Some of the greatest change agents in North Carolina’s history assembled in a hotel banquet room Thursday afternoon: developers, doctors, scientists, educators, stewards of the arts, the people who have remade the cities we call home, the way we experience art, the way we learn about our own world in North Carolina and the worlds beyond.
On the 20th anniversary of naming the first Tar Heels of the Year, The News & Observer honored past recipients, as well as this year’s honorees – chefs Ashley Christensen and Vivian Howard.
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Christensen celebrated the 10th anniversary this week of Poole’s Diner, a downtown Raleigh restaurant whose rise in popularity and awards coincided with the revitalization of downtown Raleigh. She has since opened three restaurants, a cocktail bar, a coffee shop and an events space. A pizza place will open next year, all downtown.
Howard owns Chef & the Farmer and the Boiler Room in Kinston and just opened Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria in Wilmington. She’s the popular award-winning host of the PBS series, “A Chef’s Life.”
Executive Editor John Drescher said Christensen and Howard represent a snapshot of where North Carolina has been and where it’s heading. They’re chefs whose food has altered the national dining conversation and whose restaurants have led revitalization in their homes of Raleigh and Kinston.
“Sometimes, like this year, a trend crystallizes, and we seek to reveal the key people who drove the trend through their skill, creativity and determination,” Drescher said. “It doesn’t just say something about the person. It says something about our region and how it’s changing or advancing... They’re part of something bigger than themselves. They’ve led a wave of innovation that has changed our region from a culinary backwater to a place where dining is an integral part of our culture, our social lives, our friendships, our communities and the reemergence of our downtowns.”
Drescher said naming the Tar Heel of the Year is one of the joys of his job. The award seeks to recognize those whose work has subtly or significantly changed the ways we live our lives.
The New & Observer started a column in 1950 called Tar Heel of the Week, recognizing a remarkable member of the community. Twenty years ago, that grew into the annual honor Tar Heel of the Year, which is awarded to individuals whose work has changed the region – and often the world. The Tar Heel of the Year has been awarded 20 times to 25 different individuals, going to two people four times, including this year.
The keynote speakers were brothers Terrence and Torry Holt, who played for NC State and the NFL and own Holt Brothers Construction. They spoke of their efforts to give back to Raleigh through their Holt Foundation, which serves the children of parents with cancer.
Nine previous Tar Heels of the Year, including the 2016 recipient John Kane, were in attendance Thursday.
Sharing a meal or diving into a plate of food has become far more than sustenance or satisfying a simple craving. Christensen and Howard have collected awards for their cooking as well as their social contributions to Raleigh, Kinston and North Carolina.
“Those accolades for both Vivian and Ashley speak to the power of food and its ability to bring people together around the table for a conversation,” said Brian Sickora, president of UNC-TV, the presenting sponsor of the event. “A Chef’s Life” airs on UNC-TV.
“Authenticity happens around the table, listening happens. Connections happen,” Sickora said.
In-depth profiles and videos of Christensen and Howard are online at newsobserver.com. The stories, along with extensive photos, will be published in print Sunday.
Christensen noted that in North Carolina, contributions made here have reached beyond the state or the Triangle. She and Howard are the youngest Tar Heels of the Year and said that even with all she’s accomplished, she’s excited for what’s yet to come, both personally and for Raleigh.
“I think we know at this point, (work in North Carolina) changes a national conversation,” Christensen said. “For the things we’ve done, I’m proud and I’m excited, but I’m so excited about the things we’re going to do.”
Both Howard and Christensen believe the ritual of gathering at the table for a meal, taking time away from phones and television, can lead to the kinds of relationships and connections that go on to spark the ideas that change a community.
“More importantly than the food (my parents) grew and cooked, was their insistence that we share it at the table and never in front of the television as children,” Christensen said. “I think that taught me so much about the power of sharing a meal. It has so much to do with what drives us through this wonderful profession, to get to enjoy the trust of our audience, and through that trust, forge the relationship that I believe hospitality is truly defined by.”
Howard, whose cooking and TV show highlights the ingredients found in Eastern North Carolina, said she would continue to champion the virtues of small town life.
“I learned I had this platform that could be a force for good,” Howard said of “A Chef’s Life.” “I don’t take that lightly. I plan to be an advocate for rural communities and small towns and for families and friends getting together around the table together and breaking bread, because I think that’s where a lot of magic happens. As a society I think we take that for granted, eat in the car too much, in front of the television too much.”
The Holt brothers lived all over the country during a combined 17 years playing football. But the Gibsonville natives always kept a house in Raleigh and said it was the home they knew they wanted to keep for the rest of their lives.
“We had the fortune to play in many cities and having options to stay or come back here, and it never was a decision,” Terrence Holt said. “We were going to come back to Raleigh and start our businesses and continue to work our foundation, because this community had given us so much.”
The brothers started the Holt Foundation in 2000 in the memory of their mother Ojetta Holt Shoffner, who died from cancer in 1996 after a 10-year battle. The foundation offers camps and support programs often through local hospitals. Their Holt Brothers Construction is working on Raleigh’s Union Station project. They spoke as a call to action, encouraging those in the room to follow the visions only they can see.
“It’s seeing something problematic and creating the change you want to see, getting people to coalesce around something and starting a movement,” Terrence Holt said.
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson