Updated: Tue, 25 Jun 2013 19:42:55 GMT | By Tracy Saelinger, TODAY contributor

Chefs, peers react to Deen scandal as they await her comments



Andrew Zimmern, left and Aaron McCargo, Jr., right, are among the food personalities who have expressed their opinion on embattled former Food Network star Paula Deen.

Andrew Zimmern, left and Aaron McCargo, Jr., right, are among the food personalities who have expressed their opinion on embattled former Food Network star Paula Deen.

As Paula Deen’s bombshell admission that she has used racial slurs continues to wreak havoc on her empire, some chefs are speaking out for and against the embattled television cook – while many are staying mum and waiting to hear from Deen, who was dropped from Food Network on Friday. Deen will address the scandal on TODAY Wednesday.

Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods" host Andrew Zimmern, who has been critical of Deen in the past for her less-than-healthy cooking, told TODAY.com, “It’s very sad, and I really feel worst for the [Paula Deen Enterprises] employees and business colleagues who have been dragged through this mess via association. The fallout here affects thousands of great people and their families.”

Zimmern, a fellow employee of Scripps Networks (Travel Channel and Food Network’s parent company), applauded the company’s decision not to renew Deen’s contract at the end of the month. “Based solely on what we know is true to date, I am very proud of Scripps Networks for making the right choice and terminating the relationship with Deen," he said. "There is no room in our world for discrimination of any kind, let alone the malicious and insensitive behavior we have heard stories about the last few days.”

Outspoken Deen critic Anthony Bourdain has remained mysteriously tight-lipped on the issue—but that is because he is currently in Europe, in production on season two of his CNN series “Parts Unknown,” a CNN spokesperson told TODAY.com. Still, Bourdain couldn’t resist sending out one cheeky tweet that he was “monitoring the situation,” mimicking Food Network’s initial statement as news broke early last week.

And former New York Times restaurant reviewer Frank Bruni, who previously sided with Deen in her beef with Bourdain, skewered her in an op-ed column Monday.

“All of her adult years postdate the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and she’s a citizen of the world, traveling wide and far to peddle her wares,” Bruni said in response to fans who have suggested Deen deserves leniency because of her age and experiences. “If she can leave Georgia for the sake of commerce, she can leave Georgia in the realm of consciousness.”

Past “Food Network Star” winner Aaron McCargo, Jr., who is black, took to Facebook Monday to support Deen, saying, “Paula has always been very helpful and supportive throughout my career and as her friend, I’m saddened to see that she is going through a tough time right now. We are all human and we should never be quick to judge anyone...”

Food Network’s “Down Home with the Neelys” hosts Pat and Gina Neely were a bit more candid in their joint statement to the media Monday night, saying, “We were shocked and saddened to learn of the comments from Paula Deen. Racism of any kind from anyone is simply unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.” Though the couple added, “In our own relationship, Paula has shown us kindness and generosity. We trust that Paula’s apologies are sincere and hope there is a positive lesson to be learned from this situation.”

Louisville, Ky., chef Edward Lee, who brings together Southern and Korean food traditions at his restaurant, 610 Magnolia, and in his new book, “Smoke and Pickles,” had recently taped an episode of Deen’s Food Network show, which is no longer airing. He took to Facebook yesterday to say he’s OK with that. “Mrs. Deen was gracious, friendly and funny. Unfortunately, none of those qualities trumps racism,” he said.

But mostly, Lee says, he’s bothered by oversimplifications about racism in the Southern U.S. “To say things like, ‘that’s just the way it’s always been’ is not only inaccurate, but far worse, it is lazy,” he wrote. “The South that I live and travel in is one that is buoyed by diversity, acceptance, generosity and love — the people and kitchens of the American South have enriched my life with culture and respect.”

Other Southern chefs agree, and lament that this scandal is taking away from the positive developments in the South’s cuisine.

"It’s unfortunate for Southern culture and foodways that this has come to light,” said Sam Edwards III, cure master and president at S. Wallace Edwards & Sons, a third-generation ham and sausage maker in Surry, Va. “It temporarily draws attention from the developing conversation on the region’s progressive future."

Some chefs have purposely avoided talking about Deen.

Food Network chefs Cat Cora and Katie Lee declined to comment to TODAY.com, and Bobby Flay quickly shut down a question about the scandal during a “Good Morning America” cooking segment on Monday. “I’m here to talk about some rib eye and some 'Food Network Star,'” he told host Josh Elliott. “Let’s move on to summer barbecue.”

Deen is set to give her interview Wednesday with Matt Lauer on TODAY, after her notorious last-minute cancellation of an appearance last week. That was just one incident in an eventful week for Deen, which began with her admission during a legal deposition that she had used racial epithets and ended with a series of strange YouTube apologies and her termination from Food Network and Smithfield Foods.

Renowned food writer Ed Levine, a recurring judge on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” says he’s curious about what the Southern cooking star will have to say.

“She’s kind of caught between a rock and a hard place — what can she say other than, ‘I’m really sorry I held those beliefs’? It’s not like she was caught at a single moment, you know what I mean?” he told TODAY.com. “I guess that’s when even the most sophisticated PR agencies are at a loss.”

So what’s next for Deen? Levine suggests she should be doing something proactive, such as donating proceeds to the NAACP. “She needs to do something else than say, ‘I’m sorry.’ The interview with Matt should be the last word on subject — she should go about building bridges. I’m hoping that’s what she does, and what her PR handlers are telling her to do.”

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