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Deen gives Joliet taste of Southern cooking, hospitality

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Updated: May 7, 2012 8:15AM



JOLIET — A slimmed-down Paula Deen brought hoecakes and hoopla to the city on Thursday as she cut the ribbon on her restaurant at Harrah’s Casino Joliet.

Hundreds of fans lined up in the early hours of the morning to see their favorite celebrity chef in person. Shanet Wilson-Taylor, who was among the first in line, got up at 4 a.m. to arrive at the casino by 5:30 a.m.

“I love Paula Deen,” she said. “I watch her on TV. I have her recipes. I have her books.”

Taylor-Wilson of Sauk Village said she has eaten at Deen’s Mississippi restaurant.

“It was awesome,” she said. “I sat there and cried. They were tears of joy to see her start from nothing and end up where she is.”

Taylor-Wilson said her favorite menu item is the gumbo, but she has a system for eating Paula Deen’s food.

“I always eat her dessert first — the peach cobbler,” she said.

Ronnell Tafowa of Joliet was next to Wilson-Taylor in line.

“Oh, Paula — she’s my best,” she said. “I watch her every day twice a day. I have all her cookbooks. She’s just so down to earth. Her style is just so friendly and she’s just like anybody else on the street.”

Tafowa said her favorite Deen recipe is for potato soup.

“I always make it after Easter with the leftover ham. It’s the best thing. Everybody loves it.”

Showing her charm

Deen lived up to her fans’ expectations by taking all of the media and photo requests in stride. She tossed out y’alls like they were her famous cheesy biscuits. After the 10:30 a.m. ribbon cutting, where Deen received the key to the city, Paula Deen’s Kitchen opened to greet the rush of customers.

The restaurant, Deen’s sixth, is her first in the North. Some people told her she should keep her restaurant’s closer to home in the South, but Deen said she disagreed.

“I belong to wherever people are that appreciate good food,” she said to cheers from the crowd.

When Deen’s first restaurant opened in Tunica, Miss., she said she hoped it wouldn’t be her only child. Now she has six restaurants, including four with Caesars Entertainment, which owns Harrah’s Casinos.

“I always wanted a big family,” Deen said jokingly.

Her next plan is to open a restaurant with Harrah’s in Las Vegas, she added.

Coping with diabetes

Deen has been in the news recently because she was diagnosed with diabetes. But she’s lost 25 pounds and said she plans to lose another 15.

“Most all good food is rich,” she said. “The cooking shows did not get where they are for serving diet food. So it’s up to the individual to use moderation and that’s what I’m working on.

“I can’t change my Southern ways. I don’t want to. I’m not interested in changing. That is my history. That’s who I am. But what I am trying to change is what I put on my plate. ... It’s not the food that causes Type II diabetes, it’s how much.”

There are two dining options at Deen’s Joliet restaurant.

Buffet customers can choose items from serving stations called Hoecakes and Cheesy Biscuits, Dean’s Bubba Barbecue, Granny Paula’s Garden, Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, The Lady and Sons and Little Jack’s Corner. The buffet costs $22.99 Sunday through Friday and $24.95 for a “steak and bake” on Saturday. Guests also can select made-to-order breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes off a menu, said Steve Farrahi, food operations manager.

The restaurant’s employees all wear aprons with a message on them: “Put Some South in Your Mouth.” And they’ve all been schooled in Southern hospitality, Farrahi said.

“My goal is to have our team do the South better than the South,” he said.

Menus will be online at www.harrahsjoliet.com in a couple of weeks.

The 14,623-square-foot restaurant, which is inside the casino building at 151 N. Joliet St., cost $2.4 million to create; it seats 365 and employs 80 workers, 40 more than the buffet restaurant it replaced.

A gift shop chock full of Deen T-shirts, food mixes and dishes, greets diners as they enter the business. Items range from peanut butter barbecue sauce to oven gloves with faux fur cuffs.

Local officials were thrilled to welcome Deen to town.

“The influx of people it’s going to bring to Joliet is great,” Mayor Tom Giarrante said.

Adding a little celebrity cachet to the heart of the city could help lure other businesses to the area, said John Greuling, president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development.

“There is a bit of a herd mentality, especially in the entertainment and restaurant business,” he said. “And I think a marquee name like Paula’s is nothing but advantage Joliet right now. Not every community is going to get a Paula Deen’s Restaurant. That’s all there is to it.”

Breakfast is served from 7:30 to 11 a.m. Sunday through Saturday; brunch is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday through Sunday; lunch is from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; and dinner is from 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For information or reservations call 815-740-4447.

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