Paula Deen Dishes On MasterChef: Legends -- Exclusive Interview

If Southern cooking is a religion, Paula Deen helped spread its gospel far and wide. The Georgia native grew up cooking simple, regional family favorites passed down by her grandmother, always made with love and plenty of butter. After hardships defined the early part of her life, Deen took comfort in the kitchen, and turned her love of Southern food and family into a multi-million dollar brand. Deen has opened restaurants, published cookbooks, hosted a slate of cooking shows over the last three decades, and effectively become a household name in America — especially any household where biscuits and gravy are common.

Now the Southern home cook (she's not a chef, she says) turned pop culture sensation is joining the ranks of culinary legends as a guest judge on the newest season of "MasterChef". Deen joins Gordon Ramsay, Aarón Sánchez, and Joe Bastianich to find some of the best self-taught chefs out there today, and help guide those looking to follow in her footsteps.

Paula Deen spoke exclusively with Mashed about her appearance on "MasterChef: Legends" and her appreciation for home cooking. Deen also talked quarantine cooking and reconnecting with her fans, shared some Southern family kitchen secrets, and left us with a craving for butter burgers we never knew we needed.

Paula Deen was honored to be featured on MasterChef: Legends

What can we expect from your episode? What was your experience like filming "MasterChef: Legends"?

Well, first of all, I was shocked that they had invited me to be in the legends. What a compliment. It was a wonderful experience. Of course, I love working with Gordon [Ramsay]. I've worked with him in the past. And so, I'm always happy to be by his side.

The contestants were... it was all about home cooks, and that has a special place in my heart... for those people that are honing their skills in the kitchen for their family. It was wonderful to watch them. It takes a lot of guts to do what they're doing. To kind of stand, you might say, butt naked in front of the world. You know?

You're helping judge the last round of auditions, giving out the last of those 15 coveted white aprons. Gordon Ramsay has said that the bar is so much higher this season and this time around. Do you agree with that?

Yes, I do. We always want to do better today than we did yesterday. That just comes with the territory, don't you think? You always want your next dish to be better. And so, yeah, that really sets the bar up high because there's some really talented home cooks out there. The competition was pretty, pretty king.

You've been a guest judge on "MasterChef" in the past. How was the experience different this time around?

Well, I tell you what, the first time I was a judge on "MasterChef," they made me wear these high heels that were covered in gold glitter, and they didn't fit real good. Then they hid me in this box and then raised the box up because I was the surprise guest. I'm telling you what, I said, "Lord, if I don't fall down and break my neck in front of all these people and these cameras, I'll be lucky." So this time I didn't have to wear gold, high heeled shoes.

Paula Deen on working with Gordon Ramsay and judging other home cooks

You mentioned this before, you have a relationship with Gordon Ramsay. What is he like to work with? What is it like seeing these chefs in front of him in person?

Well, the first time I ever met and worked with Gordon, I said, "Gordon, I'm going home and I'm going to ruin your reputation." He said, "How's that, Paula?" I said, "Because everybody thinks you're such a badass, and I'm going to tell them what a cream puff you really are." He's very sweet.

So he's basically just a big old softie underneath it all?

Yes, yes. He's very kind and he's a sweet man. He and I both have some very saucy language. He can be saucy, and so can I.

If he's the softy, that means they're bringing in judges like you [on "MasterChef"] just to lay it out and tell it like it is, right?

Well, that gave me a hard time because I never, never would want to poo poo on somebody's parade. I said, "I don't know if I'm going to be able to..." I'm just, I'm not mean. But I was watching the tape on it and I told this young man, I said, "Well, to me, your plate just looks sloppy." And that was the worst criticism that I gave. I saw the hurt on his face and, oh, I didn't like that. I didn't like it. It is just hard.

Especially because, like you said, these chefs, they're home cooks and they're kind of putting it all on the line on national television.

Absolutely. I am not a chef, I'm a cook. I've never been to school. I graduated from my grandmother Paula's kitchen, and summa cum later. I graduated, summa cum later. So I am a cook. You just want people to like what you've cooked so very badly. To dash somebody's dream, it's hard to do.

Paula Deen talks quarantine cooking and connecting with her fans

Going back to this whole idea of home cooking. "MasterChef" is obviously a show that celebrates home cooks. And that's a role that so many more people have been stepping into in the last year and a half or so with this pandemic.

Absolutely.

That's something that you really leaned into a lot with your quarantine cooking videos on YouTube. You're cooking right from your kitchen. What has it been like for you to connect with your fans in that way?

It's been wonderful. Just being back with them. And of course I get lots of letters and emails from people saying how much they appreciate it. They say, "I needed to smile today. I needed something to laugh about." And so, it was my goal to occupy people if it wasn't but 15 minutes a day to give them something else to think about.

Because I was thinking about well, I wonder how many people, especially older people are being made to stay at home and they're by themselves... That really weighed heavy on me. How many people are by themselves? And now they can't go out, they can't be with family. I just had a lot of people say, "Thank you. You made me laugh," or "I felt like everything was all right for a few minutes." You know?

Yeah. It's just like a moment to be with a friend in the kitchen.

Yeah. It wasn't about the recipes because they're just trying to do things that you might have on hand in your pantry, because we definitely quit running to the grocery store like we would during normal times. Sometimes it's nothing for me to have to go twice a day. But that was not so when we were all quarantined.

I've seen lots of your fans asking for you to keep making these quarantine cooking videos, even after quarantine is over. Are you going to keep it up?

Oh yes, honey. I can't quit now. I can't quit now. I told everybody I was staying whether it was quarantine or not. In fact, when are we going to start filming again... probably Thursday. Couple of days a week, we'll film like five shows on each day. So I can put out about 10 a week.

Paula Deen reveals her newest favorite kitchen hack

Our readers are always looking for cooking hacks and ways to simplify the process. Do you have any fun quarantine cooking tips that you can share with our readers that you picked up along the way?

Oh, Lord. I said if I couldn't pronounce it, I didn't want to cook it, I wasn't interested in cooking it. So I've always kind of simplified things.

But I can't go without saying this, I have a line of appliances and I have, to me, the best air fryer on the market. It's not in stores, but it's on Amazon. And boy, howdy, I really, really got into using my air fryer a lot. I don't have to turn on all the heat in my kitchen. It cooks so fast and so good and just makes things so easy.

What's your favorite thing to make in the fryer?

Probably salmon.

Oh, it's the best.

Yes. It's crazy, isn't it?

Yes! So crispy on the outside.

Yes. And just that perfect kind of medium on the inside. When I cook it in my big oven, I can't ever get it to turn out that way. But in that air fryer, it's like perfect.

I love the confirmation that I'm doing it right, cooking my salmon in the air fryer.

Absolutely. It's so quick, you're thinking, what if you had to heat up that big old oven? Probably take 10 to 15 minutes to bring it up to heat, and then your kitchen's hot. I just love my Paula Deen air fryer. I love it. It cooks great bacon, it cooks great biscuits. Of course, everybody knows about the French fries and onion rings and all your frozen foods that we probably shouldn't be eating. But it simplifies all that. It makes wonderful hamburgers. It cooks everything that I need and every way possible. It suits my kitchen. The only thing, I couldn't cook a pot of butter beans in it. But it bakes a lot of stuff. My biscuits are incredible cooked in that air fryer.

Paula Deen's shares her philosophy on Southern cooking

You're one of the queens of Southern cooking. Can you share some of your top tips, advice for home cooks who want to master Southern cooking?

Oh. Well, I've said for years, if you can read, you can cook. But it's amazing. Some people, it's so hard for them. They don't have the knack of being able to say, "Well, this herb would go with this or this flavor would go with this," and they have to go right by a recipe. And if they vary, it's going to fail. And so, there are people like that, that are really recipe driven. But then the rebels, they like to do their own thing.

It's like anything, the more you do it, the better you're going to get at it. I would recommend making a dish twice before you say, "I can't do it. That's not for me." But just keep on trying. Just keep on trying. I'm 74 years old, and I only remember one time having to throw something out because it was not good... And so what if it doesn't live up to your expectations or you ruin it? You can give it to the dogs. If you live on the farm, you can give it to the pigs and you can call Papa Murphy's.

There you go.

But just keep trying, just keep trying. I love cookbooks. I could read those like a novel. Lord, when I was getting married, the only cooking show was Julia Child. Oh, oh, oh, who was that man from Louisiana? What was his name? He wore those... it was Justin Wilson and Julia Child. Oh, and there was the Galloping Gourmet. He came along about the time right after my first child was born.

So these are the inspirations you learned from.

Oh, yes. I would watch them. But my grandmother, she was incredible. When it came to the kitchen, she was incredible. But so now we have so many tools today to help out people that are wanting to excel in the home kitchen. So it's right there at your fingertips.

Paula Deen shares her favorite family dish

You've learned pretty much everything from your grandmother. She was your number one inspiration. Do you have a favorite recipe of hers that she passed down to you?

Oh gosh, my grandmother didn't use many recipes.

Or a dish, I guess, that she taught you to make that's your favorite?

Probably chicken and dumplings.

Or no, I'll tell you what it was. It was our cornbread dressing. She taught me how to make it, and it's delicious. It's made with toast — with bread that you've dried out in the oven and a great cornbread. I'm not talking about a Jiffy mix. You don't want to make a Southern cornbread dressing with a sweet cornbread. You want to make old timey, buttermilk corn bread to use. I would put my dressing up against anybody, and I do it just like she said. She always put a sleeve of saltine crackers in her dressing, and she always spooned out a scoop of the dressing once it was mixed together and before it got cooked. She would always take a ladle of the raw dressing and put in the pot that she was doing her giblet gravy in.

Wow.

It's just out of this world. It's in my cookbook and it's on the website.

Paula Deen shares her thoughts on butter (and margarine)

If there's one thing people know about you is that you love butter and you cook with a lot of butter.

Yeah, I do. I love butter. Don't touch margarine, but I do love me some real butter. And I say, God made the cow, and the cow made the butter, so it can't be too bad.

Do you have any cool tips for using butter with cooking?

Put it in everything. Butter just brings such a flavor. Sometimes, and I'm sure everybody knows this trick, use equal amounts of butter and olive oil. The olive oil will keep the butter from burning, but you still get that butter flavor. Yes, I love butter. But like I said, I wouldn't touch margarine... I think if we're going to eat that type of fat, let it be real and natural.

You said mix it with olive oil to help it from burning?

Yeah. If you're sautéing a piece of fish... you can use a little butter and olive all and that way your butter won't burn.

Do you use butter outside the kitchen or is there anything else you can use butter for besides cooking?

Paula Deen:

No. Oh my God, I don't think... I don't think I've got a trick for butter at all outside the kitchen.

Fair enough. I had to ask.

There may be some kinky folks out there that like butter outside the kitchen, but I don't know about it.

Well, now it's real hot in here.

I know!

Paula Deen talks upcoming projects... which involve butter burgers

I do want to ask if you have any big plans or upcoming projects that you want to share with our readers to look forward to from you.

I'm going to Knoxville, Tennessee to promote my line of jewelry that I have, Paula Deen Jewelry. I'm going to be on JTV... the 22nd and the 23rd [of June].

I did a special 4th of July show for Fox Nation. I think it's airing the 3rd and the 4th.

And you're going to be sharing recipes on that show?

I sure am.

Good stuff for the summer barbecues.

Yes. Yes. Oh my gosh. It was so good. I did my butter burgers.

Butter burgers?

Uh huh.

Oh my goodness. What is a butter burger?

Well, I put butter in the freezer and then I take it out and I slice it into chunks and I mix it in with my ground beef or whatever meat I'm doing for my burgers. And when you put them on the grill, that butter melts through those burgers and it's so good.

That sounds absolutely heavenly.

It's delicious. I discovered that, gosh, maybe 15, 16 years ago. We would do birthdays of family and friends one Sunday a month. If you're born in March, then we would celebrate your birthday at some point in March. I decided I wanted to cook burgers. I said, "But I want to make them a little bit special. What can I do?" So I said, "Hmm, I'm going to chop up some butter and put in it." And they were delicious.

Like a magic trick almost.

Yeah. I'll show you how I do it on the 4th of July special.

All right. Well, we will definitely be tuning in. Thanks for speaking with us today.

Well, thank you. I send you love and best dishes!

You can watch Paula Deen on MasterChef: Legends on FOX on June 16 at 8 p.m. ET.