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Tuesday, April 27, 2010 - 11:06am

School Officials Tap Deen for Culinary Advice

The Georgia doyenne of Southern food whose cookbook was voted the decade's "unhealthiest" is partnering with Savannah public schools to develop a new culinary arts school.

Officials say the school's curriculum will be based on state standards and the recommendations of Paula Deen, the television celebrity chef whose cookbook doctors named the most artery-clogging of the past decade.

"What were they thinking?" says Mariela Orellana, who has two children, ages seven and eleven, in Savannah public schools. "She's not the picture of health and neither is her cooking."

Deen's "unhealthiest" title came in a January ranking from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates a healthy diet for disease prevention.

The chef is known for buttery and gut-busting recipes.

"I'm shocked. I'm speechless," says Maria Castro, who ran a local farmer's market and advocates for healthy food in Savannah. "It doesn't make sense to me."

School officials, however, stressed Deen's life story in their announcement Tuesday.

Schools superintendent Thomas Lockamy says, like many of his students, Deen came from humble beginnings and overcame obstacles.

"The fact is that we have a local person that has earned national and international recognition," says Lockamy. "I think it gives the students someone to identify with."

Deen says, Southern cooking has an unfair reputation, pointing to rutabagas, turnips and greens as examples of a vegetable-rich Southern diet based on moderation and outdoor activity.

"There's a dillusion out there," Deen says. "What people see me having fun with on my show is totally separated from actuality."

The school's emotional ribbon-cutting was marked by camera clicks.

A local television news reporter burst into tears upon hugging Deen.

"I can't wait to work with her," said Thaddeus Mitchell, a 10th grade student who proudly showed Deen a French three-fish pastry he helped make for the occassion. "She'll open up a lot more opporunities that we didn't have."

Deen said, the opening of the Paula Deen Academy of Culinary Arts is "the biggest honor of my life."