Celebrity chef Paula Deen has taken a big hit, both financially and to her reputation, from recent allegations that she's a horrible boss who uses racial slurs and other insults on her restaurant employees. One of those employees, Dora Charles, confirms all that in a new interview with The New York Times (watch below), but adds a personal touch.
"For 22 years," says Kim Severson at The New York Times, "Charles was the queen of the Deen kitchens. She helped open the Lady & Sons, the restaurant here that made Ms. Deen's career." Deen called Charles, who is black, her "soul sister," and praised her as an expert on Southern cooking. Dora Charles "developed recipes, trained other cooks, and made sure everything down to the collard greens tasted right," Severson says.
The two women met when Charles applied for a job at the Best Western kitchen Deen was managing, and for years they celebrated their birthdays — one day apart — together. They aren't on speaking terms now, and the Times interview won't help mend their relationship. Here, the three worst allegations Charles makes against her longtime employer:
1. Deen allegedly asked black employees to dress like "Aunt Jemima"
This is the accusation that has elicited the most outrage: According to Charles and other employees, Deen asked Ineata "Jellyroll" Jones, another longtime employee who grew close to Deen, "to dress in an old-style Aunt Jemima outfit." She had Jones making hoecakes at a public station where guests could watch.
Through her publicity team, Deen denies asking anyone to dress as Aunt Jemima.
2. Deen wanted Charles to ring a dinner bell
In another bit of "restaurant theater," The Times' Severson says, Deen asked Charles to stand out in front of Lady & Sons when it opened at 11 a.m., ringing an iron dinner bell. Charles refused. "I said 'I'm not ringing no bell,'" she tells The Times. "That's a symbol to me of what we used to do back in the day." She doesn't mean the 1970s.
Ineata Jones did agree, though, and Deen turned a photo of her doing so into a postcard sold at her gift shops. She also features the photo on the homepage of her restaurant:
"Jones, who has limited reading and writing skills, makes $10 an hour," says Severson. "She said in a telephone interview that she had only positive comments about Ms. Deen and declined to speak further for this article."
3. Deen promised Charles wealth, then paid her less than $7 an hour
Early on in their relationship, Charles says, Deen made her a promise: "Stick with me, Dora, and I promise you one day if I get rich you'll get rich." When Deen got rich, even years after she hit the big time on the Food Network, Charles earned $6.50 an hour. Charles tells The Times that she didn't think she needed to get Deen's promise in writing, "'cause we were real close back then."
Charles started earning a lot more — $71,000 a year — after she filed a claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Paula Deen's son Jamie, who put Charles on salary at the time, says it wasn't related to the EEOC claim, which came about after a white manager at Deen's Uncle Bubba's Oyster House, Lisa Jackson, told Charles in 2010 that she was earning less than white employees who had worked at the restaurant for much less time.
(Jackson's claims of racial and sexual harassment formed the basis of the federal lawsuit that led to Deen's career-derailing deposition in which she admitted to using the N-word.)
Deen's publicity team tells The Times: "Fundamentally Dora's complaint is not about race but about money. It is about an employee that despite over 20 years of generosity feels that she still deserves yet even more financial support from Paula Deen."
"Painting Charles as greedy is a logical move for Deen's camp, and it's likely to be effective," says Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress. "But it's an ugly approach, beyond the personal relationship between Deen and Charles." There's a long history of underpaying black people as a way to maintain white power, Rosenberg says, and "suggesting that racial justice and economic justice are different things is an attempt to obscure the long relationship between money and racial oppression."
Charles, who still worked for Deen at the time of the interview, says she doesn't expect more money, especially after going public with her story. "I'm not trying to portray that she is a bad person," Charles tells The Times. "I'm just trying to put my story out there that she didn't treat me fairly and I was her soul sister."