Bobby Deen Comes Clean
He’s positioned himself as the first family of Southern food’s resident health nut. But it wasn’t always that way. For Bobby Deen, the long road back from addiction and overeating began within.
Behind a non-descript door on the back side of the Victor B. Jenkins Memorial Boys Club on the southside of Savannah lies a secret sanctuary. Bobby Deen sits on a weight bench and shares the myriad ways this place and everything that went into creating it have saved him from himself.
The haven is small and unassuming, a gym not much larger than your average bedroom. An odd mix of varying articles of clothing adorn the towering walls, high above the power racks and full-length mirrors more typical of such a space. Each represents someone who helped make this place a reality by influencing Sam Carter, the larger-than-life personal trainer who has made a name in Savannah and beyond.
One of the outfits represents Bobby, though he doesn’t seem convinced he deserves to be recognized in such a place of honor. Today, Bobby is happily married, wildly successful, and in the best shape of his life. But it has been quite a journey to get there.
“I’m infinitely better for the people around me,” the 47-year-old celebrity chef says. “If I were left to my own devices, I would be an utter failure.”
Bobby Deen recalls vividly the day that changed everything. Sam Carter strolled into The Lady & Sons after church, a mountain of a man dressed to the nines. A mutual friend had sent him to meet Bobby, who casually mentioned a desire to get back in shape.
“I was deep in the restaurant business and not really paying any attention to my physical self at all,” Bobby recalls. “Sam came in and fixed himself a plate and shook my hand and said, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow. We start tomorrow.’”
When tomorrow came, Bobby reported to the gym late in the evening, after the dinner rush at the restaurant. He could barely do one pull-up, but in Carter’s presence he found something he had been craving. Looking back, he recognizes it as the positive reinforcement from a male role model that he often lacked growing up with a “hopeless alcoholic” father who was emotionally distant.
He couldn’t wait to get back to the gym the next day.
“I couldn’t not be around the guy,” Bobby says, looking at Carter with something resembling reverence. “Once I got a taste of him, it was like, holy cow, this is what I need.
“My life has changed for the better because of that energy.”
When the Deen family moved to Savannah in 1988, Bobby was a high school senior, and he was less than thrilled about leaving his friends just three months before graduation.
“One hundred percent misery,” he recalls. “I was so angry with my parents. And in my misery, I just started eating.”
His weight ballooned to 220 pounds, and taking it off wasn’t easy after his parents divorced and he and his brother, Jamie, started a catering service with their now-famous mother, Paula. (You can read about her story in last issue.)
Even as the business took off and The Lady & Sons developed into an iconic Southern restaurant that is a destination unto itself, Bobby struggled to find personal satisfaction. He sought solace in food, in booze, in women.
“There were a lot of things in my life that needed changing,” he says.
He began with the physical. Bobby mentioned to a 19-year-old busboy with a chiseled physique that he needed to get back in the gym. Terrell Moody looked at him sideways.
“Do you really want to?,” Terrell asked. “Because I know the guy.”
At first, Bobby’s daily devotion to working out with Carter didn’t go over too well with the rest of the Deens, who were burning it at both ends to build the family business.
“It was taking away from the time I could spend in the restaurant,” Bobby says. “Instead of spending 18 hours a day in the restaurant, I was spending 17. They were still there, and I was gone to the gym.”
But in that gym, Bobby found something he had been missing, and it became an essential part of his identity. Through exercise, he changed his relationship with food and branded himself as “the healthy one” in the famous culinary family, leading to his own show on Food Network. “Not My Mama’s Meals” had a successful four-season run highlighting Bobby’s healthier recreations of Paula’s recipes that were dripping with Southern comfort.
Healthy Tip! Drink the juice of one lemon in one cup of warm water first thing in the morning (on an empty stomach). 2. Make sure to wait 30 minutes before eating breakfast, as this will ensure your body gets the most energy and nutrients from the food you eat.
“I still love fried chicken and collard greens and cornbread and peach cobbler and sweet tea. Love it,” Bobby says. “But you have to have a balance. Food and exercise are medicine, and if you begin to exercise your body, you’ll gain a new relationship with food.”
Now Bobby credits that relationship with helping him guide his mother through her own dietary struggles. Paula was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2012, and Bobby has used his own transformation to aid his mother in making one of her own.
“I feel like I’m adding years to my mother’s life, in a roundabout way, by knowing Sam,” he says.
Other demons were more difficult to conquer.