In each episode of PBS’ “A Chef’s Life,” Vivian Howard takes viewers behind the scenes in her Kinston restaurant, Chef & the Farmer, to local farms and at home with her family—her husband and business partner Ben Knight, her twin 4-year-olds, her parents and extended family as well as the community of Deep Run.
A North Carolina native, Vivian followed her career aspirations to New York before realizing her dreams would lead her back home to Lenoir County. Chef & the Farmer opened in 2006 as a farm-to-fork progressive eatery, where the menu changes based on what’s ripe and in season. Local farmers within a 70-mile radius of the restaurant supply the freshest ingredients.
Having survived a restaurant fire in 2011 during the filming of the pilot episode of the show and the opening of a second restaurant—Boiler Room Oyster Bar—Vivian continues to broaden her culinary talents with a new cookbook set for release in 2016. Infusing food education one ingredient at a time into each show with a dash of Southern charm, the third season of “A Chef’s Life” begins in September.
At her office and test kitchen in downtown Kinston, Vivian and her mother, Scarlett Howard, share stories of growing up on the farm, cooking from the garden and life in Deep Run, where their family’s roots are firmly planted and have put Kinston on the map as a dining destination.
ONC: Can you tell us about growing up in Kinston and Deep Run?
Vivian: I think growing up in rural North Carolina when I was growing up is a lot different from the experience my children are having now. We ate from the garden, our year rotated around the farming season and summers were the busiest time. It was all about tobacco and getting the tobacco in and out, and the whole family worked the tobacco. Then, there was this frenzy about putting up corn and canning tomatoes. Our lives were much more connected to living in the country. Now, I feel like my children’s lives are about trying to make it as if they don’t feel like live in the country (laughs), except for those few ideal moments when you want them to feel that way. When I was child, our community and social life was very much centered around our church.
ONC: In the opening of each show of “A Chef’s Life,” you say that you would never come back home. What did you never want to come back to and how has that changed now?
Vivian: I am the youngest of four girls. One of my sisters went away to boarding school, and I went and stayed with her a few times. I had really big dreams, and I didn’t think they would realize themselves in Deep Run. I left here when I was 14 and went to boarding school, too. Then I moved to New York. I am actually on camera saying, “I will never live here again,” about six months before I moved back, (laughs). I loved it when I was in high school and had the opportunity to travel, so I wanted to be a travel writer or journalist. I didn’t see myself being able to do those things living in Deep Run.
After living in New York for about five years, I was over it. I thought a smaller city might be a good option. Then, we moved back here, and it is exactly what I say at the beginning of the show. I figured out that my parents were human beings who existed before I came along and had interests. Because I left so young, I was ashamed of them and their country accents and that my dad was a farmer. And then when I was in New York, when I would tell people where I was from, people were intrigued and thought it was exotic. I had this slow realization that all of this was pretty cool.
ONC: How did you develop your love for cooking?
Vivian: I wish I could say I grew up loving cooking at my mother’s hip, especially with writing this book. In my family, everything centers on what we are going to eat next. It has always been that way, and I really think my love for cooking comes from the love of eating.
When I was in New York, I started working in this restaurant and by chance the style of food was Southern food via Africa, and this was in 2001, and before anyone cared about Southern food. The chef was an African-American man, and he was a storyteller and talked about Southern food, where it came from and how it developed, and I just thought everyone ate what we ate. My goal was to be a writer, and I thought I would write about food and get an insider’s perspective in the kitchen, so he let me start trailing in the kitchen and work for free. What I found was that cooking was a lot easier than writing for me. I liked the camaraderie of the kitchen. I had never played team sports as a kid, and this is a team sport where everyone is coming together for the end goal. I liked making stuff with my hands and so, one kitchen job turned into another and went on from there.
ONC: Scarlett, can you share some stories about Vivian when she was growing up?
Scarlett: She was an entertainer.
Vivian: I have three siblings. I was so much younger; I received a lot of attention. My children are the same way, because they are so much younger than my sisters’ children. My daughter Flo has a tendency towards entertaining, too.
Scarlett: As hog farmers, we had pigs behind the house, so when the school bus would come, Vivian would be in tears, because everyone would tease her about the smell of the pigs. Back then, we didn’t have the lagoon, and it smelled.
Vivian: Dad told me to tell everyone on the bus that they were smelling money (laughs).
ONC: Scarlett, did Vivian grow up cooking with you, and did you teach her about tomato sandwiches?
Scarlett: Not much cooking, no (laughs). But, yes, we had tomato sandwiches and banana sandwiches. Vivian loved to eat when she was small.
Vivian: The peanut butter and jelly of my childhood was a banana and mayonnaise sandwich.
ONC: Scarlett, were you supportive when Vivian wanted to be a chef?
Scarlett: I did OK it. It was not the path we would have chosen, and when she decided to come back here, we were skeptical if a restaurant of this kind would work in a small town.
Vivian: Her exact words were, “I did not send you to boarding school and college for you to become a short-order cook.” They had hoped that we would come here and open a traditional steakhouse with baked potatoes and a salad bar … We can laugh about this now.
ONC: What led to “A Chef’s Life?”
Vivian: I had always wanted to do this storytelling and journalism. My first experience in New York was as an intern at “CBS Sunday Morning.” I had wanted to be a news broadcaster, and that’s how I saw the show. I didn’t think it would be about my life. I saw it as telling a story of Eastern North Carolina food, making collard kraut, canning tomatoes or putting up corn—the things you’ve seen on the show—and meeting the farmers who grow those ingredients. I called a friend of mine, Cynthia Hill, who is a filmmaker.She had made this film called “Tobacco Money Feeds My Family,” and I thought it was beautiful. It was honest and sensitive and did a good job of showing the dimensions of rural people. I asked if she was interested in helping me. Three years ago, we filmed our famous Corn Parade in Deep Run on the Fourth of July. It had three components: the community, the farmer and the family, and Cynthia said we needed another component, and we filmed the restaurant to bring the modern point of view to it. We made the show pilot and then, the restaurant caught on fire. I called Cynthia and she came down because she saw that as an opportunity. We added the fire footage to the pilot and sent it out. We felt like it was special and sent it to South Carolina Public Television, who took it to national PBS. We had to make a season of 13 episodes without funding for consideration for airing it. We thought that was great, but we didn’t have any money. We spend a quarter of our time on the show fundraising for leads and sponsors. Most people don’t understand what it takes to fund a show for PBS.
ONC: What can viewers expect for the third season of “A Chef’s Life?”
Vivian: It starts in September, and it is the best one yet. The first episode is about squash, and my mom and I make squash and onions with my sister Donna. I go to Warren’s farm and we talk about squash, and I am on the “Today” show, and it shows Ben and my family watching me on the “Today” Show.
ONC: Scarlett, what do you appreciate about Vivian’s cooking?
Scarlett: When I see her cooking, it is more nutritious in some respects as she uses many more ingredients than I do. I would have chicken and rice. But she adds carrots and other fresh vegetables.
ONC: Do you still use your grandmother’s mixer?
Vivian: I do. It is at my house, and I also have her butter churn.
ONC: Any family recipes going into the book?
Vivian: Chicken and rice for sure. Tomatoes and rice, and I am canning tomatoes for the book and will show two things we would have done with the jars of tomatoes. One is cooking rice with the tomatoes, and one is similar to chicken and rice. You cook the whole chicken and then you cook the macaroni in the broth with the tomatoes. That’s not something we had growing up, but it is very common around here. My Grandma Hill’s candied yams will be in the book and Tom Thumb (sausage) and banana pudding with some tweaks.
ONC: Are tomatoes still your favorite ingredient, especially Cherokee Purple Heirlooms?
Vivian: Yes, and I’ve had them at every meal for the past four days. At this time of year, they are still what I want to eat. I feel this pressure to consume a lot of them, and it is easy to make a little sandwich.
ONC: What are your other Southern comfort foods?
Vivian: Chicken and rice because it is something we all like. That was our comfort food growing up. Tomato sandwiches. Sausage. If I could eat a sausage biscuit every day, I would. Another thing I crave is a big pot of greens—turnip greens cooked with sausage.
ONC: What’s on the August menu at Chef and Farmer?
Vivian: We’ll have peaches wrapped in country ham with a whipped goat cheese and balsamic honey. It is one of the few things we bring back every year. We’ll also have lots of shelling beans and succotash; the one we make is corn, butter beans and tomatoes.
ONC: What do you value most about the farm-to-table movement and having local farmers within a 70-mile radius produce for the restaurant?
Vivian: For us, it was always about trying to build up our community. This used to be a community of small farms, and it isn’t anymore, so it’s about supporting small farmers and friendships. It makes our work exciting and not always the same. We know what happens each season, and it gives you a framework to organize your creative energy.
ONC: What makes North Carolina home for you?
Vivian: My family. You drive all these same roads your whole life, and now my kids are growing up here, and I feel such a connection and that I have roots here.