornmeal-dusted flounder with tomato scallion butter over crispy cheddar grit cake and braised kale, Chef Matt Kahr took home top prize. Each chef was presented with an engraved Paula Deen skillet, but surely they left the experience with more than just cookware.

“She really had a good time with the chefs,” says Lawing. “She cut up with all of them. You could tell that she enjoyed it and so did they.”

A Lasting Impression

As the event drew to a close, Deen took a few last photos with fans and made her way to her bus. Guests spoke of Deen’s genuine kindness and classic sense of humor. Comments about how much people enjoyed the show continue to pour into the BCC offices, proving that the event was one to remember.

Deen brought a smile to the faces of fans while raising more than $69,000 for BCC scholarships, bringing hope to students who would have otherwise been unable to attend college.

“She was everything that we thought she would be,” says Lawing. “She’s a Southern lady and is as kind and sweet as she could possibly be. She told me that she had three young grandchildren and that scholarships were very important to her, that she wasn’t sure she had ever participated in anything like this before and she was glad that she did now. For her team to remember that we wanted her last year, and to call us and make this possible, it was just meant to be.”

It’s safe to say that Deen left an impression on Brunswick County — and that Brunswick County left an impression on Deen.

“We didn’t realize this until after the fact, but after Paula left our campus, her bus went straight to shop at Island Breeze,” recalls Lawing. “From there, she headed to Twin Lakes for dinner, where Jonathon was able to cook for her again. She had fried flounder, fried shrimp and oysters. She loved it. And so did Jonathan.”

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