There’s a moment in the fourth episode of the new season of “A Chef’s Life” when the Chef & the Farmer restaurant in Kinston gets a new sign. It’s a beautiful sapele-carved sign; a darker, richer version of the restaurant’s old – and termite infested – sign. It’s stunning, really. It’s just ... not the same.
“This sign is gonna have to grow on me,” chef Vivian Howard says in the episode.
In fact, fans will see Howard adjusting to several changes in the fifth season of her Peabody, James Beard and Emmy award-winning PBS series. There’s a new executive chef in her kitchen – a fact that comes with considerable angst over disappointing fans who travel to her restaurant to see her and eat her food; the release of a thick new cookbook, “Deep Run Roots,” which has consumed her life over the previous year; and a new set of responsibilities that come with making sure that book is a success. That means a new food truck and a two-month stint on the road promoting that book.
And as always, fans will have a front row seat to Howard’s revelations, joys and frustrations.
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“The show has always tracked the changes in my life, so I think whenever something new happens we try to capture that,” Howard said in a phone interview the week before the Season 5 premiere.
Along with the various changes for Howard and the program – there’s also a new haircut and a new opening montage – there’s a comfortable sameness, which is felt right away in the new season’s first episode, airing at 9:30 p.m. Thursday on UNC-TV.
That “Two-mato” episode gives us what we want and need: Howard laughs with Warren, Howard cooks with Ms. Lillie, Howard puts a new twist on a classic dish in the Chef & the Farmer kitchen. In the second episode, we get to meet and spend time with Tessie Mae Robinson, who grows pole beans to sell at the Kinston farmers market and who introduces Vivian to the wonders of pickled pork – that is some classic “Chef’s Life” for the soul right there.
But Howard also gets emotional in the first episode, talking about the distance she feels from her restaurant, because of her responsibilities with the TV show and new cookbook. And that pressure isn’t likely to lessen any time soon; the show has more than 4 million viewers per episode in the United States, and producers recently signed a deal that will distribute “A Chef’s Life” in Europe.
“People travel from everywhere to come eat in our restaurant and hopefully see me or have me cook for them or have me take a picture with them,” Howard explained in our interview. “So I’m not in the same position as somebody who their restaurant doesn’t serve people in that way, so that’s what I’ve struggled with. And they come to eat my food, not somebody else’s food. So what I have come to realize – and know that this is a year after what you’re seeing (in Season 5) – is that I’m always going to need to have a strong presence at Chef and the Farmer, at least, in order for me to feel good about serving our guests in a way that speaks to what they want.”
‘Every culture has their noodle’
An even greater unspoken promise of change looms over this season of “A Chef’s Life,” as Howard looks beyond the hit show to other projects.
One project, in collaboration with “A Chef’s Life” director Cynthia Hill, is a new program that would keep some elements of her current show, but tell different types of stories. Howard stresses that the project is still “up in the air,” though.
“If it all goes well and we’re able to do it, it will still track my story and my work and my family, so the parts of the show that people tell me they love and that people respond to will still be there,” Howard said. “The narrative of that is probably a little more complicated, so we are hoping that we’ll be able to have an hour to do it. We are very much in this stage trying to figure out what it will be.”
Howard says that installments of this as-yet-unnamed series would explore the cultural significance of a single dish, instead of a single ingredient, as “A Chef’s Life” does now.
“Every culture has their noodle, their dumpling, their broth with healing powers, their funeral food, their celebration food, their junk food,” she said. “While these things are different from culture to culture, all these dishes exist for the same reasons. A hand pie exists because it’s a convenience food. Broth with healing powers exists because we believe that food has the power to do more than just nourish us. The hope is that we will start with my culture and then learn about other cultures.”
These food stories could take place in North Carolina, Howard said, but won’t be limited to the area.
“Many times these people live in Eastern North Carolina,” she said. “We have a huge immigrant population in Eastern North Carolina, and like we currently do on ‘A Chef’s Life,’ I’ll already have some sort of relationship with them. In a lot of cases they’ll be people who are my neighbors and my colleagues.”
The need to evolve
Howard said the idea for this new series stemmed from her commitment to a two-book deal with her publisher, and her idea for that second book: “Thinking about the ways we all eat the same,” she said.
“I believe – and I’m not the only one – that there are only about 20 dishes in the whole world,” Howard explained. “And so my hope was to be able to write a book that was on that subject. It started with a book idea and organically kind of evolved into this idea that we’re going to try to project onto the show.
“Oddly enough, I don’t think my second book is going to be about that. I think the subject is too big, and I’m probably not the person to tackle that at this point. But I think as a student rather than an expert on the show, I can tackle this subject and learn from other people, rather than writing about it in an authoritative way.”
There’s no real timetable in place for this new project, and Howard concedes it’s a bit of a gamble, pivoting from a known success to try something a bit different.
“ ‘A Chef’s Life’ has worked thus far because it’s honest and authentic and every episode is about a quintessential Southern ingredient,” Howard said. “I know how to stew collard greens and make biscuits at this point, and if the narrative doesn’t evolve and I don’t start learning new stuff, then the viewers will be able to see the lack of honesty.”
Watch ‘A Chef’s Life’
Season 5 of “A Chef’s Life” premieres at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 5, on UNC-TV.