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These NC chefs have made their marks at home and on the national food scene. They’re the Tar Heels of the Year.

The News & Observer – in its 20th year of naming Tar Heels of the Year – is honoring Kinston chef Vivian Howard, left, and Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen in 2017 for their roles in reinventing North Carolina’s food and dining culture and shining a national spotlight on the state.
The News & Observer – in its 20th year of naming Tar Heels of the Year – is honoring Kinston chef Vivian Howard, left, and Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen in 2017 for their roles in reinventing North Carolina’s food and dining culture and shining a national spotlight on the state. jleonard@newsobserver.com

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The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year

The News & Observer recognizes North Carolina residents who have made significant contributions in the last year and beyond. This year, we asked readers to tell us about people who have made a difference in our state. Here are our stories.

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When two new restaurants opened in Raleigh and Kinston about 10 years ago, food changed in North Carolina, and the state changed because of it.

We thought about the land and ourselves differently, had higher expectations of what we ate, a greater sense of responsibility and ate better than ever before.

The News & Observer – in its 20th year of naming Tar Heels of the Year – is honoring Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen and Kinston chef Vivian Howard this year for their roles in reinventing North Carolina’s food and dining culture and shining a national spotlight on the state.

“This region is home to a remarkable number of talented and committed people,” N&O Executive Editor John Drescher said. “For 20 years, it’s been our pleasure to recognize some of these people and to bring our readers signature profiles about our Tar Heels of the Year. Ashley Christensen and Vivian Howard have reshaped how we think about food and dining. I’m pleased to add them to an impressive list of North Carolinians who have made a difference in our state.”

They’ve spent the past decade building restaurants and a dining community, revitalizing cities, writing cookbooks, championing causes and making plates of food that made North Carolina a better place to live. Howard’s PBS series “A Chef’s Life” has introduced Eastern North Carolina, its farmers and culinary traditions to millions of viewers.

The News & Observer started its Tar Heel of the Year series in 1997, promising “a deep and probing look at one leader who has had wide and lasting impact.”

Previous Tar Heels have included religious leader Franklin Graham, the late historian John Hope Franklin, Nobel Prize winners Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar and a diverse group of community influencers, thinkers, scientists and business people.

In-depth profiles and videos of Christensen and Howard will appear Dec. 14 on newsobserver.com, the same day as an event that honors them along with previous Tar Heels of the Year. The event at the Crabtree Marriott in North Raleigh is open to the public.

The stories, along with extensive photos, will be published in print Sunday, Dec. 17.

The two chefs and businesswomen share much in common. They’re North Carolina natives who have opened their restaurants in their home state. Both have won numerous prestigious awards, including James Beard awards, and are frequently referenced in national publications about chefs and their restaurants.

And their national profiles have risen as foodie culture has become more prevalent across the country.

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Chef Ashley Christensen outside of her restaurants, Chuck’s and Beasley's Chicken + Honey, in downtown Raleigh, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017. Christensen, who has built community through food, has helped stimulate Raleigh’s downtown with her restaurants and is one of The News & Observer’s 2017 Tar Heels of the Year. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Ashley Christensen

Christensen opened Poole’s Diner on a nowhere corner of South McDowell Street in downtown Raleigh, and it quickly leapt to the forefront of America’s dining conversation. It was the care of fine dining casualized into comfort food, a no-reservations ruckus that celebrated the soul of the American diner and moved a regional cuisine forward.

Christensen has since opened three restaurants, a cocktail bar, a coffee shop and an events space and has plans to open a pizzeria next year – all in downtown Raleigh. In 2014, she won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast and was a semifinalist this year for Outstanding Chef for the country.

Along the way, she’s embraced the role of chefs as community leaders and has used her profile to raise millions of dollars for local and national organizations. She’s the leader of a local restaurant community that year after year continues to open ambitious projects and garner national acclaim.

Downtown Raleigh is once again the center of the region.

“Raleigh has become a place that people wanted to not just visit, but live and the speed with which that happened allowed us to believe in it,” Christensen said. “If you want a city to be inhabited and supported, it has to be a liveable space. There’s been such a big focus on making Raleigh a livable city and workable and explorable and walkable, and I think that’s been a big part of our ability to even support small restaurants.”

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Chef Vivian Howard outside of her restaurant Chef & The Farmer in downtown Kinston, Nov. 15, 2017. Howard’s two Kinston restaurants and TV show, “A Chef’s Life,” have brought attention to her rural hometown. Howard is one of The News & Observer’s 2017 Tar Heels of the Year. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Vivian Howard

Howard, the youngest daughter of Lenoir County tobacco and hog farmers, opened the Chef & the Farmer restaurant in downtown Kinston in 2006, a time when no one was opening anything in the city still reeling from the loss of textile, tobacco and DuPont money, let along a fine dining restaurant. It soon grew from a curiosity to a success and is today sought out by diners traveling hundreds of miles by car, rail and plane for a seat in the restaurant.

Through the dishes on her menu and her Emmy and Peabody Award-winning PBS documentary series “A Chef’s Life,” she’s helped rescue and preserve Eastern North Carolina food traditions and ingredients.

While raising the profile of the wide expanse between Raleigh and the beach, where her new Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria is going to open soon, Howard has collected James Beard Award nominations – winning one as Outstanding Food Personality or Host in 2016 – won praise and accolades for her cookbook “Deep Run Roots” and helped encourage promising investment in a still struggling Kinston. She once grappled with coming from Eastern North Carolina but now is one of its biggest advocates.

“I had always felt like Southern food was food that came from Charleston and was kind of luxurious, or Savannah and New Orleans,” Howard said. “I never thought the food I grew up was worth referencing or talking about because it was so simple and so mundane. The things I had come to admire in my parents and the people who grew up in our community would be how frugal and resourceful and mindful they were about how their actions affected the world around them.”

Drew Jackson; 919-603-4943; @jdrewjackson

Tar Heel of the Year

A Tar Heel of the Year event will honor Ashley Christensen and Vivian Howard but also will celebrate past Tar Heels. The event is Dec. 14 at the Crabtree Marriott at 11:30 a.m. John Kane, the 2016 honoree, will recognize our 2017 winners. Terrence Holt and Tory Holt of the Holt Foundation will be special guests. For tickets and details, go to nando.com/2017tarheel.

Here’s a list of previous honorees.

1997: Hugh McColl

1998: John Hope Franklin

1999: Franklin Graham

2000: Larry Wheeler

2001: Molly Broad

2002: Kay Yow

2003: Jim Goodmon

2004: Howard Manning

2005: Martin Eakes

2006: Jim and Ann Goodnight

2007: Christine Mumma

2008: Joseph DeSimone

2009: Phil Freelon

2010: Ray Buchanan

2011: Betsy Bennett

2012: Myron Cohen and Robert Lefkowitz

2013: Mary-Dell Chilton

2014: Steve Schuster

2015: Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar

2016: John Kane

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