Chef Vivian Howard's Small-Town Story Makes a Big Difference
She cooks, she writes, she stars in the award-winning TV show “A Chef’s Life,” and—most of all—Chef Vivian Howard makes a difference, dispelling food myths along the way.
A self-described storyteller whose first book, Deep Run Roots, debuted last month, Vivian Howard has made a tremendous impact on her hometown and on the restaurant industry. One of her most compelling attributes is the candor with which she discusses her work, her rise to culinary acclaim, and her impassioned perceptions of the industry’s most sacred cows. I set out to talk with her and write what was fully expected to be a Southern-homecoming fairy tale—ideal for an issue dedicated to telling the stories of chefs who make a difference.
The only part of that preconceived notion that proved true is that she is the perfect personification of what it takes to make a difference—but this chef’s no soft-spoken princess. For every ounce of charm that Chef Howard exudes, she’s got a bucket load of Southern grit, topped off with even more wit and a refreshingly real take on the farm-to-table frenzy, celebrity food shows, and building a community-focused restaurant.
First thing to know: Kinston, North Carolina, may be small-town America to most of us, but to Vivian—growing up in rural Deep Run (population 3,000)—nearby Kinston was the city. The place you got dressed up to go shopping.
Ten years ago, it was also the place where she and her husband/business partner, Ben Knight, decided to open Chef and the Farmer, their first restaurant and arguably the catalyst for their success as well as the salvation of a town in decline.
The most telling description of the town comes from folks who moved away and look back in awe at where the town stands now—like the candid observation one such friend shared with me: “Kinston was circling the drain for years before Vivian Howard opened her restaurant.”
Since opening in June 2006, Chef and the Farmer has become a destination restaurant for travelers trekking to and from the Carolina coast as well as a culinary icon for foodies around the country who are fascinated with the simplicity of its Southern farm-to-table motif and the commitment to local ingredients. On the heels of Chef and the Farmer’s initial acclaim, Mother Earth Brewing opened in 2008 followed by additional restaurants, economic development, and, in 2015, a luxury boutique hotel.
“We’ve seen a tremendous shift in our community over the last 10 years,” Chef Howard acknowledges. “The biggest impact I think we’ve had and the difference I’m most proud in making is that we’ve been able to show the people who live here—and who have long apologized for living here—their food traditions in a way that gives them self-worth. By exalting something simple, like chicken and rice, both in our restaurant and on the show, we point out things they have done their whole lives and we place value in those things—and that gives the individuals value and pride in their place. In order to invest in your community you have to believe in it and you have to believe it has intrinsic worth, so that’s the difference we work to make here.”
Ironically, it took a stint in New York City restaurants, unfulfilled ambitions to become a journalist, and a Southern homecoming that fell far short of love at first sight for Howard to develop that sense of pride herself. She had gone to New York in hopes of finding work as a journalist, but instead found herself working in a West Village restaurant with a focus on Southern food via Africa.
“For a 23-year-old who didn’t think the food she ate growing up was distinct—she was ashamed of it—to learn that there were all these rich, very complex stories around the most simple things on our table was just mind-blowing,” Howard says. “I wanted to be a story-teller, so when I started hearing these stories tied to food I thought maybe this was the type of writing I needed to do. I started working in that restaurant’s kitchen before my shifts on the floor as a server, to just get a bird’s eye view into the food world. I thought I would be able to translate that into a career in food writing—but what I did was translate it into a job as a line cook.”
The writing career landed on the back burner for a number of years—finally coming to fruition in the form of her blog, Gorging on Life, and in this year’s publication of Deep Run Roots, a voluminous collection of personal stories, food traditions, recipes, and how it all relates to her life.
But the cooking aspect quickly took on a life of its own: She and future-husband Ben launched a side venture delivering homemade soups, which fostered such a following that they were faced with the dilemma of whether to legitimize it with a brick-and-mortar store in New York or open a restaurant in North Carolina. Family ties won out over city allure, but the transition wasn’t all easy.
“The small-town dynamic when I first came back here was a little difficult,” Howard says. It was minor things: She and Ben missed brunch in the city, but on a much deeper level, the reception to their restaurant was hardly empowering. “As we were building out the restaurant there was this consensus in town that the restaurant was going to fail. We actually felt like people wanted it to fail. People were suspicious about our intentions, they were really critical of our food, and for a long time we felt like outsiders in the small town.”
But in 2008 when the economy tanked and they saw restaurants closing left and right, their business held strong. “We realized that we were really making a difference in our community and we were masters of our own destiny. It was then that we decided it would be crazy to leave here, that we had something really special and were changing lives. Many people who worked in our kitchen—especially in the first five years—I taught them how to hold a knife. We weren’t hiring people from culinary school; we were hiring people who just needed a job. And in some cases, people from the homeless shelter—and we were giving people skills that would allow them to go somewhere else and get a good job. It felt like important work.”
That it was: It was purposeful, it helped people in the community, and, in the blink of any eye, it almost came to an end.
Five years ago a fire destroyed the restaurant’s kitchen and Chef and the Farmer closed for several months. But tough times reveal true colors, and Howard explains, “When people in the community found out we were going to reopen, they really rallied around us. For the first time, we felt like members of the small town and part of a community.”
It was then that Ben and Vivian decided to open their second restaurant, Boiler Room Oyster Bar, which she says has been great for the community. “It’s the kind of place where everybody likes to eat; the price point and the expectation is really manageable for all walks of life.” The average check at Boiler Room runs $24, compared with an average check of $43 at Chef and the Farmer.
Relationships run deep, not only between the restaurant and the dining community, but also between the owners and their employees. Of the 60 employees who work in one of the two concepts, many have been with them for years. “Until about a month ago, two people in the kitchen had been with us from when we started 10 years ago,” Chef Howard says. “Now we just have one person who has been here 10 years, because a gentleman who was with us left to go to engineering school. But in the front of the house we have three people who have been with us for nine years, and we’re one of these rare places where people leave and then come back. It’s interesting because a lot of the people who work in our restaurant have never worked in another restaurant, so we often suggest, or agree with them, that they [should] go work in another restaurant. So they’ll go do that and, often times, they come back.”
Bringing Farmers to the Table
Perhaps even more surprising to Vivian than the cool reception the restaurant initially received was the evolution—or devolution—of the food scene from the homegrown focus she remembered as a child. “In the 15 or so years that I had been gone, people’s eating habits and the socio-economic status here, the whole community, had changed. We opened our restaurant across the street from the farmers market, [where] they were selling oranges and pineapples and things people don’t even grow here. No one was shopping at the farmers market, so from the very beginning we saw this need to help transition the region back into a place where people understand where their food comes from.”
A primary goal was also to help transition some of the former tobacco farmers into food farmers: “That’s been one of our big missions from day one, and it’s actually happening quite a bit,” she says. “Tobacco farms are unique because they were traditionally small; a family could make a living off 25 acres of tobacco. But you can’t really make a living off 25 acres of corn or soybeans or cotton, so those small farms are the perfect place for niche produce or proteins or cheeses. We’re seeing that happen in this area. And we’re seeing people who were commodity chicken farmers become cage-free and free-range egg farmers. I’m not sure we’re a catalyst for it as much as just a participant in it, but it’s a major change that we see in our region.”
The restaurants work with a number of farms, so many in fact that it’s become essentially a full-time job for someone to manage all of the farmer relationships and the ordering. It’s a complicated process, made even more difficult by the fact that Chef Howard expects the chefs in the restaurants to work within her voice.
“We have meetings every week and talk about ideas for dishes, things they are excited about, and I filter those things through my lens,” she says, adding that often she tells them: “I love this idea, but we need to connect it to this place in some way, so if you want to do a marinated bean salad with lemongrass and ginger and soy, then we need to connect it to eastern North Carolina in some way. Can we do a cornbread crouton?”
The intent is to provide feedback that will keep them working within the mission of the restaurant, part of which includes working with new farmers. It can be difficult to continually remain focused on farmers and fare from eastern North Carolina, especially when the chefs are striving to control food costs and manage labor resources, but as Chef Howard explains, “I am often in opposition, saying that we really need to support this person and we need to use this product, and I know it takes longer to deal with it in this way, but this is what our restaurant is all about. This is what we’ve done from the beginning, so we need to figure out a way to make it work. … I’m not in the trenches the way I once was. I’m more like a guiding force, constantly checking [the chefs], reining them in, and making sure that we are focusing on fruits, vegetables, and grains; that we’re using animals in the proper way; and that we have an emphasis on preservation and community.”
Standing in opposition in order to achieve a greater good is simply a trademark of how Vivian Howard lives out her commitment to make a difference. There’s no ambiguity or reticence in her declaration of what a true farm-to-table restaurant should entail: “The whole farm-to-table movement is so frustrating to me, because the reason we adhere to it and the message for us is about community and making our community a better place—a place with a stronger economy and a place based on food production—and it’s not about this really precious notion of eating baby vegetables straight from the ground.” (If only the tone of her voice as she says this—the passion, conviction, even sarcasm—could translate to this page.)
She goes on to detail pragmatic characteristics of operating a farm-to-table restaurant, saying, “It’s really more about [recognizing when] a farmer has an overload of this particular thing, and can I help him by taking all of it? And, it’s about buying whole animals so the farmer doesn’t have to worry about moving the tongue. It’s not about sexy technique as much as it’s about allowing that farmer to sell the whole animal, because it’s way more efficient for him.”
That mindset and model for operating a business has become second nature for Chef Howard, but it started with a conscious effort to make a difference. “In the beginning, when we opened the restaurant, it was just me feeling like this was the right thing to do, and saying to these key farmers, ‘I’ll buy whatever you have, just as long as you plant it next season.’ Lots of times, that put me in a position when I’d end up with tons of something, then feel like this is what my cooking has to be based on and I have to use all of it—maybe use some of it now, then change it so that it can be in several parts of the menu without the menu seeming redundant. By saying that I wanted to work with these folks and then living up to my word, it’s what I had to do.”
Dishing on Celebrity Food Shows
The winner of a Daytime Emmy, a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting, and this year’s James Beard: Outstanding Food Personality, there’s no denying that Chef Howard has achieved celebrity status. The fourth season of “A Chef’s Life,” which is broadcast in 96 percent of the PBS markets around the U.S., is currently airing, and the filming of season five has begun, incorporating elements of the book tour she’s taking around the country via her food truck.
One of the objectives for “A Chef’s Life,” Howard explains, is to show the restaurant industry for what it actually is, and not, as she says, “what networks make it out to be.”
“I think so much of food television and the representation of chefs make our work seem glamorous and easy, but also cutthroat and harsh—things that I don’t think any of my peers really believe that it is. Also, I think some food television portrays our work as very precious, and I don’t think that’s how most people who do it perceive it. So my goal is to show what it’s really like. That’s why there’s not someone doing my hair and makeup when we’re filming. That’s why I wear the clothes I would normally wear, and why I’m sweaty and not perfect-looking—because that’s really what our work is like.”
In fact, when Chef Howard first envisioned the show she imagined it as a documentary about the dying food traditions of eastern North Carolina and she saw herself as a journalist producing the show, but certainly not a star in the show. She reached out to her childhood neighbor, Cynthia Hill, who had become a successful documentary filmmaker, and they experimented with a film of Vivian’s family putting up corn—the consensus afterward: Vivian needed to be in the show.
“It became clear we weren’t going to make a film but instead it would be a series with multiple episodes, because every tradition has so many rich stories tied to it,” Howard says.
What wasn’t abundantly clear was how the show might come to life. It was rejected by the Food Network, with a curt explanation that it simply wasn’t good. (Don’t you know those folks have shed some tears since.) And similarly dismissed by the producers at UNC-TV, who said they didn’t understand what it was, that it needed to be either a cooking show or a documentary. But when Amy Shumaker at South Carolina ETV viewed the reel, she called back instantly, asking to take it to national PBS. The response was a definite maybe: PBS asked for 13 episodes, each 26 minutes long, and then they would consider distributing it.
“We thought we had scored—but what we didn’t realize is that there was no money tied to that,” Howard says. “We had to raise all of the money to make those 13 episodes, and do so without any guarantee that they would ever see the light of day.”
The first season was truly a labor of love, as she explains, “Everyone who worked on season one just did so in hopes of it working. We all really believed in it, and everybody worked for free.”
Basically the entire first-season team is still involved: Cynthia Hill remains producer/director, Amy Shumaker is the executive-in-charge for South Carolina ETV, and Rex Miller and Josh Woll continue as photography directors.
For her part, Vivian says, “The reason I love making ‘A Chef’s Life’ is because it’s so much more than a cooking show. I think it improves people’s lives, I get the most heartfelt letters from people, and hearing their stories lets me know that we’re doing something important.”
Prepping for Another Restaurant
To make a difference—to uplift the communities and individuals touched by her food and stories—that is the mission running throughout her work and the standard to which she holds her next endeavors, whatever they entail.
Another book is already planned, with a projected publish date of autumn 2019. “When I was at my office writing the first one, I felt so guilty because I was enjoying what I was doing so much,” Howard says. “But in order to be a prolific cookbook author, there has to be a machine behind you that makes someone want to buy your book. Maybe it’s restaurants, maybe it’s television, I don’t know.” She doesn’t know, per se, but she muses, “And the [book] idea that I have is kind of tied to a possible idea for a show—it’s not the same as ‘A Chef’s Life’ but it has the same goals and intentions. Of course, I have to pitch both ideas to different entities to make either one of them work. So we’ll see.”
As for more restaurants—it’s definitely happening, but again, not necessarily in a traditional owner/operator format. “I’ve said that I don’t want to open any more restaurants, but I have an idea for one. … What I would like to do, and what we’ve told some of the people who work with us is, ‘If you want to have a restaurant and you demonstrate loyalty to our organization, work with us for a period of time, and we believe in your ability to manage your own place, then we will invest in that and help you be able to do that.’ I don’t need a string of restaurants with my name on them, but I love the creative process of building a restaurant and figuring out what it will be. I don’t necessarily want to carry the weight of it, but I’d love to be able to help people within our organization do that for themselves—so I think I’ll be able to scratch my itch in that way.”
While they wouldn’t contemplate moving from Deep Run, Vivian and Ben have entertained the prospect of opening a second Boiler Room location in Wilmington, about an hour and a half east of Kinston. “One issue is that we depend so heavily on people traveling within our region to stop at one of our spots that opening one of our restaurants somewhere else might cannibalize what we have here—so we have to be very careful of that, and our primary goal continues to be to improve our own community,” she explains. “In opening the Boiler Room, we asked what type restaurant Kinston might need that it didn’t have. This other restaurant idea I have is based on that approach as well: What do we need that we don’t have in our town?”
The answer to that question will likely debut by August: “We’re going to open a bakery that is breakfast-focused, because there is nowhere to get a proper breakfast in town, particularly on the weekends, that’s not a chain,” Howard says. “We just a bought a building for it, right next door to Chef and the Farmer, and we’ll likely serve biscuit sandwiches, some baked egg dishes, and sweet pastries—plus have the bread production for both our restaurants.”
The decision to open a new restaurant is driven in part by this need in the community, but also because they want to create an opportunity for a loyal and talented employee. “There’s someone who has worked with us in the kitchen for about six years, and she’s always talked about wanting to have a bakery. We think now is the time.”
What started as making a difference in a tiny community has blossomed into one of the most popular and respected food shows in the country, with a chef who’s known in small towns and big cities nationwide. As for the legacy she hopes to impart, Chef Howard says, “I’d like to think one of the differences that I’ve made, or that my story has made, is that it allows someone who’s cooking in a large city like New York, but is maybe from a smaller town, to have confidence that they can do what they want to do wherever they want to do it. And I hope our story encourages people to be closer to their family, and to lean on their family for their success. I think we’re going to see a lot more restaurants like ours opening in small towns, and I hope our story lets people know you don’t have to be in New York to make delicious food and have people care about it.”