To her followers, she’s a half-sugar, half-butter demigoddess. To her critics, she’s a hypocritical diabetic she-devil. But last month at Harrah’s Joliet, Paula Deen was a bona-fide celebrity, leaving a trail of shaky camera-phone snapshots and yelping fans in her wake.
Flown into Joliet for a matter of hours, Deen was there to cut the ribbon on the casino’s new Paula Deen’s Kitchen restaurant and buffet. From the casino’s main lobby, an impatient crowd snaked across the dizzily patterned carpet back to the parking garage. All the while, the steady beeps and bells of slot machines rang from the gaming area, where patrons carried on oblivious to the Deen-sparked pandemonium. A Deen-themed retail shop buffers the cavernous 364-seat restaurant from the slot-machine soundtrack.
Flanked by a trifecta of Joliet Mayor Tom Giarrante, casino senior vice president and general manager Darren VanDover and executive chef Peter Jeschke, Deen accepted a ceremonial key to the city. “This is the largest grand opening we’ve had,” she said. “This is so exciting, y’all. I’m funny about putting my name on a brand, but I’m proud. The most important people here are you gamers and guests. Thank y’all so much.”
Amid the Southern-seashore decor, lunch was already cooking, and a tribe of servers in still-creased blue polo shirts beamed from one corner, ready to swoop in post-photo ops to start their debut service. On the menu: a crispy stack of dangerously tawny fish-and-chips piled a half-foot high, fried green tomatoes with sweet-onion relish (one of several “signature items” flagged with a tiny ladle), and a deceptively modest-looking yellow square of Gooey Butter Cake. Delicious. Just don’t look up the recipe unless you want to have a heart attack.
Paula Deen’s Kitchen at Harrah’s Joliet isn’t the first of its kind, but it’s the farthest north, which counts for something. (“I don’t know a whole bunch about Joliet,” Deen admitted in a post-ceremony interview, “but it’s above the Mason-Dixon Line and I’m so damned proud to be here!”) There are others: one at Harrah’s in North Carolina, which expanded on the concept of two previous Paula Deen Buffets at Horseshoe Southern Indiana and Harrah’s Tunica in Mississippi. The Tunica buffet, which opened in 2008, was the first Deen affiliate outside her famous Savannah restaurants the Lady & Sons and Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House.
But why casinos?
“Because Harrah’s, they have such a wonderful, strong infrastructure,” Deen said. “They’ve got the manpower, they’ve got the knowledge, they’ve got the know-how, and when you can’t be in your restaurant yourself every day, you have got to be able to have somebody in there who is most qualified, and they are. I know when I walk out of here today to go to the airport, it’s going to run just like if I was here.”
That day, she was—but not in the kitchen. Several bites into a meal of fried green tomatoes, fried chicken with creamy mashed potatoes and flavorful greens sautéed with more than enough butter, Deen bobbed her way through her new restaurant’s seating area, taking turns posing for snapshots and rubbing bald men’s heads. One woman in a Sox jersey covered her mouth and cried to her companion, “It’s really her!” Deen, smiling all the while, asked patrons how their food tasted. “Is it good, y’all?”
Just before making her exit, she waved farewell and offered a kind of rallying cry, which was met with more enthusiasm than the ribbon cutting: “Let’s hear it for the fried chicken, y’all!”
Paula Deen’s Kitchen is open for service at Harrah’s Joliet, 151 N Joliet St, Joliet.