For Vivian Howard, It’s a Wonderful Chef’s Life
Like many Southerners, Vivian Howard grew up shelling butter beans and putting up corn. But that didn’t mean a lot of cooking lessons at home – a surprise to many who recognize Howard from her Kinston restaurant, Chef and the Farmer, or her national public television show, A Chef’s Life.
“I didn’t grow up at my mother’s hip learning to bake biscuits or anything,” says Howard, whose parents raised hogs and tobacco in Deep Run. “My mother has had rheumatoid arthritis since she was 15, so all the cooking done in our house was minimal.”
One of the few items her mother did cook was a simple one-pot dish, chicken and rice.
“People always have this thing that was comfort food from childhood, and this was ours,” Howard says. “I grew up thinking that it was just something my mom made, but I really think it’s one of these unsung Southern dishes. People don’t exalt it the same way they do fried chicken, barbecue and cornbread – but we all grew up eating it.”
Delving into Southern food culture is a passion of Howard’s, illustrated through her show, but one she discovered while studying abroad in Argentina years before she dreamed of running a restaurant.
“I was doing an independent study about culture with a focus on the country’s food,” she says. “At that point, I got really interested in how food and culture link and started to examine that in my own life.”
Howard realized how much she enjoyed cooking while attending North Carolina State University. But as a journalism major, that was just a hobby. Upon graduation, she moved to New York City and found a job in advertising. She also found her niche in the culinary world.
“I became fascinated by the city’s food culture, from low end to high end,” she says. “I spent all of my extra income on food, whether it was a hot dog on the street or saving up to go to Le Cirque.”
Unhappy with her job, Howard left the advertising world aspiring to become a food writer. But working at a West Village restaurant called Voyage altered her perspective – and her career path. The restaurant’s chef, Scott Barton, focused his menu on Southern food by way of Africa, diving deep into how it came to be and where it came from.
“I had never really thought about the food I ate growing up like that,” she says. Howard enrolled in a culinary program intending to translate her experience into a writing job, but those ambitions soon changed. “I found out pretty quickly that working in restaurants is kind of addictive, intoxicating,” she says.
Despite a love for her newfound industry, she no longer had the same fondness for big-city living. So when her parents offered to help her open a restaurant back home in North Carolina, she and her now-husband, Ben Knight, planned what they thought would be a temporary move.
Chef and the Farmer opened in 2006, unlike anything Lenoir County had ever seen. Howard and Knight had chosen the location based in part on the proximity to her family, renovating an old mule stable across from the farmers market in downtown Kinston.
The farm-to-table movement wasn’t yet a buzzword, and Howard had to seek out farmers to help grow her ingredients. But by incorporating Southern tradition and regional culture into her menu, the restaurant has become a mainstay of the community. Farmers come to them selling greenhouse lettuces or small batches of goat cheese.
“We’re going into our ninth year, so now people kind of find us,” Howard says. And more are finding the restaurant through her documentary-style television show, A Chef’s Life. “Several years ago, I became really fascinated with documenting these dying food traditions in our region,” she says.
One Thanksgiving, she was invited by a neighbor to make collard kraut, which sparked the idea behind her show. “I started thinking about similar food traditions, what people used to do but don’t anymore,” she says. Calling upon the directing experience of her friend Cynthia Hill, they decided to experiment with the concept.
They shot the episode on putting up sweet corn before finding a station to air it. The show debuted on PBS affiliates across the country in fall 2013, covering everything from grits and buttermilk to collards and cracklins. The second season, which started in October, follows the same format of highlighting one ingredient or tradition each week.
“We study turnips, Tom Thumb sausage, butter beans, ramps and eggs,” Howard says. “I’m especially excited about sharing the story behind the little-known Tom Thumb. It’s a relic from the hog-killing tradition in Eastern North Carolina where people stuffed their hot sausage mix into a pig’s appendix. It hangs and cures for several weeks, and is then boiled and sliced. It’s an all-but-lost art, and we dedicate two episodes to it this season.”
Even with her experience as a chef, Howard says the show has made her realize how little she actually knew. However, she now applies the old-school techniques she’s learned into her more modern style of cooking. For Hill, directing and producing A Chef’s Life has been a walk down memory lane.
“I have enjoyed rediscovering all of these things that I saw in my grandma’s kitchen growing up,” Hill says. “I grew up in the neighboring town, Pink Hill, so Vivian and I have a lot in common when it comes to food traditions. I love it when we talk about an ingredient, and both of us remember the same thing or dish with that ingredient. For me, this show is like going home.”
– Jessy Yancey
Chef and the Farmer
The latest season of A Chef’s Life airs this fall. Check your local PBS listings for air dates. For more information on the show, visit achefslifeseries.com.
Chef and the Farmer is located at 120 W. Gordon St. in downtown Kinston. It’s open from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday. For reservations, call (252) 208-2433 or visit chefandthefarmer.com.