About 12 years ago, Bobby Deen faced a turning point. He was helping run The Lady & Sons, the Savannah restaurant his mother Paula and brother Jamie had built from the ground up. It served traditional Southern cooking, like the kind he grew up on in Albany, Ga.
But he realized something was wrong. He was working long hours, and it was taking a toll on his body. He was tired and unhappy. And a big part of it was because of his diet.
He was overweight, a problem he'd had most of his life. He realized he couldn't eat his mother's fried chicken and hoecakes with syrup like he used to. But he couldn't just stop eating it. So he compromised. And now, he's made a career out of it.
Last year, he debuted "Not My Mama's Meals" on the Cooking Channel. It not-so-indirectly plays off his mother's image as the butter queen of the South. He makes Southern cooking the healthy way.
"From Mama's Table to Mine" is Bobby's latest cookbook, the first without his brother. He will speak at the Savannah Book Festival on Feb. 15.
The recipes are scaled-back versions of his favorites -- all less than 350 calories each per serving. It's finding healthy shortcuts wherever possible, replacing sour cream with nonfat yogurt, using low-calorie cream cheese or mayonnaise.
This doesn't mean he won't eat a helping of his mother's mac and cheese when she cooks it for him. It's just not an everyday thing. He said he lives by the 80-20 rule: Eat healthy 80 percent of the time, but leave a little room for gooey butter cake.
"What I'm trying to do is take Sunday cooking and making it into Monday cooking," he said of his cookbook.
Deen didn't figure he'd get into the food business. But looking back it makes sense. As a child, he played baseball, and like many a young ball players in the South, he thought he'd have a roster spot on the Braves.
His parents divorced and life took a turn. The family was basically broke, and Paula started The Bag Lady lunch service to make ends meet. Bobby and Jamie worked as the delivery boys.
The lunches were in high demand, and Paula went into the restaurant business. The Lady & Sons became a family operation, with the boys helping turn it into a foodie empire.
As the restaurant was starting to get national attention, Bobby Deen had his epiphany about healthy eating. At age 30, he started to change his body. He starting going to the gym daily. There, he learned he couldn't eat like he used to.
"It changed how I look at food," he said. "I needed to balance my diet with my exercise routine."
He lost more than 30 pounds, felt better and shortly after started making name of his own. He and Jamie started hosting "Road Tasted" on Food Network in 2006. They published four cookbooks together.
Nowadays, Jamie, the older brother, sticks close to Savannah, running the restaurant and raising his children. Bobby is out of town about three to five months a year filming in New York City, but he still has a home in Savannah and helps run the family place.
Despite National Enquirer reports last year of a feud between the lady and sons, Bobby said the brothers remain close to their mother. Mama gave her blessing on her son's career, even if it does poke to her image. She still taste tests recipes and isn't afraid to give candid feedback.
"She's the one who gave me creative license with cooking when I was young," Bobby said. "She taught me there were no rules. She taught me then told me go with what feels right with you."