The news that TV food celebrity Paula Deen had come under public criticism for admitting she used a racial slur years ago caused her Marietta cousin and fellow restaurateur deep concern Friday.
Johnnie Gabriel, owner of Gabriel’s Desserts on Whitlock Avenue, said she grew up with Deen as a child, seeing her often on summertime trips to her grandmother’s house near Albany.
“My grandmother and her grandfather were brother and sister,” Gabriel said.
The two reconnected in 2000 and have remained close since, with Gabriel appearing twice on Deen’s TV show on the Food Network and Deen writing the forwards to the two cookbooks authored by Gabriel.
“We knew each other as young children and through our high school years, and reconnected in 2000 at my aunt’s 90th birthday, who at that time was the matriarch of our family,” Gabriel said. “Paula is a very honest and giving person.”
Gabriel, who is two years older than her famous cousin, has appeared on Deen’s Thanksgiving TV special a few years ago in which family members got together over their favorite holiday foods.
But using a racial slur would have been out of character for Deen, according to Gabriel.
“I find that surprising because I’ve been to Savannah and see how her employees admire and appreciate her and I see how hard she works,” Gabriel said. “We both started a business, our families were blue collar people, and I know from what I’ve seen exhibited in her character that she is very caring about the people around her. I’ve seen her meet people, seen her meet strangers, and always she is very caring and receptive.” Gabriel said she last saw Deen in Washington, D.C., in May at a luncheon put on by the Congressional Women’s Club in honor of first lady Michelle Obama.
“She was very well received there,” Gabriel said. “Billie Gingrey, the wife of our Congressman Phil Gingrey, was the chairperson this year and she included Georgia people and Georgia business owners. It was a fun affair.”
Gabriel, when contacted Friday evening, had not yet heard that the Food Network had canceled its contract with Deen earlier in the day.
“I find that very surprising,” Gabriel said. “I’ve been around Paula a lot of times when she could let her hair down and I’ve never heard her say anything derogatory about anyone. She surrounds herself with a lot of different people in Savannah, and I would be uncomfortable if I had ever heard or seen that type of thing. I’ve never been uncomfortable around her. I’ve seen her be very kind and gracious around all people who want to meet her.”
Gabriel, with her husband, Ed, started their own business in Marietta in 1990.
“I started baking out of my house to make a little extra money to keep my daughter at UGA. I was going to pay her rent by baking cakes,” Gabriel recalls.
That little enterprise with the humble goals expanded into a separate building in 1996 and then moved into the even larger current building on Whitlock in 2007.
“That’s when we became a real restaurant,” Gabriel said. They serve Southern specialties like roasted chicken, creamed corn and fried okra alongside roasted vegetables and red-velvet cupcakes while continuing to offer a full line of wedding and birthday cakes and decadent desserts.
“God has been very gracious and good and this community has been very gracious and good and very receptive to Gabriel’s,” she said.
The restaurant’s website touts Gabriel’s relationship with her Savannah cousin and media sensation Paula Deen. And Deen has been more than just a token supporter of Gabriel’s business.
“When she’s in town, she always mentions us. If I have a question and call her, she’s always very good to give me her opinion,” Gabriel said. “I think she’s been to the new store once, a couple years after we opened. She did a book signing at Cracker Barrel and after that she dropped by our store and wanted to see how things were going.”
Now, with her contract not up for renewal, Deen’s future is less certain.
But Gabriel believes she will land on her feet.
“She certainly has the following and talent to do so and the caring for other people to make good things happen,” Gabriel said. “It’s a very unfortunate situation because people do love her. She knows as well as I do that we are all brothers and sisters on this earth. And I think she would acknowledge that in a heartbeat.”