published Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Paula Deen says she's 'back in the saddle'

  • photo
    Paula Deen gets a ride across stage from Food Network star Robert Irvine during a cooking demo at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Paula Deen continued maneuvering for a comeback Sunday, turning a beachside cooking demonstration into a public apology for the racist comments that decimated her career last year.

The former Food Network star took the stage to prepare chicken and dumplings at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, but before beginning asked the crowd if they minded if she talked about something serious for a moment. Without ever explicitly discussing the allegations or comments she has admitted making, she said she was glad to be back and that, "I am not a quitter."

"We have come off of a very hard summer my family and I, my team, my partners," she said to a cheering crowd of several hundred fans. "But you know, I have heard on more than one occasion ... that I've never apologized. So if anybody did not hear me apologize, I would like to apologize to those who did not hear me."

Deen's career has been in shambles following a one-two punch of public relations disasters. In 2012, she was criticized for announcing she had both diabetes and a lucrative endorsement deal for a drug to treat the condition she'd until then hidden.

Then last summer, during a legal dispute with a former employee who accused her of racial discrimination and sexual harassment, she acknowledged having used racial slurs in the past. Most of her endorsement, book and TV deals fell apart within days.

Deen has mostly stayed out of the spotlight since then, even avoiding the Food Network's 20th anniversary party last October. But lately, she has made it clear she wants back. Earlier this month, she announced that private investment firm Najafi Companies is investing $75 million to $100 million to help her make a comeback.

As part of the deal, she's launching an umbrella company, Paula Deen Ventures, that will oversee her restaurants, cookbooks and product endorsements. And Sunday's crowd seemed primed for it all, shouting out to her "You don't need to apologize!" and "We want you back, Paula!"

"Ya'll's cards and letters that I got, helped me get out of bed every day," she replied.

Midway through the demo, Food Network star Robert Irvine joined Deen onstage. Irvine survived his own scandal in in 2008 when the Food Network let him go over discrepancies in claims he'd made over his work experience. He eventually returned to the Network, seemingly unblemished.

"This is a warning to you," Irvine told Deen. "You've apologized. You've eaten crow. You're done. Don't do it anymore. I've been there."

Before a roaring crowd, Irvine then got down on his hands and knees while Deen straddled his back and rode him across the stage, a reenactment of a gimmick they'd done during a previous festival.

"I'm back in the saddle!" she yelled to the crowd.

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