As teenagers, chef Vivian Howard and filmmaker Cynthia Hill couldn’t wait to leave eastern North Carolina’s tobacco fields and hog farms behind for bigger cities and broader horizons.
The women grew up seven miles apart in Lenoir County. Howard escaped Deep Run, an unincorporated fire district outside Kinston, via boarding school and then college at N.C. State University. Hill traded the town of Pink Hill for Chapel Hill to study pharmacy.
The two soon learned that no matter how fiercely you long to leave, the longing to go back home may be just as great.
In 2006, Howard, 36, returned with her husband, Ben Knight, to open Chef & the Farmer restaurant in downtown Kinston, 90 minutes southeast of Raleigh. In 2011, Hill, 43, who lives in Durham, began filming Howard for what would become the PBS cooking show and documentary, “A Chef’s Life.”
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Today, the two women are responsible for introducing eastern North Carolina to a national audience; the first season of “A Chef’s Life” was broadcast in PBS markets covering 92 percent of the country and has been viewed 15 million times.
Last month, the show won a Peabody award, the broadcast equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize. “A Chef’s Life” also was a finalist for a James Beard broadcast award, an honor that carries some weight in the world of restaurants and chefs.
Their success has not come without struggle. Both public and cable television networks rejected their show early on. Some folks in Kinston were wary about how their community would be portrayed. The show still hasn’t found a big-ticket sponsor. They just finished filming the second season and are planning a third despite still owing money for the first.
“A lot of what we do is, we just do it,” Hill said. “We have faith.”
A circuitous path home
Growing up, Howard was friends with Hill’s younger sister. So when she came up with the idea for the show, Howard sought advice from Hill, who worked in the film industry. Hill thought Howard was crazy for opening a restaurant in a struggling former tobacco town. But when Hill realized what a talented chef Howard was, she thought: “OK, this could be interesting.”
Howard had left Deep Run thinking she would one day work in journalism, and she even interned at “CBS Sunday Morning.” After college, she spent 18 months working in advertising in New York City. She quit hoping to become a food writer and then noticed a “Hiring” sign at Voyage restaurant in the West Village.
Howard waited tables and then talked the chef into training her in the kitchen. She parlayed that experience into stints working for chef Wyle Dufrense at his groundbreaking restaurant WD-50 and then for superstar chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Spice Market. Around this time, Howard and Knight started a food delivery business out of their apartment. When a friend offered to help finance a storefront, her former brother-in-law Ray Collier intervened.
Although the opening montage of “A Chef’s Life” says her parents offered to help the couple open a restaurant, Howard says it was actually Collier who asked them to return to open a restaurant for him in downtown Kinston. It soon became apparent, however, that Collier was upfitting a downtown building to become a restaurant for the couple to own and operate.
“Everybody thought it was a wild idea,” said Collier, who has known Howard since she was a young child. “I had confidence in her.”
Collier says he couldn’t have foreseen that Howard would end up creating a television show and securing a deal for two cookbooks, which was announced 10 days ago.
“I knew she’d make it in the restaurant business,” Collier said. “She doesn’t quit.”
That’s a trait Howard shares with Hill, who followed a similarly circuitous path to her filmmaking career.
Hill had admired the pharmacist with whom her mother worked at a local drugstore. He was respected and successful. Hill came from a modest upbringing; after her parents divorced, she lived with her mother, two siblings, grandparents and an uncle in a three-bedroom house.
“I didn’t want to be poor anymore,” she said. “I wanted something different.”
While working her way through pharmacy school at UNC-Chapel Hill, Hill was bartending one night when she met a television production crew working on an episode of an accident reconstruction show being shot in Chapel Hill.
She was captivated. Befriending a crew member, she was soon learning about the world of filmmaking. She made videos to fulfill the project requirements for her pharmacy rotations, including interviewing residents on the Zuni Indian reservation in New Mexico about diabetes after working a three-month rotation at the hospital there.
Bill Campbell, then-dean of UNC’s pharmacy school, encouraged Hill to pursue a master’s degree in pharmacy administration at Auburn University, whose program included a vast video operation.
Hill attended Auburn for 18 months without finishing her degree. She imagined a future making health education videos. Instead, she married a man who owned a video post-production company and moved to New York. When that marriage ended, she moved to Durham, attracted by its ties with the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. She made two films along the way about migrant workers and tobacco farmers.
When Hill returned to Durham, she needed a part-time job to support her filmmaking, so she returned to pharmacy. She works three or four days a month for Walmart, filling in when other pharmacists are on vacation, and spends the rest of the time on her film projects: promoting “Private Violence,” a documentary she made about domestic violence that premiered this year at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, and working on “A Chef’s Life.”
Howard and Hill’s partnership works because both women intuitively understand the food landscape they are trying to portray. “A Chef’s Life” isn’t just a cooking show. It’s also a documentary about Howard’s life and an exploration of Down East food traditions, highlighting such dishes as collard kraut and chicken and rice.
Living Southern foodways
Two weeks ago, Howard and Hill were at a chicken farm filming for the 13th episode of the second season. They took a break before Howard was to eviscerate a chicken for the first time on camera.
Howard noted, with disappointment, that they had not included cucumbers as a key ingredient in planning for the third season. The two rhapsodized about the simple salt and vinegar cucumber salad that was a summertime staple on their families’ tables.
Their banter moved onto squash, the ingredient to be profiled in the first episode of season three. Howard described how squash and onions are cooked down in a cast-iron skillet in bacon fat. Hill picked up the thread: “It’s in a little bowl. You only take a little bit of it ...” Howard finished the thought: “Because it is so potent.”
They understand the foodways of this region because they have lived them.
“Like, when we went out to film fried chicken,” Hill explained, “I said, ‘Vivian, let’s have banana sandwiches.’ ” In this part of the world, fried chicken is often served with sandwiches made with soft white bread, mayonnaise and bananas. “We had a conversation,” she added, “about how to slice the bananas.”
The women’s easy rapport belies the struggle it has been to produce the series.
“We have scratched and clawed to be able to do this,” Howard said.
Hill first approached The Food Network through a contact, but got nowhere. She sent a 10-minute trailer to UNC-TV, which turned them down. She took it to South Carolina ETV, which loved the show and agreed to sell it to other public television stations across the country.
Howard and Hill lined up small sponsorships from a Lenoir County leaders group, N.C. Blue Cross Blue Shield, N.C. Pork Council and others. Crowdsourcing brought in $56,000. But the money raised didn’t cover all costs of producing the first season, which costs up to $50,000 an episode.
A few more sponsors have come on board to help support the second season. But a large sponsor – say, a major food company or kitchenwares brand – to help cover the entire cost of production remains elusive, despite ongoing discussions with eight or 10 corporations.
“We realize that none of us are good deal closers,” said Howard, seated a few feet from Hill, in her home kitchen after finishing that day’s filming.
The conversation soon turned to the material to cover in episode 13: the trip to the chicken farm, Howard making deviled eggs with her mother, Howard’s appearance on the “Today” show, her cooking at the James Beard House. It’s a lot of material to fit in 30 minutes.
“Can we make 14 episodes?” Howard asked.
“That’s what I’m thinking,” Hill replied. Then, with a laugh, she added, “We don’t have enough money to film 13 episodes, let’s do 14.”