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It’s a Wonderful, Scary Time to be Vivian Howard

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She's opening a new restaurant and a bakery — and rethinking 'A Chef's Life'

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Vivian Howard on her show, ‘A Chef’s Life’ Courtesy of Rex Miller/PBS.
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

“I have very little desire to have a string of restaurants,” says Vivian Howard, who currently operates two restaurants in the small North Carolina city of Kinston and also stars in the PBS show about her work, A Chef’s Life. She quickly corrects herself. “I have zero desire.”

And while she has no plans to start a fast-casual restaurant or to launch a multi-unit brand, she’s looking ahead to a fall that will see her opening a new restaurant, her first in about four years, and then hopping right into another opening, growing her portfolio to four properties. On top of that, the latest season of her show premiers in October, and while she’s excited, she’s also “riddled with all these other emotions.”

She’s got a lot going on, and here, she tells Eater about her future restaurants, growth in North Carolina, and what’s next for her TV show.

She’s opening a pizzeria in Wilmington, NC...

“We want to continue to invest and encourage economic growth in eastern North Carolina, and Wilmington is an obvious choice for that,” Howard says. To that end, she and her husband and business partner Ben Knight hope to open Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria there sometime in November.

She’s fielded plenty of offers from Raleigh — perhaps the most expected place for her to go next, a roughly 80-mile drive away — but that’s too risky. “It would really cannibalize a lot of our business here in Kinston because we get so many customers from Raleigh every night, and we need those people because the population of our community doesn't really support our businesses in a way that makes them healthy.” And where Kinston has a population of roughly 21,000 and not too much tourism to speak of, Wilmington has over 117,000 residents and is a popular vacation spot.

In many ways, she’ll be under less pressure there. “Kinston's growing because we're pushing for the revitalization of this town and I feel a responsibility for that, but Wilmington's growing without me.” She continues, “Wilmington is going to continue to grow, and if we open an excellent restaurant and push to keep it excellent, then it'll be successful no matter who I am or if I'm on TV or not.”

There’s a lot more to like about Wilmington. From a practical perspective, it’s (like Raleigh) only an hour and a half away from Howard’s Kinston home. It has historic buildings, and Benny’s will occupy a former shirt factory in the “emerging” South Front community, anchoring a major redevelopment effort there. But best of all for Howard, Wilmington “is also on the coast, and I would love to have a beach house some day.” Sounds nice, right?

Howard and Knight long toyed with the idea of doing a pizzeria (Benny’s is named for Ben, after all). After a fire damaged kitchen at the Chef and the Farmer, Howard’s acclaimed first restaurant and the frequent site of filming on A Chef’s Life, the pair took the renovation opportunity to add a wood-burning oven, “so that we could eat pizza ourselves. The pizza of choice here in eastern North Carolina is Papa John's, and that doesn't really suit.”

Benny’s is Howard and Knight’s riff on a “fun, Italian American pizza and pasta joint.” They’ll serve 14-inch, wood-fired, loosely Neapolitan-style pies. Howard will offer standard toppings — “I hate going to a Neapolitan style pizza place and feeling embarrassed to ask for a pepperoni pizza” — plus she’ll have some fun playing with combinations like squash blossoms with brie and honey. There’ll be large salads to share (think Olive Garden, but fresh and delicious), a monkey-bread-like garlic knot “situation,” pastas, and a menu section dedicated to fried items like eggplant parm and mozzarella sticks.

To be clear, these are not small plates meant for sharing. “This is going to sound strange, but I don't like to share food,” Howard says, quickly clarifying that what she means is, “I don't like to get a whole bunch of plates and have little bits of those plates on my plate.” Instead, she wants Benny’s to be a place for “communal dining”: sharing a pizza pie; sharing a salad that can actually feed four; sharing a large-format dessert of chocolate, pistachio, and vanilla ice creams topped with garnishes like mini Baked Alaskas, inspired by iconic Brooklyn pizzeria L&B Spumoni Gardens. “That kind of all-inclusive feeling is what we're going for.”

...then she’ll launch a bakery back in Kinston.

Once Benny’s is up and running, the next restaurant project on the docket is Handy and Hot, a bakery she plans to open in Kinston, currently slated for early 2018. The idea is pretty simple. While Chef and the Farmer and the Boiler Room, Howard’s more casual restaurant with an oyster bar feel, both offer dinner, and while the Boiler Room also serves lunch, Kinston still needs “a place to get an excellent cup of coffee, and something tasty, creative, and satisfying for breakfast and lunch.”

Howard tapped Justise Robbins to oversee the menu — which as the name suggests, focuses on sweet and savory hand pies. She’s worked for Howard for about eight years, and in that time, Howard says, has always wanted to spend time on pastry. “I've always needed her to be on a savory end, and so this is going to be her project.” So as Howard sees it, it’s two needs filled: “both by addressing a need in our community and helping this person grow in our organization.”

She’s bracing for the season five premiere of ‘A Chef’s Life’...

I hate watching the show and seeing how tired I am, how I wish I had worn something different, or why I haven't learned after five years of being on TV to get somebody to help me look better. But those are feelings I’m more comfortable with than I used to be.”

Howard says Season 5 will follow her on her book tour for her award-winning cookbook debut Deep Run Roots, which hit shelves last October. “For the past two seasons, we've been talking about the book I've been writing. In Season 5, it comes out, and we see what the response is from people.”

The season will begin with the 10th anniversary of Chef and the Farmer. Then it’s on to book tour. For the tour, she brought her restaurant company’s food truck across the Southeast to cook and promote the book — and to take A Chef’s Life on the road, which marks a new turn for the show. There’s a bourbon story in Kentucky, a broccoli story in Nashville, and Howard spent a night working at Kevin Gillespie’s Gunshow (a restaurant, not, you know, a gun show) in Atlanta.

“On the book tour, I gained 25 pounds and [became] an emotional shell of myself,” she says. She hired a trainer to visit her office three times a week; the workouts were filmed. “I fear watching it,” she says. Asked to name a theme for the fifth season, Howard replies: “Getting my life back together.”

...and she’s figuring out what the future of the show looks like.

While Season 5 breaks new ground in that it takes the show on the road, Howard also says viewers shouldn’t expect the current format — an ingredient per episode — to stick around past the new season. “I've done every ingredient that makes sense in this particular framework, and I know how to stew collard greens and make pickles and preserve, so I think it's time to do something else.”

The network hasn’t approved this change yet, though. “But I think they will. In fact, I'm supposed to be writing a followup treatment for what I see as the next iteration.” Still she knows there’s a temptation to keep her — or any creative project that’s working — in a box.

“It's just when someone or something appears to be working and you have fans, and if they like you for the way that you are and what you do, everybody around you doesn't want that to change because they're afraid that people won't like the next thing as well.” She goes on, talking about television, but — perhaps — also about her role as a chef of a growing restaurant group. “I think that a lot of personalities fall into this situation where they're not allowed to evolve, or their persona is not allowed to evolve even when they actually already have. Then they become caricatures of themselves and I don't want that. So I am advocating for the opportunity to evolve.”