Chef Vivian Howard’s life makes for good television.
Howard, 35, left eastern North Carolina for New York City, became a chef and wanted to open her own restaurant. Her father, a successful hog farmer, offered to help her financially but there was a catch: She had to open her restaurant in Kinston.
A new series, “A Chef’s Life,” premieres at 9:30 p.m. Thursday on UNC-TV. The show documents the travails of Howard and her husband, Ben Knight, as they try to make a success of their upscale restaurant, Chef and the Farmer, in a struggling former tobacco town.
The series is part documentary, part cooking show, part chronicle of rural North Carolina food traditions. The show is getting attention nationally. PBS stations all across the country, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle, are airing “A Chef’s Life” this fall.
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That’s in part due to the quality of the storytelling by the show’s producer, Cynthia Hill, a documentary filmmaker whose previous work tackled such topics as tobacco farming, guest workers and domestic violence. Hill’s partner, Rex Miller, is the director of photography.
Howard and Hill are childhood friends. Howard grew up in Deep Run, a fire district outside Kinston, and Hill grew up in nearby Pink Hill, where folks in Deep Run go to shop.
“We grew up a country mile from each other,” Howard explained over lunch with Hill at Mateo Tapas in Durham last week.
The initial idea for a show came from Howard, who wanted to document some of the food traditions found in eastern North Carolina, including collard kraut. Howard’s initial call to Hill for advice led to a collaboration.
Each of the show’s 13 episodes tackles a different seasonal ingredient. Howard is shown by a home cook what's traditionally done with the ingredient; then she shows how she cooks with the same ingredient in her restaurant kitchen.
Beyond the food focus, Hill artfully introduces this young couple to the audience. Viewers learn that Howard’s parents think she charges too much for iced tea at $2 a glass, and one of her father’s best friends won’t dine at Chef and the Farmer because they don’t serve Thousand Island dressing. Viewers meet the couple’s twins, Theo and Florence, on their second birthday. And they see the couple struggle, argue and recover after a kitchen fire destroyed their restaurant in January 2012.
“It makes for really good TV,” Hill said, praising Howard and Knight for their ability to be honest and vulnerable on camera.
P.S.: Shooting for the second season is already underway.