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Chef Vivian Howard on Southern Food and Her PBS Show

Photo: Official

Like many people, Vivian Howard moved to New York City to pursue some big dreams. After a stint in advertising, she attended culinary school, got jobs at respected restaurants such as Wylie Dufresne's wd~50 and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Spice Market, and found success in a catering business. But just as that business was poised to grow, Howard did the unexpected: She moved back to her regional home of Eastern North Carolina with her husband Ben Knight to open a restaurant.

In June 2006, Howard and Knight opened their 70-seat restaurant Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina. Though the restaurant had a shaky start — Howard notes that "cooking as a profession was not something that was respected" in the region at that time — it has become something of a destination restaurant. It's also now at the center of Howard's new PBS series, A Chef's Life, that explores regional food traditions and has attracted considerable attention. In the following interview, Howard talks about opening a restaurant in Eastern North Carolina, why she's obsessed with documenting obscure food traditions, and how her TV show has affected her restaurant and her community. She also reveals a little bit about her plans to write an "approachable" book about her regional cuisine.

I wanted to start off by asking how you got into cooking.
Well, I moved to New York after college, and I got a job in advertising. I worked there for a year and a half and became disenchanted rather quickly. I quit advertising and got a job working in a restaurant as a server in the West Village. [The restaurant] was called Voyage, and this was right after 9/11. The concept of the menu was Southern food via the African diaspora and the chef's name was Scott Barton. That was very new at that time. I grew up eating Southern food, my parents were farmers, but I had no real understanding of it as a thing. Scott Barton just opened my eyes to how cool Southern food was and cooking in general.

I decided I would start working in the kitchen there for free as a way to translate that experience into writing about food. [But] I did not write about food, I just kept cooking and eventually I went to [the Institute of Culinary Education]. Then I got an internship at wd~50 and I guess that's how I got into cooking. I did not set out to be a chef, honestly.

When you initially got the server position, was that just to get by or was the restaurant industry an active interest at that time?
It was definitely an active interest. I had worked in restaurants in college as a server and I loved food. I studied in Argentina during college and the whole focus of my study was the cuisine of Argentina. I wanted to work for a food magazine. I always wanted to work in food.

In my family, cooking as a profession was not something that was necessarily acceptable. Working in a restaurant was an obvious thing for me to do, but I thought it would just be for the time being. I loved working on the floor, I loved talking to people, I loved sharing the story of our food and the restaurant, and I made a lot of friends at this restaurant. I met my husband there. So while it may have been something I thought I would do temporarily, it's something I really enjoyed.

You said about how cooking wasn't seen as an acceptable profession in your family, but I know your parents offered to back you if you opened a restaurant in Eastern Carolina. How did their position on that shift?

In Eastern North Carolina at that time, cooking was not necessarily acceptable.

Well, they had always hoped that I would be a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer or possibly a writer. When I started working in a restaurant — as a waitress, as my mum liked to call it — that was extremely disappointing to her. Then when I started cooking — I was a short order cook, as she called it — that was equally disappointing. They came to visit a few times and they saw the types of places where I was working and the type of people I was working with and they realized that maybe restaurant culture was different than what they understood.

In Eastern North Carolina at that time, cooking as a profession was not something that was respected in any way. It shifted in larger cities maybe 15 years ago, but it's taken much longer in more remote parts of the country for it to become something that's well respected.

Chef & the Farmer [Photo: Official Site]

Why did you end up taking your parents up on their offer? Did you say yes to them right away?
No. At the time, my now-husband and I had this small catering business out of our apartment in Harlem where we were making these big batches of soup and then driving all over the city and delivering it ourselves. We were doing a lot to make ends meet, and two people were going to back us in our own legitimate storefront for our soup business. My parents caught wind of that and the last thing they wanted was for us to put real roots down in New York.

Ben, who's from Chicago, was very attracted to the situation. He grew up in a very small family and my family is big and very in your face. He found that very appealing. Now it may be different, but he was also attracted by the slower pace of Eastern North Carolina. And he's an artist and he felt as if he would have more time and space to practice his work here. He was really the advocate for moving down here to do this project. I'd like to say he talked me into it. He's giving me the finger right now he's sitting right beside me. (laughs)

Back to what you said about how the respect for cooking as a profession took a little longer to get to other parts of the country. You hear more and more about young cooks moving out of New York to start restaurants because of the economics. Did that play into your decision?
I moved to New York because I had lots of big dreams. When we moved home to open this restaurant, obviously I felt like I was kind of giving up and settling for something else. I can remember saying to myself when we were opening Chef & the Farmer, "God, I just don't want to be running this little restaurant in this little town for the rest of our lives." It's just not how I saw things playing out for myself. Now [my husband is] laughing at me.

Then we decided, yes, we are in this small town, no one appreciates what we're doing here, and people think it's a bad idea, but we're just going to keep plugging away. We're not going to let where we are determine the quality of work that we do and eventually someone will take notice. I think everyone wants to be recognized for the hard work that they do. When you're in the middle of nowhere and you feel like you're doing good things but there's no one to notice it ... I think that's one reason people don't do great things in the middle of nowhere.

Over time, people have come to respect cooking as a craft in our region.

We've been at this a long time. We've been open 8 years. Over time, people have come to respect cooking as a profession and as a craft in our region, and I think we've been a part of that.

It was kind of a rough start at first, right? I read in an interview that you were using techniques you learned at wd-50 and that sort of thing and then realized that that didn't really fly.
Yeah, when we opened Chef & the Farmer, I had never developed my own menu. I had not developed my own personal style, I was only drawing from what I had learned in the few restaurants I had worked in at the time. I had this experience at wd~50, I had the experience at Spice Market, I had this soup experience. Our first menu was kind of a cluster of all those things. I didn't know what I was doing. I was just throwing a dart and hoping to hit on something that people liked.

We struggled for a while with what sort of focus we were going to take — really for like two years — and then we started to adapt our regional food. Not just Southern food, but very specific regional food in a more modern context. And, no, I don't use the techniques that we would use at wd~50. Maybe I do now [use] the same ones that they used like 10 years ago. (laughs) The focus and the direction that we started to take by translating our regional food in a modern light seemed to be something that both people in our region and from other places found somewhat exciting.

Chef & the Farmer [Photo: Official Site]

What are the characteristics of your regional food and how is that different from Southern food generally?
Well, Eastern North Carolina's coastal plain is very agriculturally driven, so our regional food is very vegetable-based and also very grain-based, based on rice and on corn and, much like many Italian cuisines, we use meat as condiment. In our region, people had hog killings every Fall and they preserved [it] for late Fall and Winter, so we do a lot of that.

We make a very obscure regional sausage called Tom Thumb. When families [would] have a hog killing around Thanksgiving, in an effort not to waste anything they would stuff their hot sausage into the pig's appendix and hang the appendix in the smoke house until a celebration, which was either Christmas or New Year's. The appendix would shrink and cure and develop flavor and sometimes absorb smoke depending on where it was in the smoke house. Then they would boil that sausage, cook greens in the pot liquor of the sausage, and then slice the sausage and pan fry it. This is a relic that no one makes anymore that we kind of brought back to life in an effort to revamp our region's cuisine.

Your restaurant is a destination now. How did it become that way? Was it word of mouth?
We've never had a whole lot of national press or anything like that. It's been very much a word of mouth thing. We also happen to be on the way to our state coastline, so a lot of people will make us a stop along the way, which has proven very beneficial for us. In the past five or six years, several other businesses have popped up around our restaurant. One is a brewery, so that draws people. Then obviously our PBS series has prompted people from all kinds of places to come eat with us.

Yeah, no kidding. How did that come about for you?

I became totally obsessed with documenting these food traditions of my region.

Well, like four years ago my neighbors invited me to make something called collard kraut with them. Obviously I had heard of sauerkraut, but I had never heard of collard kraut so I went and spent the morning with these four 60-plus-year-old men and we made collard kraut in their back shed. This is something they've been doing their whole lives and they had all this folklore surrounding the kraut-making experience. I just became totally obsessed with documenting some of these food traditions of my region like collard kraut, hog killing, all these very specific things that really only our parents' generation holds the knowledge for it.

I was very concerned that all this information would die with their generation, so I wanted to film it. I have a friend who is a documentary film maker, her name is Cynthia Hill, and I contacted her about helping me film these things. So we just got this little pilot around the subject of sweet corn in Eastern North Carolina during the Summer. Families used to come together for a day or two every Summer and put up corn through for Winter. My family did that and we filmed that and then we filmed the story of sweet corn translated through our restaurant and through our community.

We made this little short pilot and we sent it to PBS just to kind of see if we were totally crazy. It's not a cooking show and it's not necessarily a lifestyle show; it's a hybrid and we just wanted to see what they thought. They thought it was great. They told us they wanted us to make 13 of them, so we made 13 of them and that's how all that happened. It's a very unusual way to go about making a television series.

Why did you decide to send it to PBS?
Well, if you watch an episode you'll see that it really wouldn't fit anywhere else and we kind of knew that. The great thing about working with PBS is that they don't tell you want to do, they don't tell you this needs to be in there. They really gave you the freedom to make the show or the series that you want, and that's what we wanted to do. We didn't want to have it sensationalized in any way. So that's the big advantage to working with PBS.

Chef & the Farmer [Photo: Official Site]

How has the reception been for you so far?
It's been great. The show started airing in September and we had wonderful carriage and great markets. In New York, it aired at 7:30pm on Sunday nights which is an amazing time slot for a food show. It's been the number one search on PBS food for over 30 weeks and that's above Mind of a Chef or any of the Martha Stewart shows. For a production that had no PR dollars and no real sponsor, that's really crazy. People are really responding to the content and the entertainment quality of it all.

Much of that is because Cynthia, the director, is so talented. Actually her most recent film Private Violence is going to premiere at Sundance this weekend. We have a lot of very talented people working on the project. The Avett Brothers did the music for the opening. The response has been amazing, our restaurant seats have been full, we have been given so many opportunities recently that are just really wonderful. We're very grateful.

What kinds of opportunities?
People suddenly want to hear me talk. I'm working on a book. We're working on season two of the show. We're working on a holiday special for season two, which we filmed much of it this December, it'll air next December. Lots of things like that. We have two children who are almost 3 years old, so a lot of the opportunities that someone in my position would jump all over, I'm not in a position to do that because I kind of just want to stay at home. Does that make any sense?

Yeah. And how has that changed things at the restaurant? You said that it's been full.
Well, in several ways. First of all, filming the show in the restaurant for season one was extremely stressful because no one on our staff or any of our customers really believed that this was actually going to happen. So to have the cameras there in the way when we're trying to actually get ready for service and serve people was very stressful. We felt pretty nervous about having the cameras in the dining room as people were dining because we didn't want to ruin their dining experience. Now that the show has aired, our staff is excited about it because they see themselves on TV and people in the community are excited about it. They don't mind the cameras being there quite as much.

For people to want to invest money in our community is really exciting for all of us.

Those are two ways that it's changed. Another is just that we have people clamoring to eat with us. When you're a restaurant like ours in a community like ours, it's hard to count on diners. The other thing is that we've had several businesses open around the restaurant recently, and there's an amazing energy in our community about the prospects of more economic development in our region. Eastern North Carolina has been one of the most economically depressed regions in the whole country for a long time, so for people to want to travel here and invest money in our community is really exciting for all of us.

I'm sure it must feel really good to be part of that.
It absolutely does.

Finally, I want to do some due diligence and ask you a little more about the book that you mentioned. What kind of book are you planning?
I don't know if I can really say because I haven't sold it, but I have an agent and I've written a proposal and we're supposed to go sell it in the next few weeks. But it'll be approachable, and I'm actually writing it. One of my initial goals was to write about food, so the opportunity to write a book that is anecdotal about my experience in Eastern North Carolina and the cuisine of Eastern North Carolina is a longstanding dream of mine.

· All Vivian Howard Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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Chef & the Farmer

120 W. Gordon St. Kinston, NC 28501