Vivian Howard’s new cookbook Deep Run Roots weighs as much as a newborn, but if you're hoping to find a fried chicken recipe somewhere in its nearly 600 pages, you'll be sorely disappointed. The eastern North Carolina-based chef, restaurant owner, and Peabody Award-winning co-creator and star of PBS show A Chef’s Life uses her book to highlight the more vegetable-oriented stars of Southern cooking. Just before the book’s release, Howard swung by the Eater Upsell studios to chat with Helen Rosner and special guest host (and Eater editor-in-chief) Amanda Kludt about homemade ketchup, the price of tea, and Hollywood's eye roll-inducing portrayal of chefs.
p>As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 2, Episode 14: Vivian Howard, edited to just the interview, below.
Vivian Howard: I didn't set out with the intention to write a 600-page book, but I got into cooking because I wanted to be a food writer. I feel so silly saying that to y'all. But when I had the opportunity to do this, I took it. There's a lot of stories in the book, that's really what makes it so big. I fully intended — or expected — my editor to slash it and take a lot of it away, but they didn't. I guess that's why it's so big.
Amanda Kludt: It's beautiful. Can you go over a little bit about the organization of the book, because it's not super traditional?
Helen Rosner: Wait, before we do that, I have to marvel at the physical size of this. For those of you who have not picked it up yet because of our audio show — picked up on the sheer enormity of the physical object that we're describing — this is 567 pages, or something? That's a huge number! It's a physically tall and wide book.
Vivian: Yeah. It weighs the same as my daughter did when she was born.
Helen: I hear people talk about finishing their cookbooks like delivering a child, and you literally birthed a human baby.
"I didn't set out with the intention to write a 600-page book, but I got into cooking because I wanted to be a food writer."
Amanda: It's like The Joy of Cooking, or one of those giant compendiums.
Vivian: It's not The Joy of Cooking because I'm not that accomplished, but there's a lot of stories. There's a photo for every recipe, too, and that takes up a lot of space.
Helen: Oh, it's gorgeous.
Vivian: And there are really beautiful illustrations that open up every chapter. It's organized like our show, where every chapter is about an ingredient and we go really deep into that ingredient. There's humble recipes and more sophisticated recipes, and there's a story that connects that ingredient to my life, or my history, or my region in some way. The way the book flows is really personal, and not by the alphabet. "Alphabetical" is what that would be called. It's a novel way to organize it. That's another thing that I felt like my publisher might say no to, but they didn't.
Helen: Something I really love, especially for a book of this size, is that you have five different tables of contents. There are so many different ways to approach it. You can come at it from an alphabetical organization, which I guess is what the index does. Then there's by ingredient —
Vivian: Right. If you just want to make a soup, there's an index: Here's all the soups, or sides, or breakfast, or snacks. Because we wanted people to be able to use the book, and that's not really the way that I've set it up.
Vivian: Except if you go to the farmer's market and you buy rutabagas, there's a whole chapter on how to use a rutabaga.
Helen: How do you use other cookbooks? Do you start index first or recipe first?
Vivian: I read them like a book, from start to finish. I'm typically more interested in all the stories and the headnotes and the titles of recipes versus the recipes themselves.
Helen: Season three of your show, A Cook's Life, dealt a lot with the process of writing the book. Which, maybe I'm skeptical, but I feel like watching someone write a book is not something I would immediately think of as good TV. But it was riveting. There was so much conflict.
Amanda: There was so much stress around it, and you go to your friend's cookbook signing and you're like, "Oh, my cookbook is overdue."
Helen: Did you have a sense when you were gearing up to write the book that it was going make for a season of the show, or did it come naturally?
Vivian: No. The way the show works is we basically film whatever it is I'm doing —
Helen: I say that as a compliment. I think that show is brilliant.
"I just don't want to be raising a bunch of little Kardashians, which is something I worry about with my children being on the show."
Vivian: Oh, well good. I just don't want to be raising a bunch of little Kardashians, which is something I worry about with my children being on the show. But writing is what I was doing, so we filmed it. I was really nervous about covering the process of the book, because when you shine a light on something that you're doing before it comes out in the real world — I opened myself up to so much scrutiny. I was nervous about that because I really wanted the book to matter, and for people to take it seriously and enjoy it. But it just made sense. Cynthia, the director, is always trying to find whatever is bothering me the most in my work life, and zero in on that, and this was stressful. The photo shoots, meeting my editor, who wasn't my editor in the beginning. That was something that was a big source of stress for me, so that's where they're going to be. If something's hard, they're going to be filming it.
Helen: That feels like it would be its own form of stress.
Vivian: It is. They're going to with us on the book tour, at least the first part of it. There's always the stress of the event or whatever I'm doing, and then also the little gnats in my ear that — sorry to call them gnats, but you know what I mean. They're just very close —
Helen: Of course.
Vivian: Trying to catch everything that I'm doing.
Helen: I think for a lot of cooks, especially cooks with TV presences, they'll write their book because they want to share who they really are, and share their true story and their true voice. And that's often because these are folks who host competition shows, or do stand-and-stirs, and in your case, your show reveals pretty starkly who you really are.
Vivian: Yeah. People already know a lot about me.
Helen: How did you translate that to the book as an additionally autobiographical object?
Vivian: In the show, you see who I am, but based on what I'm doing at the moment. A lot of the stories in the book are related to my childhood, eastern North Carolina's history, and people that I've met along the way. One of the stories I wrote is about Miss Lillie, who teaches me a lot on the show. She taught me how to make biscuits, she taught me to stew rutabagas, she teaches me how to be humble all the time. Then an other story is about Ms. Barwick, who teaches me to make hand pies — just the additional impact that they have had on me that you don't necessarily see in the show.
Amanda: This comes up in the show a lot, but I know from reading the intro to the book that you did not always approach food this way. I think our audience at home might not know the show, or might not have read this yet, so can you talk a little bit about how your approach evolved? Because when you first moved back home, you brought all of these tricks you learned from New York, and you wanted the farmers to grow vegetables just for you. but then had to learn to cook with these native ingredients.
Vivian: Right, yeah. When I moved back to North Carolina, I was not in love with the idea of being there. I felt, in a lot of ways, like the failed cliché. "If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere." Well I couldn't, so I came home. And that was really painful. I was still very much connected to New York culture, and the restaurants and ingredients, so I think I was kind of arrogant. I did not see the food that I grew up eating as valuable, or interesting, or multi-layered, or anything like that. I was cooking sad versions of things that I had done here or seen here [in New York]. I'm being a little bit hard on myself, the food was good. It was fine. But I wasn't speaking to anyone. Then by a little twist of fate, I ended up making this barbecue chicken that was in the spirit of eastern North Carolina-style vinegar-based barbecue. And people were crying — not really, but —
Helen: This is the blueberry barbecue chicken, right?
Helen: I think that's such a perfect twist. You made it your own, but it was very much of the place.
Vivian: Right. It was familiar but different, and it doesn't compete with anyone's memories of their own barbecue chicken, but it touches people, I guess.
Helen: That's really interesting, the idea of competing with memories. I never really gave this much thought, but it makes a lot of sense that when you want to connect to someone's sense of nostalgia, it's a delicate balance.
"I felt like the failed cliché. 'If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.' Well I couldn't, so I came home."
Vivian: It is. You want to get close enough that you remind them of it, but you don't want to try and replace it or top it. Because I think you'll always fail. That's the whole ketchup thing. Homemade ketchup: Just stop making it.
Helen: It's never good.
Vivian: Yeah. Because that taste memory is so imprinted in us.
Helen: It's encoded in our DNA. You're a Heinz person or a Hunt's person, and then nobody is anything else.
Helen: Nobody is a house-made ketchup person.
Helen: If they are, they're lying.
Vivian: They're lying.
Vivian: I can appreciate some house-made ketchups, but I'm still going to buy Heinz and favor it, especially if I'm in the car alone with some fries.
Helen: Yeah. Are you also mayo-partisan?
Vivian: I am.
Helen: Are you Duke's, ride or die?
Vivian: I am. Well, it's interesting, because I was raised on Miracle Whip.
Helen: Shut up.
Amanda: Me too.
Vivian: I know, I know.
Amanda: Oh, yeah. Big time.
Helen: I'm learning so much about both of you.
Amanda: Now I really don't have a taste for it, but —
Helen: Because Miracle Whip is disgusting.
Amanda: For years and years that's all I would put on sandwiches, because that's all I knew. And mayonnaise seemed kind of disgusting to me. But then I grew up a little bit.
Vivian: I became involved with the Southern Foodways Alliance, and they're so cool, just a team of brethren with Duke's tattoos and shirts and hats, and I'm like, "What is this?" I just played along. Nobody was wearing a Miracle Whip shirt, that's for sure. So I went home and got some Duke's and actually fell in love with it.
Helen: You're converted.
Vivian: I'm converted.
Helen: I do think that Duke's has more in common in Miracle Whip than it does with Hellmann's. They both have that very sweet element to them, but it doesn't have the gross thing that Miracle Whip has going on.
Vivian: If I'm correct, Duke's doesn't have any sugar in it.
Vivian: That's its defining characteristic. But it has a lemony thing — I don't think it has lemon in it, but it calls that to mind. I know this because we just did a mayonnaise episode.
Amanda: Oh, wow.
Helen: That's going to be controversial.
Vivian: We did a blind — we like stripped —
Amanda: Did you make your own and then —
Vivian: No, we tasted Duke's, Miracle Whip, Hellman's, and Blue Plate.
Helen: Oh, yeah.
Vivian: All blindly, no clues or anything. When you do that, without the label to sway you, you can really taste the mayonnaise.
Helen: Which one won?
Vivian: I can't tell.
Amanda: Oh, no.
Helen: Oh, no.
Amanda: Was there a division, or was the one clear winner?
Vivian: There was a small division.
Helen: I feel like your Southern audience is going to rise up —
Vivian: I know.
Helen: If it's not Duke's.
Vivian: I know. I'll never tell.
Helen: It's not even on the show?
Helen: Oh, so it wasn't Duke's. It definitely wasn't Duke's!
Amanda: Oh, wow.
Vivian: No, no, no, that's not why. It's because on PBS, we can't say anything that would convince you to go buy a brand.
Vivian: We had the answer in the show, and PBS came back and said, "That's too promotional."
Amanda: That is TV editing I would not have expected.
Vivian: PBS is different. It's a different breed, for sure.
Helen: What else do you have to keep in mind because you're on PBS instead of on network?
Vivian: Well, you can't cuss.
"They let us make a show about eastern North Carolina! It's so wild."
Amanda: Was that a big problem?
Vivian: In the beginning, yeah, because I worked in a kitchen my whole adult life and I loved to say stuff.
Helen: In three years, your show will be on HBO and will be all F-bombs and no one will wear a shirt.
Amanda: So much product placement.
Vivian: I would say, "Jesus Christ," instead of the other thing I was saying, and they came back and said, "You can say, ‘Jesus' or ‘Christ', but you can't put them together."
Helen: That's incredible.
Vivian: You can't show brands. Our sponsors, in the spots that they have, the people can't look like they're having a good time.
Vivian: Biltmore is a sponsor of the show, and they have this ad at the end that's really nice, it's people drinking wine and clinking their glasses. PBS came back and said, "Please take the smiling people out of the spot. They look like they're having a good time at Biltmore."
Helen: That's really crazy! I guess there's a certain logic to it, where if you're just showing a still frame of the building it's a fact, and people being happy is subjective? I'm trying to make this work.
Vivian: That one. That comment. We all just sat back and scratched our heads, but I actually understand and admire the principle behind it, and it's one of the reasons I'm really proud to be on PBS. Because there's no ulterior messaging. We can just make the show that we want to make.
Amanda: They're not pushing you to be more dramatic or have more conflict?
Helen: Or hold up a Pepsi can.
Amanda: Right, it's the opposite, you're not allowed.
Vivian: I mean, they let us make a show about eastern North Carolina! It's so wild.
Amanda: For those that haven't seen it, every episode is dedicated to one ingredient.
Amanda: You learn all about it, and someone — usually some sort of grandmother — teaches you how to cook a traditional dish, and then you serve it on the menu in the restaurant. It is not the most scintillating on paper, but you watch it and it's fascinating.
Vivian: Yeah. I think that it's a really lucky mix of things that work. Cynthia, the director of the show, is a brilliant storyteller, and she's also from eastern North Carolina. She grew up about mile from me, so we both get the subject matter.
Helen: Did you guys know each other when you were growing up?
Vivian: Yeah. Her sister, her younger sister, is a good friend of mine. Cynthia made a film about eastern North Carolina and tobacco called Tobacco Money Feeds My Family. I just love the way she represented our people there. It's a really a delicate thing when you're trying to tell a story about rural folks, wanting to highlight their wisdom and their way of life. So yes, I knew her growing up, and approached her about doing this project.
Helen: You do strike that balance really carefully in the show, where you're respectful and appreciative of the wisdom of people who are older than you are, or people that might come from like a slightly different social or cultural group, without pushing it into this realm of them being mystical figures without humanity beyond what they can teach to us, which is really extraordinary. I'm assuming that was an intentional choice in how you constructed the show.
Vivian: Yeah, absolutely. Our goal is to show all people as people, myself included. I'm appreciative of the people that we have the show because they let us do that, and they're honest and open and share so much of themselves with us. But there's no reason to make people what they're not. I think it's refreshing and people are responding to it.
Amanda: Have people approached you for more opportunities now? I'm sure the cookbook was one, but is there more because of the show and the success of it?
Vivian: Not really anything that I want to do.
Helen: No Vivian Howard: The Movie?
Vivian: Actually, that's interesting.
Helen: Oh, really?
Vivian: Someone approached us about a series, a dramatic series on television that would be based around my life.
Helen: This is will be the topless, swearing HBO show.
Vivian: Yes, exactly.
Amanda: With branding everywhere.
Vivian: But I don't want that right now.
Amanda: There's a good narrative there about you, for the listeners that don't know. You left home when you were, what, a freshman in high school? To go to boarding school, because you were so desperate to get out of the countryside. And then spent the next decade, escaping home. Then you were called back home after spending time in New York and in Argentina —
Helen: I would totally watch this.
Amanda: I would buy that script. Yeah.
Vivian: The other thing that they said, which I thought was really interesting, is that they've tried to do restaurant-based things before, because restaurant culture's so hot. But because it's always been based on the restaurant, it's never really worked, so they felt like this was a different angle. They're also interested in a Southern, strong woman, and I just saw this Reba McEntire thing happening.
Helen: It's something we actually talk about pretty frequently in the Eater office, how often TV and movies try to show food culture, and how absolutely consistently they completely fail.
"Natalie Portman can learn to be a prima ballerina , but we can't have an actor learn to hold a knife."
Vivian: I know. I get excited about something, like, "This is going to be it!" Then I watch it and just get so pissed off.
Amanda: Oh, yeah. We went to see Burnt as an office and it was horrifying.
Vivian: You were burnt, I'm sure.
Amanda: It was so bad.
Helen: They will always be like, "Such-and-such famous chef consulted, and was there on set everyday, and made sure everyone held their knife properly." And then it's garbage.
Helen: It's so depressing. There is such natural drama to a restaurant and to a kitchen, but I guess you can't just be like, "Oh, food is trendy. We'll make the main character a chef and it's done."
Vivian: It's so interesting to me, because you're right about the knife work and holding a knife. I watched a movie where they're commenting on how great his knife work is, and he's sitting there jamming it on the cutting board. It's the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen. Who's the actress who did the ballet?
Helen: Natalie Portman?
Vivian: Natalie Portman can learn to be a prima ballerina —
Vivian: But we can't have an actor learn to hold a knife.
Helen: Yeah. I wonder why it never really lands.
Vivian: They need a good consult.
Amanda: Maybe the good people aren't saying, "Yes."
Helen: Yeah. Yeah, that's right.
Amanda: Maybe you need to get in there and fix it.
Vivian: Maybe. I'll consult. It just doesn't have to be about me.
Amanda: Right. You don't need to sign away your life story —
Amanda: For them to mangle.
Helen: Did you think that you were going to be a star? Did you expect that your life would take you in this direction, where you would have your face on the cover of a cookbook?
Vivian: I don't think of myself as a star, so, no.
Amanda: You technically do star in a TV show about yourself.
Vivian: I do — no, I host.
Helen: You can call it whatever you want, but Amanda and I are going to quietly and behind your back refer to you as a star.
Vivian: Well, thank you. All my sisters, they call me a star. They're very proud. My dad calls me — he's always called me "Big Time," so maybe I was destined for this. It makes me a little bit uncomfortable. I'd like to turn the book over right now and look at the backside.
Helen: Well, your hair is different now.
Vivian: Yeah. It is. When I was done with the book, that's when I cut my hair. I was talking to my editor and I said, "Yeah, I just got a major haircut." He said that's very common when people turn in a book, or they want a change. So —
Helen: It's like the breakup haircut.
Vivian: I guess so.
Helen: When you get out of a relationship, you're like, "Okay, I'm going —"
Amanda: I did it as soon as I had my baby. The next week, the first time I left the house, I got a haircut.
Amanda: I was like, "I need a new something. I need to be a new person."
Vivian: Cynthia, the director of the show, was very upset —
Helen: That you cut your hair?
Amanda: Oh, no.
Vivian: Yeah. Because I shouldn't change my look mid-season.
Helen: Again, a secret of television that never really occurred to me.
Amanda: Did you have to go back and film things for an older episode?
Vivian: We do all the parts where I sit in front of the camera and talk, we do all of those in two days. I just change shirts.
Vivian: And it won't work if my hair is different.
Helen: You could get extensions.
"Homemade ketchup: Just stop making it."
Amanda: They have ways to make it work.
Vivian: We'll make it work. I'm like, "Can I just say, ‘Hey y'all, I got a haircut'?" We have a little while until that matters, so I'm hoping it will grow.
Helen: Sure. Time heals everything.
Amanda: Helen was asking if you always wanted to be a star, and you were about to be very humble about it, but I think in the intro to your book you mention that you always wanted to make it big in New York, but you thought it was going to be in maybe writing or advertising at some point.
Vivian: I wanted to be a journalist. I got a job in advertising, which was the closest thing I could get to a job in journalism. I have always wanted to be a storyteller, and don't we all want to feel like the work that we do is really good and noticed by others?
Helen: Yeah. We're both journalists, so yeah.
Vivian: Yeah. I can believe that what I'm doing is quality, but until somebody else tells me it is, I have a really hard time believing it deep down.
Helen: Yeah. Everybody needs external approval. Just like those people who say that they prefer house-made ketchup. Anyone who says otherwise is totally lying.
Vivian: Yeah. They're totally lying.
Helen: Everyone likes bottled ketchup and approval. Right?
Helen: That's pretty universal.
Vivian: That's one of my issues with my profession and many of the people in it: We're required to wear this shield of armor that implies we know everything there is to know about food, and that we're some kind of transcendent bad-ass. I just don't believe that. I don't believe that those people believe that.
Helen: When you say "your profession" —
Helen: You wear so many hats. Do you think of yourself still as a chef?
Vivian: I don't know how I describe myself. I think a chef is someone who runs a kitchen and does it on a daily basis, and I don't do that right now. I would like to do more of that, but maybe on my own terms. I don't know. I don't know how to describe myself. That's a good question that I should probably figure out.
Amanda: You don't necessarily need to.
Helen: It's cool. We're just getting to therapy territory.
Vivian: I know. I'm like, "Uh —"
Amanda: Speaking of therapy, I'm going to use this to segue and talk a little bit about running a business with your family. I know you own the business with your husband, and your two adorable children show up in the show quite a bit, but also it was your parents and your in-law, and I guess your sister, that brought you back. Does that complicate things a lot, or is it something that's added new richness to your life?
Vivian: Working with your spouse is definitely hard. I run the kitchen, he runs the front of the house, and those two roles are setup in opposition. The front of the house and the kitchen, in most restaurants, there's —
Amanda: Very adversarial.
Vivian: Yeah. There's a tension. That has been the biggest challenge, and it's actually been really good for our marriage, for me to not be at the pass at night. Then with my parents — I'm the baby. I have three older sisters, and while they have always believed in me, they always treated me like the baby. When we moved back and were going to open the restaurant, and I told them what the concept was and what we were going to do, they got completely freaked out. They actually tried to hire another chef in town to usher me in and work alongside me. That was bad.
Amanda: What was it that they didn't like about your ideas?
Vivian: Everything. My parents had limited exposure to restaurants, and they felt like the restaurant that would be successful where we lived would be a steakhouse with a salad bar and baked potatoes. And I didn't want to do that.
Amanda: Which is fair.
Vivian: It probably would have been successful, and I'm toying with the idea of a salad bar of sorts right now.
Helen: Oh my god. I'm obsessed with salad bars.
Amanda: Yeah. Everyone likes a good salad bar.
Helen: Salad bars are amazing.
Vivian: Everyone likes a good baked potato, too.
Helen: It's true. They're both things that — also baked potato bars! Just bars.
Vivian: Everything should just be buffet.
Helen: Everything should be a buffet.
Vivian: You should come to eastern North Carolina.
Helen: I would be very happy there.
Vivian: I can take you on a buffet tour.
"As soon as we lowered the price of the tea, my mom stopped complaining."
Helen: Oh my god. That actually sounds like heaven. The only true salad bar in New York City is around the corner from our office. It's in a Ruby Tuesday.
Vivian: Oh, really?
Helen: New York is full of delis that have steam table bars, and they have by-the-pound salad bars in there, but strangely, improbably enough, no restaurant, at least in Manhattan, has an entrée-style salad bar, and it makes me very sad.
Amanda: Yeah. Ruby Tuesday is the owner of that here.
Vivian: Wouldn't it be great to have a salad bar that has really cool, delicious stuff on it?
Amanda: Oh, yeah. I think there was someone in Philadelphia opening that, because the theme of his restaurant was 90s.
Amanda: He's like, "I'm doing a gourmet salad bar, too." People should just do that anyway.
Helen: I went to a steak and baked potato and salad bar restaurant in western North Carolina that I now cannot remember the name of. It's a mini-chain that's based in Tennessee — Peddlers?
Vivian: The Peddler.
Helen: The Peddler.
Vivian: Yes. They come out and cut your meat for you —
Helen: Yeah. Everything about it was the most spectacular throwback experience. They literally bring out a tray of raw steaks, and you pick it, and they cut your rib-eye off of the —
Amanda: Then they cook it?
Helen: Then they cook it. But the salad bar was this jeweled wonder of a $7.99 salad. It had caviar in it.
Vivian: Oh, really. Wow.
Helen: It was "caviar" in quotes, there was fish roe of some sort.
Helen: There was soup in the salad bar, and a giant wheel of cheese, it was magical.
Vivian: One of the restaurants I write about in the book, it's called the Baron and the Beef. It was my favorite place as a kid. We went there on Friday nights. Their salad bar had smoked oysters on it, and meatballs in a crock.
Vivian: This — I don't know, I think we call it pub cheese now, but it's a cheesy spread —
Helen: Yeah. It's a very generous definition of "salad."
Amanda: Salad and things.
Helen: It's so great!
Vivian: It's so great. I love how the old steakhouses from that era were dark, there's no windows, maybe a round sailor window — I don't know. I get all fuzzy inside when I think about that place.
Amanda: So this will be your next restaurant?
Vivian: Maybe. Maybe.
Helen: It will be my favorite restaurant in the entire world. I will move to North Carolina to hang out in your restaurant.
Vivian: Well, get ready.
Helen: I'm so ready.
Amanda: You already have the two spaces in that town. Are yours the only two restaurants? It's a pretty small town — 20,000 people?
Vivian: There are other restaurants, and the Baron and the Beef is still there.
Amanda: Okay. That's good.
Helen: Oh, and is it the same as always?
Vivian: Yeah, but it's not quite what I remembered. But the salad bar —
Helen: Have they added quinoa?
Vivian: No. The beef is not what it used to be.
Helen: The salad bar?
Vivian: The salad bar is the same.
Amanda: Maybe you could talk to them, strike a deal, come in, partner up with them.
Vivian: I don't think they'd like that very much.
Amanda: They're like, "No, thank you. We're fine."
Vivian: Yeah. "We've got this figured out."
Helen: I imagine a lot of folks who come to your restaurant are people who are fans of the show, but did you find your harmony with the community itself? Do you have a lot of locals who come in?
Vivian: Yeah. We've been open for 10 years. We were busy before the show, but we've always depended on people to travel from Raleigh — which is an hour and a half — or Wilmington — which is an hour — to really keep us full. We had some local resistance in the beginning. People were suspicious of our intentions and didn't think that we would stay. They were certainly suspicious of the food. We won some people over over time. And then we had a fire. Our kitchen burned about five years ago, and that was a great opportunity for us. If our intentions had been to leave, we could have left. The community really rallied around us. It was the first time I actually felt like a part of the community. People helped and were so supportive, so now we have tremendous buy-in. All it took was a fire.
Amanda: That's sometimes that's what it takes.
Helen: That's a good silver lining, I think.
Helen: A fire is one of — if not the — worst things that can happen to a restaurant, too. It's so devastating.
Amanda: It's not completely uncommon, either.
Vivian: The way that ours happened is crazy, and it's something that I think more restaurateurs need to know about. So I'm just going to tell you right now.
Helen: Yeah! We'll put in our PSA music. Pay attention, chef and restaurateurs. It's about to happen.
"I think people believe that Southern cuisine is all about the meat, and I think it's all about the vegetables. I just wrote a 600-page book and there no recipe for fried chicken in it."
Vivian: How you get linens — your side towels and your aprons and everything — is they give you a mesh bag that the linens come in. Then you're supposed to put your dirty ones back in there. We had run out of the mesh bags, and we had dirty side towels. Some of them had oil on them, there were some wet ones, and presumably some dry ones. We put those in a plastic trash bag and tied it up, and it spontaneously combusted.
Vivian: It caught fire, and exploded right underneath the sensor, so we know when it happened and we know how quickly it happened. It was right next to our paper goods shelf.
Helen: Oh my god.
Vivian: All of that, it's kindling. I had no idea that this was a fire hazard. We talked to the linen company later, they're like, "Oh, yeah. That happens all the time in the warehouse. Most people keep their dirty bags of linens outside." Now we do. You should, too.
Helen: That's terrifying.
Amanda: That is terrifying, and still I don't understand the mechanics of that, but that is insane.
Vivian: I don't either, but it's true and scary.
Helen: That is not something that they warn you about.
Helen: That your dirty laundry can spontaneously combust and burn down your business.
Vivian: It has to have oil. There has to be this perfect cocktail of things in there, but yeah.
Amanda: It is interesting how something like a fire does bring out the community to support you. I've heard that so many times with restaurateurs who have experienced tragedies like that.
Vivian: And a fire's something that you can share. People were driving by and looking, and it's not like personal problem that is very insular —
Amanda: Right. It's visceral.
Vivian: It's something everybody can see, so I think that it brings out the best in people.
Amanda: Your family had already come around years earlier, I assume.
Vivian: Yes. The trying to hire another chef thing was relatively short-lived. When we opened, they quickly realized that we knew a little bit more about what we were doing than they thought. As soon as we lowered the price of the tea, my mom stopped complaining. She compared it to Ruby Tuesday's tea and the price there, so we had to match it.
Vivian: We're all good now.
Helen: Tea is frequently a sticking point for people. We hear stories all the time about folks who bring in their own tea bags, or complain that tea shouldn't cost more than $1. There was a restaurateur — maybe sometime in the last year — who responded to some complaint on Yelp with an incredible breakdown of, like, "You need to understand —"
Amanda: Of the cost.
Helen: Yeah. "When I bring you cup of tea, you're also contributing to my rent —"
Helen: "You're contributing to people's salaries, and tea is not just hot water."
Amanda: I think you can't help yourself. I went to a hotel restaurant the other week and it was $7 for a cup of tea, and I was like, "Oh god. You are ripping me off."
Vivian: It's hard, because you know it's just water, mainly.
Amanda: Right, right, right. I understand.
Vivian: It's also the glassware that it comes in. It's like wine. We have a wine shop. Why does the wine cost more in the dining room than it does in the wine shop?
Vivian: Well, because we break eight wine glasses a night, and we have to pay for those. The service aspect of it, beyond just the tip, costs money. It's the same for tea. But tea's like mayonnaise and ketchup, you like it a certain way. My mom is a tea connoisseur.
Vivian: She can smell old tea.
Amanda: Oh, wow.
Vivian: She's like, "We're going to do a tea episode before this is all over." So I can get her tea wisdom.
Helen: Is she into pu-erhs and oolongs and all of the rare —
Vivian: Oh, no. She's Lipton all the way.
Amanda: But she can smell an old Lipton?
Vivian: Yeah, it's got to be fresh.
Amanda: She's a Lipton pro. Yeah.
Vivian: Yes, and she likes it half and half, so half sweet and half unsweet.
Helen: How does that work?
Vivian: If she goes to a restaurant and she orders iced tea, she says, "Put half — "
Amanda: Oh, I do that.
Vivian: "Half sweet and half unsweet in there," and the ratio's got to be perfect, so I always encourage her to pour her own.
Amanda: "Make your own tea, Mom."
Vivian: Yeah. I can't take it.
Amanda: Speaking of family again, just one more thing. Are they there to help you out with your kids, too? Is that another added benefit of being in your hometown?
Vivian: Oh, yeah. We lived in their house when I had my children, and they lived in a little house behind it. We had this compound. We call it "Howardville." Our plan was to build a house about a ten minute drive from where we were living, but once I had my children, I was like, "Oh, no. We are staying right here, because I need y'all." As simple as, for 30 minutes, so I can go to the grocery store, or something like that. My dad comes over every morning before we go to school. It's just so wonderful to see the way that my children affect them and vice versa. It's a huge gift.
Helen: Do you bring the kids to the restaurant?
Vivian: I do not. The fire happened when they were nine months old, and I had a little nursery at the restaurant in a back room. It was ridiculous, because I would bring them, and be in the nursery with them, and then would have a sitter come and stay in the nursery while I was working, and it's just like, "Okay. It's not working." After the fire, we didn't replace the nursery. Restaurants are dangerous. There's hot stuff and sharp stuff. I have not included them in my restaurant work. Although my son wants to be a juice chef, is what he says.
Vivian: He likes to juice stuff.
Amanda: Okay. He's very, very, very trendy.
Vivian: Yeah. Before I came here, they had to draw for school what they want to be when they grow up. My daughter wants to be an artist, so she drew this really nice picture of she and an easel. He draws this truck, and an apple, and him, and he says he's going to be a juice chef. I bet he's the only one in his class.
Helen: That's so great.
Amanda: If he's not, then we know that somethings up.
Vivian: I know, really.
Amanda: Six kids in his class all want to be juice chefs.
Vivian: They will now. They will now.
Helen: Vivian, we have come to the time in our episode what we like to call the lightning round.
Vivian: I'm always scared of these.
Helen: No, it's super easy. It's going to be really fun. We have literally no idea what questions you're about to get, though, so maybe it's going to be terrible. Our Eater New York editor, Greg Morabito — usually my co-host on the Upsell — recorded a couple of questions for you that we're going to pipe in. Just answer them however you want.
Greg Morabito: Hey, Vivian. How's it going? It's Greg Morabito, the other host of the Eater Upsell. I hope you've been having a great time with Helen and Amanda. I have some lightning round questions for you, things that I would love to ask. Okay, lightning round question number one: What seasonal vegetables are overrated?
Vivian: Oh, lordy. Seasonal vegetables that are overrated. Well, kale.
Helen: Is that even a seasonal vegetable anymore?
Vivian: No. It's always there. Okay. How about the seasonal vegetables that are not overrated? Tomatoes.
Helen: Those are the best.
Vivian: Peaches. That's not vegetable, but I love a good peach. Jerusalem artichokes.
Helen: Oh, that's a good one. Unexpected choice.
Vivian: Yep. That's my answer.
Helen: All right. Next question.
Greg: What's one thing we'll never find in your restaurant under any circumstance?
Vivian: House-made ketchup.
Helen: Good call-back!
Amanda: There we go.
Helen: Yes. Excellent. If only that had been the last question, it would have been a perfect framing device for this episode. Stick with us through a few more questions, even though we reached a natural closing point.
Amanda: We'll find another one.
Helen: Yeah. It'll be great. Next question.
Greg: What's something that people don't understand about the South and/or Southern cuisine?
Vivian: I think people believe that Southern cuisine is all about the meat, and I think it's all about the vegetables. I just wrote a 600-page book and there no recipe for fried chicken in it.
Helen: That's a major fact. I feel like the law is that if you write a cookbook these days, it has to have a fried chicken recipe.
Vivian: Yeah, and it was actually a source of angst for my publisher.
Amanda: Oh, really?
Vivian: I'm like, "I'm not going add to the conversation with my recipe for fried chicken."
Helen: Right. You could have added a side bar that was like, "Seven Other Cookbooks That Have Pretty Good Fried Chicken Recipes If You Need Them."
Helen: All right. Next question, please.
Greg: What's one skill you wished you'd learned when you were young?
Vivian: I wish I could play an instrument. The piano. I wish I could play tennis. I think it's a great sport for adults.
Helen: Is tennis — I guess it is skill. Yeah.
Helen: It's not too late. Do you play?
Vivian: My senior year in college I had to take PE, so I took tennis, thinking that I would learn. But what I figured out was that everybody else that was taking tennis knew how to play. So nobody wanted to be my partner, and I almost didn't graduate because I couldn't pass tennis.
Helen: Oh, god.
Vivian: It was awful.
Amanda: I played tennis in high school because you could be stoned when you played tennis.
Helen: That is a great reason.
Vivian: That is a good reason.
Amanda: It's real laid-back.
Helen: I was forced to take tennis lessons until I was about 12 and then I ran far away from it.
Vivian: My children are five and I already have them in tennis.
Vivian: I was like, "We're going to do this."
Amanda: I need to do that to my kid.
Helen: Get stoned and play tennis.
Amanda: Exactly. Good family activity.
Helen: Do we have more questions?
Greg: When people recognize you from TV, do you think it's fun or does it make you uncomfortable?
"There are a lot of other careers in the food industry that don't require you to work every night and holiday for the rest of your life."
Vivian: I don't think it's fun.
Amanda: It's not like, "Oh! I'm so flattered"?
Vivian: Yeah, no. And it doesn't make me uncomfortable. Actually, it makes me feel like I just let them down. Because I'm really not that exciting. I think it's sometimes better not to meet the people that you admire on television, because the curtain is pulled back.
Helen: Has that ever happened to you? Have you met a hero and been like, "Oh, I wish this had not just happened."
Vivian: Yeah, with some chefs.
Helen: We'll get you to name names once the recording is turned off. I think we have one more question. Isn't that right?
Greg: When people ask you for advice about pursuing a career in the kitchen, what do you tell them? Culinary school or just start working?
Vivian: Just start working, for sure. I also say — whenever young people ask me about being a chef — I say, "I'm not encouraging you not to be a chef, but there are a lot of other careers in the food industry that don't require you to work every night and holiday for the rest of your life."
Helen: That seems like pretty good advice.
Vivian: Yeah. You should always work in a restaurant before you make that leap.
Amanda: To culinary school or —
Vivian: Yeah. To culinary school.
Amanda: You graduated culinary school.
Vivian: Yeah. I went — Yes.
Helen: All right. We'll read a lot into that. Vivian Howard, thank you so much for coming by the Eater Upsell. You can pick up her book, Deep Run Roots, in bookstores, on websites, and pretty much anywhere else. And watch A Chef's Life on PBS, where you will not see the labels of any mayonnaise.
Vivian: Thank y'all.
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The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer: Kendra Vaculin