BBQ Sauce for the Soul

When he's not catering for the president, barbecue maven Eddie Deen caters to the spirits of the indigent

Deen made the most of these events, tirelessly working behind the service line, circulating, pressing palms and adding to his Rolodex of North Texas' power players. "Every time you saw Eddie...he always had a pitcher of tea in one hand and a pitcher of lemonade in the other, going around refilling people's drinks and talking to people as they were eating," says John Gilbert, a former operations vice president for Deen who is now a competitor through his own company, Gilbert & Keller Custom Catering in Fort Worth. "He connected and made a lot of relationships that way, and that's how it grew so quickly."

Deen's business burgeoned after he catered the Bush inaugural ball in Austin. In 1996 he opened Eddie Deen's Ranch to handle the onslaught of special events; the 36,000-square-foot special facility is in an old dress factory and warehouse near the Dallas Convention Center. This was supplemented with a special-events venue in Deep Ellum and a commissary kitchen installed in an old meat locker in Terrell.

Deen had all the tools in place to take advantage of Bush ambitions, and he deployed them to full effect once Bush lunged for the presidency in 2000. He catered fund-raising events, including a Super Bowl party in New Hampshire during the Republican primary. He was selected to cater an event for the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Then Mr. Deen went to Washington.

Abacus chef Kent Rathbun says working the first Bush inauguration was a once-in-a-lifetime proposition, though not for Eddie Deen.
Tom Jenkins
Abacus chef Kent Rathbun says working the first Bush inauguration was a once-in-a-lifetime proposition, though not for Eddie Deen.

Because of the vagaries and delays stemming from the 2000 Florida recount, Deen had just 12 days to marshal his forces, head to Washington and feed some 22,000 celebrants, which included attendees to the Texas and Wyoming Ball at the Washington Convention Center. "It was the most intense thing that I have been a part of," Gilbert says. "I felt like I was running a MASH unit."

While Deen tacked down the low end of the feeding scale, Abacus chef Kent Rathbun handled the more upscale fare. "We were honored to be a part of it, man," Rathbun says. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Sounds like Eddie's got it twice in a lifetime."

But as management conflicts and the stresses associated with high-profile national events and the enormous growth of his company began to mount, Deen turned inward. He began to study psychology and philosophy in earnest, mostly to understand what drives people from cooperation to warfare. Anthony Robbins' Awaken the Giant Within struck a chord. "Third chapter, second page," Deen specifies, pulling the book from a shelf in his disheveled Dallas office. "'The forces that cause anybody to do anything are avoiding pain and seeking pleasure.' It struck so hard. It blew me away." Yet he says he found the rest of Robbins' book utterly useless.

So he riffled through other books: Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a little bit of Freud and a lot of the Bible. The works of Abraham Maslow and Albert Einstein figured prominently as well. But the most influential mold shaping Deen's thinking came from Benjamin Franklin. "You just keep going back in history, and you nearly always end up at Benjamin Franklin," he says. "Take lightning. The whole world looked at it as an act of God. He looked at it as a force of nature."

The force of Franklin drove Deen to mold his own ideas, which he boiled down to seven principles for an effective life: respect; cooperation; communication--listen to understand; responsibility--no blame and no excuses; purpose--be beneficial to others; integrity--"walk the talk"; and daily study to keep the mind of a student. Deen animates his principles through bread-making classes he hosts for corporate clients and other groups, assigning a principle to each ingredient in the loaf.

"He wants to get inside people's brains and understand what makes them tick," Gilbert says. "For Eddie, every single day is a quest."

Strange how this quest landed him in the company of the indigent. Deen says he was fascinated by the idea of offering his principles to the homeless because he was struck by how inept current remedies are at jolting people out of their cycles of unproductive behaviors. Current shelters and counseling programs do little more than feed and warehouse, he says. "They really don't understand the mechanics of transformation," Deen insists.

One of the main problems, he says, is the Christian element that often infuses the recovery canon. The trouble, as he sees it, is that many of the people swept up in these shelters have an instinctual revulsion to its core dictums, a resistance honed by their experiences. The very idea of teaching them about "God the Father" is absurd, Deen says, because to many of them "father" is an untrustworthy icon subconsciously representing tyranny and abandonment. "Fundamentally, the Christian God is love," Deen says. "So if you don't feel lovable, how can somebody teach you what God is? All of a sudden there is a disconnect, and I started seeing a lot of disconnect."

What Deen attempts to unravel is why these people feel unlovable, taking them back to their childhoods to discover where and how their interpretations of love and worthiness went awry. His process has a strong whiff of Freudian pop. Instead of subjecting his wards to years of psychoanalysis merely to remember and bring ideas and impulses shaped during childhood into adult consciousness, Deen seeks to shock his subjects into transforming their thinking and perceptions. "If I can tell how somebody got where they're at, then I can teach them how to get out of it," he says. "The ones who keep falling in the ditch, they have not dealt with all of their past conditions." They don't understand that the primary purpose in life is to add value to other people, to be of service to other people, he says. "The idea in life is that if you want to be one of the haves, you have to create benefits for other people."

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