Deep and Fried

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We sent Savannah food writer Hannah Hayes where cynical locals fear to tread—and she brought back stories of a stainless steel utopia. »  Photography by Beau Kester.

Even after lugging more than 20 tubs full of dirty plates and glasses up the steep flight of stairs from the first-floor dining room, busboy and aspiring singer Rashad Freeman flashes me an electric smile.

“Gets me right for spring break, y’know?” he quips, snapping his fingers.  “We work hard.  We play hard.”

Where on earth did I find a chipper busboy?  I’m standing on the second floor of The Lady & Sons, marveling at the fast-paced, synchronized movements that surround me.

If you’re like many jaded locals, you might take one look at the unsavory lines that wrap around this Congress Street landmark and then look the other way.  But not me.  Not today. I’m here to see beyond the butter and savor the secrets behind the dining room doors at this Savannah icon.

Navigating a maze of stairwells and passageways, general manager Rance Jackson is giving me the behind-the-scenes tour.  He’s already shown me the cramped office where reservations are taken from nine different phone lines, the cubby where the catering manager is busily confirming orders, and the attic where resident handyman Adam Nations keeps his tools and work benches.

But the highlight happens now, as we enter the kitchen that famously serves steaming plates of Southern home cooking to more than 400,000 visitors each year.

“There’s another one on the third floor, right?”  I ask as we whisk past cooks in aprons tinted with pepper sauce and grease.

Rance smiles.

“No, this is it.”

Instead of the state-of-the art food laboratory I expected—or the cozy, cluttered workspace from Paula’s Home Cooking—I find a glorified stainless steel hallway powered by busy human hands, not fancy equipment.  I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a bigger kitchen behind the counter of the local McDonald’s.

Of Ants and Elves

When Bag-Lady-turned-Food-Network- star Paula Deen bought the old White Hardware building to accommodate the lengthy lines that mobbed her original 80-seat restaurant, she pictured the three-story, 300-seat mecca as a “beehive of activity.”

“It’s more like an ant farm, to tell you the truth,” Rance tells me.  Connected to every piece of the operation via a constantly humming earpiece, he can easily shift from conducting food runners to greeting guests to cleaning restrooms.  “Everyone knows where they’re going and what they’re supposed to do.”

At the kitchen’s other end, I meet Michael McCullough, who doesn’t just fry the chicken—he “golden-a-lizes,” it.  He steps away from his station for a moment, folds his arms over his apron-covered chest and gazes proudly over his fellow cooks.

“You see here, these are like all the elves in Paula’s workshop,” Michael jokes.  “Rance, he’s like the chief elf, and together we make the magic happen.”

It’s magic, all right. Squeezing 170 employees into a three-story, 200-year-old building that was never intended to be a restaurant, and asking them to serve the same beloved dishes and Southern hospitality from Paula’s first restaurant sounds like a recipe for dysfunction—or disgruntled employees at best.  Instead, I see a staff of hard-working locals who are just as enthusiastic as the “Lady” herself.

“It’s pretty impressive what we do here,” assistant kitchen manager Adam Ford agrees.  We’re standing between a flaming gas-fired oven and a prep table where cooks ladle sauce over grouper fillets and broil “Shore is Good” seafood dip.  “These people have been here an average of six or seven years.  They know this place like the back of their hand.”

Seasoned With Soul

Many of the busy hands I shake belong to people who have worked here much longer.  There’s Brandon Jones, the executive kitchen manager with hawk-like eyes, who joined Paula when he was 17 and just celebrated his 31st birthday.  And Cookie Espinoza, the beloved office manager, who, along with making the “paperwork flow” for 11 years, gives financial advice to any busser or line cook who comes to her door.

But few know this place better than Dora Charles and Ineata “Jelly Roll” Jones. Paula calls them her “soul sisters,” and they have been with her 22 and 18 years respectively, back when the three ladies cooked trays of sweet potatoes and mac ’n’ cheese side-by-side for their bantam buffet.

Dora handles quality control. She’s able to spot a pot of collards in need of seasoning from across the restaurant, and with just one taste, she immediately knows if the black-eyed peas or lima beans are up to standard.

“I love being busy,” Dora tells me, rubbing her hands together.  “I hate slow days.  I can’t wait until it’s March again.”

Jelly Roll, who recently underwent knee surgery, may not ring the dinner bell anymore, but she still helps out wherever she can— mashing potatoes or handing hoecakes to hungry visitors in the waiting area.  She’s even been known to sneak back into the kitchen on her days off.

“If it were up to me, I’d be here every day,” she beams, smiling so wide the apples of her cheeks reach the bottoms of her eyes.  “I’ll be here until God takes me away.”

Surrounded by laughing cooks and dishwashers and the aroma of “golden-a-lized” chicken and steaming shrimp ’n’ grits, I can see what Jelly Roll means.  I’m having so much fun that I don’t want to leave either.  When I suddenly receive a fried chicken leg tied to a circle of string—an edible necklace made by Michael and self-described “dumbwaiter technician” Drew Harvey—I think I might just move in.

“We all live here,” Nivea Gregory, who bakes the key lime pie and gooey butter cakes, hollers above the noise of dirty skillets being thrown into wash bins and waiters maneuvering plates of fried green tomatoes and black pepper shrimp.  “We love what we do and we love each other.”

Sure, it sounds as corny as a hoe-cake, but manager Dustin Walls, who has been with Paula for 16 years, agrees.  He attributes this pervasive positivity to Paula herself, and assures me that her presence is much more than the cardboard cut-out in the lobby.

“We try to make sure that everyone feels like Paula is a part of this place, even when she’s not here,” he says earnestly, his tall frame folded into a chair in a brief moment of stillness while he checks the week’s schedules.  “Everything she built down the street, we try to represent that here.  This is her house.”

House of the Rising Star

The cynics?  The fame-haters?  Dora and Jelly Roll have heard them.  Everyone at The Lady & Sons has.  Although they won’t apologize for their success, these passionate locals never forget where they came from.  They’ve recently revamped their reservation system and created loyalty cards for those of us who may have felt forgotten amongst the motorcades and tour groups.

“Our locals are the reason for our success,” Rance says emphatically.

“They made the Lady who she is,” Cookie adds. And I can tell she isn’t talking about Paula. For her and all the Lady’s keepers, this building is more than brick and creaky floors.

But nobody says it better than Dora, who keeps it simple, asking me to pass on the following personal invitation: “Give yourself a break at home, and come on down for some real nice Southern cooking.”

In a city where celebrity is both coveted and suspect, it’s nice to know some things never change.