Just about a year ago, celebrity chef Paula Deen was the one embroiled in a controversy about race when her past use of a racial epithet was revealed in a deposition for a workplace discrimination lawsuit. Her future didn’t appear bright: Deen quickly lost her show on the Food Network, along with millions in endorsement deals. Yet here she is, with new private equity backers, plans for a restaurant, and a just-announced live cooking tour. Tickets go on sale on May 1.
Deen’s prospects began to look up in February, when Najafi Cos., a private equity firm in Phoenix, agreed to invest as much as $100 million in what they’re calling Paula Deen Ventures. Earlier this month, she announced plans for a $20 million, 20,000-square foot restaurant next to Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. It will be called Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen and is expected to open in late summer. At the very least, it’s a promising location: Some 10 million people visit the area every year.
Pigeon Forge will also be the first stop on the “Paula Deen Live!” tour. Deen expects to book 20 shows across the South starting in June. So far she’s got seven set up. The 90-minute shows will be a mix of cooking demonstrations, games for the audience (she’s mentioned musical chairs and a dating game), and personal stories. “When I step out onstage, it’s the most amazing feeling, y’all,” she told the Miami New Times. “I love that kind of adrenaline rush.”
The workplace discrimination suit that compromised Deen’s reputation was settled in August. Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House—the site of the alleged discrimination and co-owned by Deen’s wayward brother, Bubba Heirs—shut down in early April. Heirs said he closed the restaurant “to explore development options on the waterfront property.” Apparently he didn’t tell his employees—who showed up at work to find kitchen appliances being stripped from the restaurant.
Deen said her husband, Michael Groover, will appear onstage during the tour as partner and foil. Asked by the New Miami Times if sons Jamie and Bobby Deen might also join her, she said: “You never know who is going to show up.” As for any role for Bubba in her new ventures, Deen hasn’t commented.